Donald Trump can be quite funny.
President Trump, however, was rarely funny.
Comedy isn’t really in a president’s lengthy job description — they are supposed to tell pre-written jokes at events like the White House Corespondents’ Dinner and Al Smith Dinner, and some presidents have been good at that, but Trump was not. His comedy skills veer toward the insult comic variety. When presidents mock people, they are almost always punching down.
Trump was a boon to comedians, though, at least at first. As with national newspapers and cable TV, his attention-demanding tweets, firings, ethical lapses, palace intrigues, feuds, peccadillos, and, occasionally, policies were good for the comedy business. When things are bleak, people need to laugh. And comedy can be next to sunlight in denuding kakistocracy and overweening power.
So during the Trump era, late-night comedy shows, always peppered with jokes about political leaders, became political comedy. Mocking Trump helped make Stephen Colbert’s Late Show the top late-night program, surpassing The Tonight Show, where Jimmy Fallon’s softer jabs didn’t match the moment, even with his elaborate Trump impersonation. Jimmy Kimmel, who wasn’t all that political before Trump, actually shifted the debate on health care and pre-existing conditions, plausibly helping to sink the GOP’s big effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
Late Night‘s Seth Meyers came up with his Closer Looks at whatever corrupt abominations Trump was cooking up, Last Week Tonight‘s John Oliver became bleak, and Full Frontal‘s Samantha Bee raged against the machine and the dying light. At The Daily Show — the pioneer of late-night political satire — apartheid-forged Trevor Noah managed to keep some semblance of balance. Conan O’Brien marched to his own drummer.
All of this worked for a while, but like Trump’s own constant demands on our attention, it started getting old. And when the pandemic hit and forced comedians to tape from home, the material became less funny — for obvious reasons — and the lack of audiences laid bare what was already becoming evident: Late-night TV was starting to become just another extension of the political news industrial complex.
You could see it wearing on comedians. You could feel it wearing on America. Everyone seems angry, and that’s not funny. If we were laughing at all, it was to keep ourselves from crying.
Like Trump or hate him, it’s not healthy for anyone to have their lives so wrapped up in the moods and whimsies of a self-obsessed ruler. Worse, whether you liked Trump or hated him became more important to some people than ties of kinship and friendship. It was too much. I’m not sure how we would have survived another four years of it. Because America chose President-elect Joe Biden, we don’t have to find out.
“Years from now, this might be difficult to explain: the way entire days got yoked to one person’s rants, reactions, cruelties, refusals, jokes, tangents, and to just thinking so often about the president,” Katherine Miller wrote at BuzzFeed News soon after Biden was declared the winner. “Even weirder, and more difficult, would be explaining how an entire country became accustomed to living inside one person’s head.”
Amid all this chaos and dissonance, “some people reasonably view the prevailing lesson, or at least the ethos, of the last decade as: Nothing matters,” Miller argued. “The idea is a breezy nihilism, or at least an ironic nihilism to mask a bruised-heartedness,” and when you realize that everything matters after all — hasn’t this year proved that? — “it’s this overwhelming crack-your-heart-open experience.”
We’re about to hit another very grim part of the COVID-19 pandemic, way too many people are jobless and hungry, and we remain a bitterly divided nation. Getting to the point where Americans can open their hearts and really laugh again — with each other, not at each other — will take time.
It will also probably require some Trump detox. Americans might consider embracing their personal freedom to stop caring about the president’s feelings, moods, threats, manic ups, occasional downs, his evidently bottomless need for public shows of affection and fealty. If you can free up that headspace, think of all the natural lightness you might replace it with.
Will we laugh at Joe Biden? Absolutely. But presumably it will be when he does something funny, intentionally or more likely unintentionally. While it may seem hard to remember, there is a lot of other stuff to laugh at in this world.
Laughter may not be the best medicine, but maybe we should give it a try.