How comedians struggled to parody Donald Trump

Elise Czajkowski

Guardian

8th November 2016

This election season has inspired acres of commentary about the effectiveness of political satire against an unprecedented candidate like Donald Trump. But after 18 excruciating months, the big day is finally upon us, and the state of political comedy seems as uncertain as the state of the country at large. Samantha Bee has had a good election: her comedy about the evils of Trump and his ilk has given her a powerful new voice sure to remain vital beyond the election.

Given that her fury extends beyond Trump to the inequality and bigotry that has infected the body politic, she is sure to have plenty to rage at in the coming years — no matter who wins. Another of the most successful breakout comedians of this election, Anthony Atamanuik, seems to have had enough. Atamanuik spent much of the year touring his Donald Trump impression in the brilliant Trump v Bernie debates with James Adomian.

After Trump clinched the nomination, Atamanuik switched to “Trump Dump” rallies, where he gave long, Trumpish speeches in the Republican candidate’s signature rambling style. At a show on Thursday night at the New York comedy festival, however, both he and his audience seemed to have had their fill of the election. For his final Trump rally, Atamanuik ditched the parody and launched his own spiel, a personal, leftist take on the history of oppression in America and the laziness of slacktivism.

When he pulled the Trump wig off at the end of the show, the message was clear — we need to leave this guy in the dust. So how will comedians — hosts and standups alike, many of whom barely came to grips with the unparalleled absurdity of the Trump campaign — handle a world after today? If Clinton wins, it may be tempting for some to shift back to normal as soon as possible, with the “give it to both sides” mentality that has been the traditional approach to American satire. But has the way some comedians and writers have been so unabashedly partisan in their attacks on Trump broken the seal of balance, pushing comedy into advocacy? In a recent Late Night with Seth Meyers piece for instance, the host was unequivocal in his feelings about election day, comparing Clinton’s problem — someone who was under federal investigation for using a private email server — versus a seemingly list of Trump’s sins.

Clinton has had her fair share of mockery over the decades, but her shortcomings are so much less baroque than her opponent’s that she’s had an easy ride. Will comedians move back into mocking her ruthlessness, Bill’s affairs, her paranoia — as if they hadn’t been glossing over it for the past six months? Or will they stay kind, just grateful that she’s the one who made it to the Oval Office? Predicting how the satirical class would react to a Trump win is even harder. Early in the race, Trump seemed like a goldmine for comedians, but his sheer grotesquery often put him beyond satire.

Trump may have taken offense at Alec Baldwin’s impression of him on Saturday Night Live, but such mimicry hasn’t had the devastating effect that great impressions — like Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin — have had in the past. One consistent point of mockery has been Trump’s looks — his outrageous hair and unnatural skin tone have been central to mocking him for years. Bee has perhaps been better at it than anyone, as this compilation of her Trump thesaurus proves: But will it still be funny to refer to President Trump as a “melting hunk of uninformed apricot ” in the third year of his term? Even by the low bar of typical political discourse, this election has been abysmally short on policy discussions, particularly where Trump is involved.

Are comedians ready to hit him on executive decisions? How will they frame their approach to his presidency? What comedic narrative would define a Trump administration? Like most people, comedians were not fully prepared for a Trump candidacy. After years of politicians like George Bush, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, the comedy institution didn’t know how to handle someone so apparently immune to mockery. So if future leaders attempt to copy Trump’s demagogue style, let’s hope that future comics will have figured out a way to take it down.

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