Donald Trump Is Killing Humor

literally the worst
May 14, 2018

I mean, not literally. Donald Trump is not drone-striking humor. But his mere existence is really making it hard for institutions that have long dabbled in political humor to do anything remotely funny, as Harry Cheadle at Vice recently noted about SNL's terrible—terrible—string of recent cold opens.

Here's Cheadle:

Even if you avoid SNL you probably hear about these cold opens, which are consistently politically themed—though "themed" may be too strong a word because they are mostly just recaps of the political news of the week performed by A-list celebrities. Thanks to star power, these sketches inevitably draw headlines, and last weekend's affair (featuring Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen, Scarlet Johansson as Ivanka Trump, and Jimmy Fallon as Jared Kushner) was no exception. And honestly, if you're a fan of Very Famous People Appearing Together on Screen (a very successful genre, if the Avengers franchise is any indication), you'll get your money's worth. Look, Robert de Niro and Stiller are doing a Robert Mueller–themed reprise of a scene from Meet the Parents! Look, they got the real Stormy Daniels to play herself and deliver wooden #Resistance-worthy lines to Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump!

Honestly, try to sit through the recent sketch in which Stormy Daniels, playing herself, warns Baldwin—legitimately the worst impressionist I have seen get regular airtime on a major broadcast show; it's still galling they fired Darrell Hammond for Baldwin—that she's coming for him. I dare you.

These cold opens are the equivalent of an Andy Borowitz column brought to life: a string of references that vaguely resemble humor but are done in such a ham-handed and incompetent way that you are not only unamused, you are vaguely horrified. It's like the Uncanny Valley of humor. You know it's a joke but you're so repulsed by its inability to be truly joke-like that you run away screaming.

Speaking of the New Yorker's resident humor columnist, who has been terrible at satire since long before Trump became president, the New Yorker's covers are giant trash fires of semi-humor that speak to a seriously unhealthy obsession with Trump. Here's the latest:

get it it is a swamp and trump is in it he is the swamp please tell me you get it you need to know why this is a reference that is topical and humorous it is because trump said he was going to drain the swamp but isnt

Even The Liberal Slate Dot Com™ realizes that this is the worst part of the (generally very good!) magazine; here's Matthew Dessem last year on a cover that, for some reason, suggested Trump resembled the clown from It:

Like a lot of recent New Yorker covers, this one seems to be aiming to go viral. It’s topical, designed to provoke a chuckle rather than a laugh, tailor-made for the #Resist hashtag, and more than a little muddled: Pennywise lives in the sewer, not the forest; the scary forest clowns of 2016 didn’t have sharp teeth; and Trump-Pennywise jokes are so ancient, in internet years, that there’s already a meme generator to build your own.

Part of the problem here, as Dessem notes, is the need to go viral, to get shares, to prove that the magazine (or the show, in SNL's case) is still relevant. Some of us seem especially keen to share this crap, to harvest the RTs and the shares and the likes and demonstrate that we are very good because we like these things that demonstrate our current president is very bad.

Perhaps the problem isn't them, then. Maybe it's us?

As it happens, there's a good riff on just this topic in John Mulaney's new standup special for Netflix! You can fast forward to the 44 minute mark or so, if you want, and listen to his "horse in a hospital" bit. There is some boilerplate clapter in there, but a.) Mulaney recognizes that, vocalizing his amusement with the de rigueur appreciation from the audience when he compares our moment to the Civil War, and b.) the whole thing is as much about our obsession with Trump as it is about Trump and the relative level of insanity his actions have injected into our moment. Most importantly: it's pretty funny! Unlike virtually every SNL cold open from the last 18 months and literally everything the New Yorker has done related to Trump, it's humorous because it transcends Trump, moves beyond him, gets past the idea that he is Bad and must be mocked and suggests something deeper about the way we're living our lives.

Anyway. Political humor doesn't have to be boring. If someone could clue SNL and the New Yorker in on that, I'd really appreciate it.