My first real taste of performing stand-up in a President-elect Trump America was two nights after the election. I did a show at a dive bar in Williamsburg, and the audience seemed in good spirits, considering the circumstances. Everyone onstage addressed the election in some way (it felt like you’d reveal yourself as an extraterrestrial if you didn’t). I tried talking about it at the beginning of my set, but immediately realized all my criticisms of Trump were sadder than funny; any mention of the current mood, or the country’s prospects, felt laden with despair. It was like half the country got dumped, but the breakup was still too recent to find anything funny in it. So I decided to move into older material, offer a bit of escape for both the audience and myself. It was this darker material around death and depression that played best.
Back in 2000, when the Supreme Court elected George W. Bush, the general public thought comedians would have it easy for the next four (how naïve we were!) years. That was a pretty bad fallacy, but applying the same logic to Trump is exponentially worse. As Samantha Bee said on Full Frontal the night after the election, “Please don’t even think about writing something stupid like ‘What a lucky break a Trump presidency is for comedians! The jokes just write themselves!’ No, no, no, shut up. Jokes don’t write themselves. Jews write jokes, and they are scared shitless.” It’s about the same as saying that the Titanic disaster was good for James Cameron and beachcombers: There’s plenty of material, sure, but none of it worth the deaths of thousands — or the persecution of millions.
The question becomes: Can comedians — can I — resist the temptation to treat Trump like just another politician we’re obliged to skewer? Comedy is about finding the absurdity in everything, and here we have a tantalizing target who is nothing but absurd. There’s very little to point out that hadn’t already been noted leading up to November 8. The most cliché Trump jokes — his orange skin, emphatic hand gestures, and tween-like reflexes on social media — have been hashed and rehashed, hashtagged and retweeted. In fact, many Trump jokes just start with commenting on something he’s already tweeted. It’s an easy way to fulfill our quasi-contractual obligation as comedians to roast the powerful.
But these sorts of jokes about him fail to even begin countering the disastrous impact he’ll have upon the world. Because the problem isn’t that he’s unmockable; it’s that he’s too dangerous to simply mock. The saint of the so-called “alt-right,” the man who “tells it like it is,” supports free speech only so long as he isn’t the butt of it. His rhetoric is grounded in hate. But what’s most dangerous is that his entire identity is grounded in the paranoid idea that he, a millionaire who answers to no one — the very definition of a punch-up comedy target — is somehow the victim, and that making fun of him is in fact punching down. The best comedy imagines new, better worlds by laughing at the old, current one. But how do we laugh at this world when it’s run by a man who not only can’t take a joke but would be giddy at the prospect of taking away our right to make them at all?
So the word in everyone’s mouth, journalist and comedian alike, is “normalization.” Don’t let this become normalized. This is not normal. A white supremacist is not a radical thinker and shouldn’t be the president’s right-hand man. Shouldn’t be shaping the logistics of our nation. Shouldn’t — but is. A president-elect shouldn’t be a business broker. Shouldn’t be a hotheaded tweeter. Shouldn’t be a man whose moral flexibility resembles the unbelievable plot twists of an HBO season finale. Shouldn’t — but is. Everyday reality shouldn’t be banal sensationalism, the front-end façade of shadowed interests, the waiting room after the bad news. Shouldn’t. But now, apparently, is.
As comedians, it is up to us to overturn and shake and deconstruct and weigh every system that governs life. This work, my work, feels more active now, more important. I feel driven to express my strong opinions and to challenge people’s thinking, even when it’s scary or inconvenient. To remain stolid in the face of trolls, of which there were always many but now even more.
Comedians make sense of the world through sharing, and often skewering, common perceptions of it. We’re certainly not going to topple the power dynamics in this country, but every voice has power — a lesson we learned dearly this election. It’s an idealistic notion, but I am a comedian, and I can project my voice more widely than many. I can still crack a joke. I can still post a tweet. I can still go onstage. For as long as I am able, that’s exactly what I’ll do.