Make America laugh again - how comedy is wrestling with the Trump era
As Sacha Baron Cohen's new series creates a furore, Ed Power looks at how comedy is wrestling with the Trump era
Sacha Baron Cohen's new political satire, Who Is America?, is blow-torch television with the nozzle turned all the way up. And this week it looked as if it would single-handedly burn the internet down to the ground.
Airing to global fanfare/outrage on Monday, episode one saw the comedian resurrect his notorious Ali G/Borat fake interview format to expose the reality-warping fervour of the American gun lobby.
One image in particular lit up social media: pro-gun campaigner Philip Van Cleave participating in an instructional video - Baron Cohen's fictional 'Kinderguardian' programme - intended to show four-year-olds how to lock and load in the event of a school shooting.
"To feed him, take his lunch box and push it into his tummy like this," says Van Cleave as he loads a pistol. "Just remember to point Puppy Pistol's mouth right at the middle of the bad man. If he has a big fat tummy, point at that."
The sequence is obviously disquieting - and presumably terrifying if you live in the US. What it isn't, as has been widely acknowledged, is terribly funny. Baron Cohen's humour has always pushed at the boundary between comedy and cringe. But Who Is America? goes further, holding a mirror to the US in the age of Trump and seeing nothing in the reflection but despair.
Thus we arrive at the dilemma with which comedy - in America, but also elsewhere - is wrestling.
The idea of Donald Trump as president, it turns out, was far funnier than the reality. Trump may be ridiculous and, yes, rather orange. But what is the value, comedy-wise, of pointing this out time and again?
On the other hand, if the adage 'if we weren't laughing, we would be crying' doesn't apply to the Trump era, when does it?
The Trump comedy conundrum has coincided with a changing of the gigglesome guard. On the back of her sensational and divisive White House Correspondents' Dinner monologue in April, former Daily Show correspondent Michelle Wolf has risen to prominence with her new 'late night talk show' on Netflix, The Break.
Her approach to Trump is, as with Baron Cohen's, very much in the twin shotgun vein. "Trump is a racist," she told the Press Correspondents' Dinner. "He loves white nationalists, which is a weird term for a Nazi."
Yet she has also used The Break to call out fellow late night hosts like Seth Meyers, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert for, as she sees it, reducing the Trump gag to a formula.
"This is the time of the show where we do a viral segment, and since this is a comedy show in 2018, you know one thing for sure: this comedy segment is going to be sincere and angry," she said.
Also in the spotlight is Samantha Bee, another veteran of Comedy Central news satire The Daily Show, whose TBS network programme Full Frontal has placed her at the frontline of the anti-Trump resistance (and for which she was just nominated for an Emmy).
Yet if these comedians regard tackling Trump as a matter of duty, others feel burnout is a danger.
How many Trump jokes are too many Trump jokes? Hadn't a critical mass of gags about his tiny hands and wavy hair been reached before he was even elected?
"People tell me, 'You comedians must be so happy. Trump is president. All this free material'," Patton Oswalt observed during his recent Netflix special. "You know what, yes, there is a lot of material, but there is too f**king much. It's exhausting."
That outlook is shared by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who have refused to even mention Trump in the show's latest season. They went in hard mocking the president last year and were deeply dissatisfied with the results. Parker and Stone also came to the conclusion that building Trump up as an absurdity requires comedy to play by his rules.
"The things that we do - being outrageous and taking things to the extreme to get a reaction out of people - he's using those tools," said Parker. "At his rallies he gets people laughing and whooping."
Whether comedy has become the frontline in processing Trump and what he represents, or is merely playing into his hands (yes, tee hee, those tiny hands), probably won't be clear until years later.
At the moment, individual comedians are working through his presidency in real time. "The stuff that I write…that I think is the best…comes from when I'm agitated or irritated," explains Rory Scovel, the American stand-up who is heading to Dublin to perform at next weekend's Vodafone Comedy Festival in the Iveagh Gardens (July 26-29).
"I find it almost like a personal therapy. The hardest part is trying not to turn off an audience that already agrees with me because everyone is so burned out on it [Trump].
"I'd rather not have to [make Trump jokes]," he continues. "That night [of the election] I felt a genuine sense of confusion and anger. I still feel it. A lot of us are seeing something and we can't understand how anyone who is supportive of it isn't seeing it. Not that I want people to agree with me. But I want them to not be in denial when they are clearly being lied to."
One school of thought is that, confronted with the farce of Trump in the White House, comedy is better equipped than the traditional news media. An oft-cited example is Trump's (immediately debunked) allegation that, as president, Barack Obama had his successor's phone wire-taped.The American news media - po-faced to a fault, as ever - felt duty-bound to give the claims an airing, their preposterousness notwithstanding.
Comedians - late night talk show hosts especially - were under no such obligation and instead lampooned the assertions.
To others, the issue isn't whether Trump is or is not a legitimate comedy target. It's that, thus far, the jokes have, in their view, been generally inane, broader than the Trump comb-over everyone has had such fun laughing at.
"You know what bums me out even more than, you know, his driving society down, is how lazy the comedy is around it," stand-up Kyle Kinane told New York Magazine. "That's what pisses me off, like 'Oh the orange one'.
"Remember how sh**y the Republican conservative stuff was when every caricature of Obama had big ears and stuff, and how lazy that was? And you look like, this is sh*t comedy. Republicans suck at f**king comedy and that's how the left looks when they take the easiest joke, 'Oh, he's orange'."
Perhaps Baron Cohen's Who is America? is the inevitable next step. It's surely no coincidence that Australian stand-up Hannah Gadsby (left) is likewise having a moment with her often straight-faced and intense dissection of gender identity on the hit new Netflix special Nanette, or that Kathy Griffin was propelled back into the public consciousness brandishing a decapitated Trump head. After the jokes about the orange hair and the tiny hands, maybe this is when comedy gets mad.
Abbi Jacobson, co-creator the hit sitcom Broad City, recently asked: "If nothing bad is going on, what would art be talking about? I know it's terrible to say, but a lot of the best art is talking about something that's not necessarily the happiest of times."
How sobering that we may soon live in a world where the comics are angry and the politicians are the ones at whom we are laughing.