President Trump: God’s gift to comedians or their worst nightmare?

Three Trumps on Saturday Night Live: Donald Trump delivered a monologue alongside SNL's Taran Killam and Darrell Hammond
Three Trumps on Saturday Night Live: Donald Trump delivered a monologue alongside SNL's Trumps: Taran Killam and Darrell Hammond

It’s the night after the US election, and the comedian Mike Wilmot yells into his microphone by way of greeting his audience at Soho Theatre: "What the f--- are you people doing here?!” 

The Toronto-born Wilmot is incredulous anyone has shown up, given The News. “I was back there thinking, ‘I can do the show in front of 12 people.’ All day, since 9 o’clock this morning, [I’m thinking] 'Should I mention the T word?'"

For the last year or so, comics on both sides of the pond have been very rude indeed about White House-bound billionaire Donald Trump  But none of it exactly stopped the electorate in its tracks; the crack teams of gag-writers were left blowing in the wind. As Simpsons writer Mike Scully tweeted when Trump’s victory became apparent: “I don’t understand! We wrote so many jokes!” 

Donald Trump, as depicted in the 2000 episode of The Simpsons Bart to the Future

Comedians are now having to ask themselves why did these industrial quantities of gags had so little effect. Is the new president effectively satire-proof? When the president elect is the most outspoken PC-busting alternative comedian on the planet, is it time for the professionals to simply concede defeat?  

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, with Kate Mckinnon as Hillary Clinton

The immediate counter argument to that, of course is that: A) comedians have a very inflated sense of their own importance if they imagine they can sway the public mood in a decisive way, and B) Trump might have something to offer the American people that the satirists and snipers missed.

The residual problem is that while an era of divisive politics allows comedy to get sharper, louder, ruder – witness the surge in political comedy during the Eighties under Thatcher and again during the conflict-ridden post 9/11 era under Bush – at the same time the tendency is for that divided opinion to create a wall between constituent “audiences”. Those shouting down the right effectively start preaching to the converted left.

With Trump the issue is further complicated. In theory, he should be God’s gift to comedy; in practice, he’s going to be devilishly hard to “slay”. Where Dubya was open to attack because his remarks often made no coherent sense, Trump tends to go for clear-cut sounding rhetoric heedless of supporting evidence.

If political correctness is still to be found in some quarters, other comics have moved so far down the line in terms of bad-taste that they’re barely distinguishable from the chauvinist, sexist, racist dinosaurs their kind helped to render extinct.

As Andrew Hunter Murray observed on Wednesday’s edition of the BBC2 topical news show No Such Thing as the News, his statement “Now they’re calling me Mr Brexit” was groundless.

“No one called him Mr Brexit before he did.” How do comics respond to “post-truth” politics when they’re usually the ones exaggerating for effect? And what do you do once reality itself takes a turn for the “you couldn’t make it up”?

You could further argue that Trump has triumphed precisely because he has finessed the hectoring style and bullishness of hard-hitting political stand-ups. He’s as outspoken as Bill Hicks was, as heedless of taboos.  The satire boom of the Sixties helped end the age of deference. Trump’s style has been to refuse to defer, too - to present himself as the truth-telling outsider, happy, if need be, to be characterised as the fool.

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His strident approach coincided with a period of relative leftist conformity and even hypocrisy. The “right on” attitudes that marked the early wave of alternative comedy have dissipated. If political correctness is still to be found in some quarters, other comics have moved so far down the line in terms of bad-taste that they’re barely distinguishable from the chauvinist, sexist, racist dinosaurs their kind helped to render extinct.

At the same time, comedians have seemed only too willing to cosy up the status quo when it suits, and at the risk of the charge of group-think. In the UK, it has taken the likes of Andrew Lawrence – regarded as beyond the pale by polite comedic society – to flag up voter-concern issues like immigration and the NHS.

When you’ve got James Corden doing Carpool Karaoke with Michelle Obama, then the ideal of a comedian being the little guy who takes on the powerful has almost been thrown out the window.

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Trump’s election may have a galvanic effect, forcing comedians to get their act together. At first glance, the reaction among the UK comedy “community”, so far as I could tell, was one of stunned disbelief. 

Trusty lefties like Mark Steel, Mark Thomas and Jeremy Hardy were swift, blunt and perfunctory on Twitter: “Well on the positive side Trump’s new job means he is going to start paying tax,” was Thomas’s terse reaction. Hardy struck a note of head-for-the-bunkers alarm: “Early backing for Trump from Farage, Le Pen, Putin and Netanyahu. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

When set beside Bill Bailey’s comment (“I think I might stay on in Australia, live in the wilderness. Become a hermit. Shout obscenities into the void”) the prevailing mood might be summed up as “flight” not “fight”.

Stewart Lee, presenting his latest show, Content Provider, at the Leicester Square Theatre wasn’t going to be jumped into anything other than knee-jerk nihilism on Wednesday night. “Is there any Trump stuff?” he asked himself, on the audience’s behalf, at the start of the gig. “No, there’s nothing… wait a week, see if there’s a nuclear holocaust and if there hasn’t been then I will write some.”

Stewart Lee

It's a  great quip (justifying the most minimal response on the basis of implied maximal horror), but also a handy get-out clause. Our poor old political comedians had an awful summer, rush-rewriting their sets for Edinburgh following the shock of what Lee refers to as “the Brexit”.

The biggest disappointment of the night lay at the Comedy Store, the birth-place of alternative British comedy in 1979, shortly after the election of Margaret Thatcher. On Wednesday, in the company of the improv team The Comedy Store Players, I felt I could be anywhere, really. 

Neil Kinnock and Tony Benn on Spitting Image Credit: Rex

Audience suggestions with a US election aspect (“the White House”, as a place, “Donald Trump’s hair-dresser” as a job-description) were batted away by the host Andy Smart (“We won’t go there tonight”). A bit of anti Trump-voter invective did entertainingly (accidentally) pop into an opera spoof at the end of the first half but by then I’d seen enough (which is to say not enough).

If the Comedy Store can’t drop everything to register the biggest political upset in a generation, then what use is it, really, besides being a tourist-trap?

I fell with gratitude, then, on the thinking-aloud by Mike Wilmot, even if those thoughts were of a sweary, inchoate variety: “I hope for the next four years he lives inside a giant bullet-proof hamster ball,” he jibed. “That’s what we should do to all politicians once you get them in. The thing about Trump…” he added, overturning his own logic: “All the assassinators voted for him, he’s safe!”

Tina Fey, as Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live

And is he ultimately safe from satirists? The commentator Malcolm Gladwell recently drew admiration for a podcast in the Revisionist History series on the subject of contemporary satire (The Satire Paradox), attacking its toothlessness for preferring to mock cosmetic style over policy substance: “Like the role of the satirist is to sit on the front porch and wise crack…” he remarked acidly of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin send-up, damning it for being more interested in being funny than probing.

Despite regular protestations to the contrary, satire can have an effect, even if minimal or subliminal. Some politicians who featured regularly on ITV’s Spitting Image in the Eighties, such as David Steel and John Major, complained that they were diminished in the public eye by their unflattering latex caricatures.

It’s too early to cede comedic defeat in the case of Trump; whether you’re a lover or a hater, it’s in no one’s interest for the jesters to go quiet, bury their heads in the sand. My hunch is that after a period of “we’re doomed” apocalypse comedy, the more prosaic challenge will present itself to those wishing to hold his presidency to account. 

But however it manifests itself - whether through broad brushstroke ire or the drip-drip of nuanced argument - that comedy had better come imbued with an open-minded willingness to understand why many millions voted for Trump in the first place.