When Jokes Fail

Trump supporters breach the Capitol on January 6.
Photo: Pacific Press/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Ge

If you ask any comedian what their first job is, they’ll say some version of making people laugh. Conversations about what the art form can do are secondary to the primary transaction. Laughing makes people feel better, and comedians (because of myriad deep-seated psychological needs) really enjoy making people feel better. In turn, political comedy’s first goal is to make people feel better about politics. But what if it can’t? Donald Trump, like he did with many institutions of our culture, tested and proved its limits.

Late-night shows are, by design, like very expensively produced sleep aids. Before the widespread popularity of Melatonin gummies, CBD gummies, or low-dose THC gummies (always gummies; Freud would have a field day), people watched the jokes of a white man in a suit to help them wind down. Whether due to substance restrictions, habit, or preference, millions still do. If you read enough about the theory of joke-making, it generally comes down to how jokes relieve some combination of conflict, tension, and ambiguity — the type of stuff that keeps a person up. To help people process these feelings, topical humor’s primary tool is exaggeration. It makes sense — you make a terrible thing seem smaller by comparing it to the comically unbelievable. But, as many comedians have explained to me, the problem with Trump was he already was the logical, or even illogical, end point. There was no more room to exaggerate.

This was clearest when the behavior of Trump and his supporters rose to the level of crisis — Charlottesville, St. John’s Church, and so on. How dare you joke at a time like this? I am a professional comedy consumer, but I found myself thinking that when I watched Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue the night after a “special” band of Trumpists stormed the Capitol building, and Trump responded with a paternal, “I love you.” Kimmel compared the rioters to “a psychotic Price Is Right audience forcibly taking control of the Plinko wheel.” I reflexively pushed away my computer. No. Kimmel’s network late-night peers — Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon, and James Corden — seemed to agree this wasn’t a time for laughter, instead giving essentially joke-free monologues. Watching them the next day made me feel … well, they didn’t make me feel worse or alone, so that is something. But over and over again, Trump has revealed the futility of speaking truth to power when the person in power, and his supporters, literally cannot hear and process truth.

David Letterman didn’t come back until September 17, 2001. Jon Stewart waited until the 20th. Saturday Night Live returned on September 29. The same night as and a few blocks away from SNL, Comedy Central taped the Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner, during which Gilbert Gottfried told a 9/11 joke that resulted in someone in the audience screaming “too soon” for possibly the first time in the history of comedy. The processing of traumatic events isn’t easy. It takes time. People have compared the election of Donald Trump to 9/11 in this regard, but arguably his entire administration is a closer comparison. Often the jokes felt too soon.

And yet, he was the most joked-about president in history. It’s not just late-night writers — everyday, millions of us logged onto social media and clocked in for our shift in the Trump joke mines. What did he tweet that I can freakin’ dunk on? What hypocrisy can I point out? What meme can I contrast his behavior with? Sometimes it felt like sneaking a laugh at a funeral, other times it felt like making a joke while watching a murder. That’s the thing about gallows humor — you laugh and forget for a second, but it doesn’t loosen the noose. It’s undeniably better than to never have laughed (and obviously better than if everyone remained silent), but that whiplash between momentary relief and deep desperation is perhaps the defining feeling of the last four years. And yet we, and our late-night friends, persisted because the only thing preventing us from being crushed by our powerlessness was the illusion of control.

The morning after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol building, I was supposed to write about whether Trump was good for comedy, and it felt like I was a 1912 music critic tasked with reviewing the orchestra that played while the Titanic sank. So, to procrastinate and excrete some mental waste, I added a tweet to the joke pile — “Who would’ve guessed the people who always complain about the ‘everyone gets a trophy’ generation would be such sore losers.” Refreshing my browser, I saw I got three retweets and five likes. Cool. Soon it was at 10 and 30. Okay. When it got to 26 and 134, I muted it.

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