The past four years have been pretty bad from almost any way you look at them. The world is less stable and secure than it has been since the eighties, at least. Racism and sexism and xenophobia and religious intolerance are all worse than they were four years ago. America is running concentration camps and there are kids in cages. The economy is a disaster. We’re all under threat from a pandemic. The world has reached a point where, normally, I’d say you have to laugh at it to keep from crying. But, one of the problems that has developed in the last four years, with the rise of Trump, is that political comedy and satire are no longer funny.
I’ve been a fan of humor and comedy my whole life. I became a fan of political humor and satire in high school. Whether it was Saturday Night Live or late night talk shows, comic strips, stand-up specials, or books and essays, I was a fan. It didn’t even matter who was in office. I stayed a fan for the first Bush, Clinton, the second Bush, and Obama. I’m generally of the opinion that everything can be funny, no matter how serious and depressing.
That changed when Trump started to be taken seriously in his run for president. On the surface, he seems like the perfect candidate for political humor. When he first announced his candidacy, I even tried to write a piece of humor about it. Everything about that press conference was absurd, from the setting to the claims that no one builds a better wall to the phrase “Make America Great Again.” It was positively begging to be satirized or spoofed. Only I couldn’t make what I was writing funny, no matter how hard I tried. So, I gave up and figured I’d see what professional comedy writers would have to say about it. None of them managed to make it funny either. Soon after, I noticed a pattern. Trump would make either a stupid, racist, sexist, xenophobic, or ableist statement. It would raise my anxiety level. I’d go to the comedians for help, there’s nothing like a little laughter to diffuse anxiety, and they weren’t able to make it funny. If anything, their talking about it added to my anxiety levels.
I’ve spent more time than I should have over the past four years, trying to figure out why no one can seem to make Trump or his administration funny. At first I thought that maybe Trump is just worse than any politician that’s come before and there is a line below which humor just doesn’t work. Then I realized that Hitler is still worse than Trump, and Mel Brooks can make me laugh at Hitler. That wasn’t it. I also thought about the possibility that Trump is too hateful for comedy, but there’s Hitler again. That couldn’t be it either.
Next I wondered if the problem was that I’m living through Trump, whereas the Holocaust was thirty years before my time. But, Hitler isn’t the only depraved person I can laugh at. I’ve laughed at Osama bin Laden, Vladimir Putin, and Dick Cheney. They have all been active during my adulthood. I don’t think that’s it either.
I had to at least entertain the idea that the comedians that have been around for the past four years just aren’t as funny as the ones that came before. If pretty much every outlet for journalism can be bad at the same time, maybe all the comedians are, too. But I don’t think that’s very likely. I enjoyed Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee and John Oliver when Obama was in office. I think they are funny people. I’m pretty sure they can get me to laugh about almost any other subject. I really think that Trump is the problem.
A few weeks ago, in a completely different context, I came across the old rule of comedy to “always punch up, never punch down.” Basically, that means to only attack those that are above you with comedy. Punching down isn’t funny, it’s bullying. Under normal circumstances, that means that politicians and the rich and famous are fair game. They are richer and more powerful than the rest of us. The poor and powerless are off limits because it isn’t funny to bully people. It also explains why Chris Rock can make really funny jokes about racism, but Conan O’Brien can’t.
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Trump. He’s rich, he’s famous, and he’s the president of the United States. He is as privileged and powerful as a person can be, of course attacking him is punching up. But, even though those facts about him are technically true, power and privilege don’t exactly emanate from him. If I had to pick an adjective to describe him, the vibe he gives off, it has to be pathetic. He evokes feelings of pity and disgust, and that’s about it. He is in no way impressive.
The result of Trump’s being so pathetic is that any joke about him feels like it’s punching down. When the jokes are made, they seem to be picking on a man-child without the ability to handle it or fight back. Instead of being humorous, the best the jokes can do is create a sense of superiority. That’s fine, I guess. The vast majority of us are far superior to Trump, and many people like feeling superior. But, it’s not for me. I’m looking for funny. I want to laugh. And, I hope I’m not being greedy, I want those things while being engaged in the world around me. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get what I want. At least not until that sad, pathetic excuse for person is out of office.