Comedy has become essential to survive the bizarre tenure of Trump’s presidency. Comics have riffed on everything from his tendency to misrepresent the truth to his widely unpopular immigration policy that has separated thousands of children from their parents.
As surveyors of popular opinion, comedians are the canary in the coal mine of cultural dysfunction. When these critics wade deeper into politics and the audience begs for more, you know something in politics really stinks.
But in some ways, the comedy gold rush we’re in betrays the danger of the moment.
What’s not funny is public policy that makes life harder for families struggling to make ends meet. In July, the current administration declared that the War on Poverty has been fought and won, despite a Poor People’s Campaign audit counts 140 million people in poverty.
In April, President Trump signed an executive order that adds strict work requirements for people receiving food stamps, housing subsidies or Medicaid.
And last year brought Trump’s tax cuts, which are expected to increase the federal deficit to $1 trillion, enrich the wealthiest Americans and corporations, and do very little to support low-income families.
It was into this scene that comedian Dave Chappelle made his first foray into politics. He backed former NAACP president and longtime friend Ben Jealous in his successful bid for the Democratic nomination for Maryland governor’s race. If Jealous beats Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the November general election, he’d be the state’s first African-American governor.
“I don’t even necessarily believe in politics, but this is the first time that I believe in somebody this much for a job like this, because I know him so well,” Chappelle said in a June interview with Ari Melber on MSNBC.
“He’s never betrayed my trust [and] I think trust in politics or public office is something the country desperately needs especially at this time,” the comic told Melber as Jealous sat beside him.
Jealous ran on a platform that called for ending mass incarceration, reforming police and legalizing marijuana.
In his 2017 Netflix special Equanimity, Chappelle reflected on when he voted early in 2016. “I understood that Donald Trump was gonna be our next president. Because in Ohio, unlike D.C., you could see the results in the parking lot. All these pickup trucks and tractors and sh*t.
“And then I walk up and saw a long, long line of dusty white people….You know what I didn’t see? I didn’t see one deplorable face in that group. [In] fact I’m not even lying [I] felt sorry for them.
“I know the game now. I know that rich white people call poor white people trash. And the only reason I know that is because I made so much money last year, the rich whites told me they say it at a cocktail party.
“And I’m not with that sh*t. I stood with them in line like all Americans are required to do in a democracy [and] I listened to them. I listened to them say naive poor white people things: ‘Man, Donald Trump is gonna go to Washington and he’s gonna fight for us.’ I’m standing there thinking in my mind, ‘You dumb motherf*cker. You are poor. He’s fighting for me.’”
— Chelsea Handler (@chelseahandler) October 18, 2017
Women in comedy are also jumping into the deep end. Last year Chelsea Handler ended her popular weekly Netflix show to devote all her time to the resistance. She’s primarily working with Emily’s List, an organization dedicated to electing more women to public office.
After the presidential election, Amy Schumer referenced Trump in unflattering terms – “orange, sexual-assaulting, fake- college-starting monster” – and lost hundreds of fans in a few short minutes. Schumer has also joined the Time’s Up movement for fight sexual harassment and gender inequality in the workplace.
Sarah Silverman, known for her witty and confrontational jokes, was an acolyte of Vermont Gov. Bernie Sanders, who sought the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Last year, Silverman started a Hulu series called I Love You America where she speaks to people across the political divide.
This summer, Sasha Baron Cohen gave us some startling and darkly funny work. Who is America? is a series from the satirist of Ali G and Borat fame who transformed himself into, among other characters, an Israeli anti-terrorist expert promoting Kinderguardian, a program to arm children as young as toddlers to stop school shootings.
Cohen, more than most comedians, exposes politicians’ hubris and oblivion. But even he is breaking new ground. The result makes Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove look like a rom-com. It’s unnerving to see current and former congressmen and other public figures fall for his comedic treachery.
“I support the Kinderguardians Program,” said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, in a promotional video for the fake program. “We in America would be wise to implement it too. It’s something we should think about, America, by putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens, good guys, whether they be teachers, or whether they actually be talented children or highly trained preschoolers.”
“A 3-year-old cannot defend itself from a [sic] assault rifle by throwing a Hello Kitty pencil case at it. Our founding fathers did not put an age limit on the Second Amendment,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina.
“The intensive three-week Kinderguardian course introduces specially selected children from 12 to 4 years old to pistols, rifles, semi-automatics and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars. In less than a month – less than a month – a first-grader can become a first grenade-r,” said former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh.
While comedians make us laugh by pointing out the elephant in the room, they are often on the front line when the cultural atmosphere is noxious. And the more poisonous the culture gets, the more they push back against it, first by challenging divisions or respectability on stage.
Depending on how bad it gets, you might even see some running for office themselves.