Comedians capitalized on political satire this election cycle, and it was hilarious. Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Donald Trump put Saturday Night Live in the spotlight. Stephen Colbert found his niche on the Late Show with his coverage of the election, and countless other comedians like Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers satirized politics. The intersection of comedy and satire lends itself perfectly to the current political climate as scandal after scandal comes out of Washington. It continues to sustain post-election TV ratings, and the number of comedians covering current events is still growing. These shows entertain audiences, but they don’t necessarily provoke critical thought about policies or make compelling critiques of politicians. That’s not necessarily a problem. Some networks simply goof on politics for comedic material and are not trying to make political statements, but the popularization of Trump impersonations raises questions about the role of satire in the Trump era.
Comedians tend to focus on personality traits and mannerisms rather than issues. Traditional satire relies on the exaggeration of personalities or ideas to reveal absurdities. The issue, unfortunately, is that Trump’s entire campaign and his presidency is already the epitome of absurd. Take Baldwin’s impersonation of Trump. It’s funny to watch him mock Trump’s strange speech patterns and unusual hand gestures, but Baldwin does not successfully satirize Trump. His impersonation is so similar to the real thing that a newspaper in the Dominican Republic mistook a picture of Baldwin’s impersonation for Trump. It is difficult to find a way to exaggerate his personality to the point of real satire. The audience is entertained, but impersonations of Trump don’t have the element of absurdity that reveals new contradictions or insights into Trump. Impersonations and mockery of Trump’s personality cannot say more than he has already tweeted. It is great comedy, but it is not real satire, because it does not challenge the viewer to think beyond his or her preconceptions.
Critiques of politician’s personalities are safe, because it is easy to tap into viewers’ previous knowledge of politicians to make a joke. Comedy is saturated with jokes about news and politicians, but little of it makes a lasting impact. The more comedians focus on personality, the less they talk about real issues and policies. It is harder to make clever impactful critiques about Trump’s tax plan, than it is to laugh at his bizarre hair or orange skin. Highlighting Trump’s buffoonery is valuable, but it falls short of providing a real critique of issues. Comedians also need to satirize his policies if they intend to make a compelling argument against Trump’s presidency.
Popular political satire does not provide a successful critique of Donald Trump because comedians are not willing to make viewers uncomfortable. Comedians miss the element of dark humor that makes satire affective. A great example of good satire is Tom Lehrer’s satirical song “Send the Marines”1. Written in ‘65 during the Vietnam War, “Send the Marines” critiques US military intervention abroad:
For might makes right, until they see the light,
They’ve got to be protected, all their rights respected,
‘Till someone we like can be elected.
Members of the corps, all hate the thought of war
They’d rather kill them off by peaceful means.
He perfectly described the US government’s hypocrisy of supporting regimes for political expediency rather than actual concern for human rights. Lehrer did not hold back. There is no leniency for politicians who send armed troops abroad in the name of protecting the status quo. Most importantly, he wrote this song at a time when the Vietnam was still very popular. In 1965, only 24% of Americans believed the US made a mistake by sending troops to Vietnam. In writing this song, he took a risk by confronting Americans with their own hypocrisy. It is easy to critique something that is widely unpopular, but Lehrer was willing to take a meaningful and controversial stance on a popular war. This satire is also successful because it is not focused on one actor. Lehrer briefly mentions President Lyndon B. Johnson in the introduction to the song, but the song is not about Johnson. This is not for lack of material because Johnson was notoriously crass. The result of this is an unforgiving critique of anyone involved in hawkish military intervention. There is no room for a scapegoat because the song satirizes anyone who supports the armed military intervention in a meaningless war. It implicates the people who support the war, the key figures in policy making, and the main stage politicians like Johnson.
Current comedians provide comic relief to Americans, which also affords citizens a certain amount of complacency by reconfirming our preconceptions. Political satire needs to move away from impersonations of politicians and criticisms of mannerisms. A lot of shows do this already, but there needs to be a significant shift in the ratio of Trump impersonations to actual critiques of policies. Satire needs fewer hair jokes and more criticism of issues that affect people. Our judgement of the quality of policy making should not rely on who is making the policy. Focusing on the personalities of people like Trump and Spicer sets the bar for “doing a good” very low. We cannot reward politicians for abstaining from crazy tweeting for a week. Doing the bare minimum is exactly that: the bare minimum.
Furthermore, exaggeration of personalities is not a convincing argument for supporters to change their minds. Trump’s personality attracted many voters, or, conversely, many voters voted for him in spite of his personality. A slightly dramatized version of Trump is not an effective argument for people who supported him. Satire needs to present a more compelling argument that is based on critiques of policies and resist the temptation of mocking politicians’ mannerisms.
Networks that air political satire may have polarized viewers, but there is still an opportunity to reach a wider audience. The people who watch Trump impersonations are mostly liberal, and they probably do not need to be persuaded. For these viewers, political satire provides relief from the anxieties of a Trump presidency. Skits are tailored to a liberal audience, but late shows and comedians have the potential to reach non-liberal viewers as well. If SNL focused more energy on mocking horrible policies that affect Trump supporters, they would retain their liberal audience while also convincing voters. Political satire has the potential to be an effective critic of a Trump presidency and a source of entertainment and relief for liberals. As the market for political satire expands, there is a lot of room for experimentation, so please, stop with the Trump impersonations, and let’s see some real satire.
1. Lehrer, Tom(1965). Send the Marines. That Was the Year That Was [Live Album]. (1965). San Francisco: Reprise/Warner Bros. Records.
Donald Trump Is a Conundrum for Political Comedy (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/17/arts/television/donald-trump-is-a-conundrum-for-political-comedy.html?_r=0)
Saturday Night Live and the Limits of Trump Mockery (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/saturday-night-live-and-the-limits-of-trump-mockery)
Sinking Giggling into the Sea (https://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n14/jonathan-coe/sinking-giggling-into-the-sea)