Opinion

Has Donald Trump broken satire?

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Tom Ellen
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When the US President acts like a clown, where does that leave the clowns? The answer is no laughing matter

Imagine a monkey running into a wall. Funny, right?

Now, imagine it’s your job to make fun of that monkey. How exactly do you go about it?

This rhetorical simian scenario was posed by South Park co-creator Trey Parker in response to being asked about the difficulties of satirising Donald Trump’s presidency. “I can discuss the monkey running into the wall,” Parker suggested, expanding on his theme.

“I can copy the monkey running into the wall. But, really, nothing’s funnier than the monkey just running into the wall.”

As the man behind South Park, Team America and The Book Of Mormon, Parker has successfully ripped on religion, war, celebrity and former presidents from Clinton to Obama, yet Trump – the wall-banging monkey – left him firing comedic blanks. The whole point of satire, after all, is to expose the ugly truths behind glossy lies; to make the powerful look ridiculous. With Trump in charge, the ugly truths are already at surface level, and the most powerful man on Earth is perfectly capable of making himself look ridiculous, thank you very much.

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Parker was speaking on a podcast in May last year, but his sentiment that The Donald has rendered satire toothless has been shared by comedians from the election right up to the present day. Just weeks ago, The Thick Of It and Veep mastermind Armando Iannucci described Trump as a “self-basting satirist”, adding that satire is “all about exaggerating and distorting. That’s what [Trump] does anyway!”

But there’s something wrong here, isn’t there? We’re talking about a sitting president with hair like insulation foam, who tweets in all-caps non-sequiturs and plucks new words (“Covfefe”) and countries (“Nambia”) from thin air. Surely, he provides a far more interesting and colourful target than the bland, centrist, nothingness of, say, an Iain Duncan Smith (apologies, Iain). To the layman, Trump seems like a gift from the comedy gods, so why are so many comedians refusing to play with him?

Poking fun at our leaders has always been humanity’s way of exposing their hypocrisies and keeping them grounded. So what do we do if one of them has rendered himself satire-proof? If Parker is right – if there really is nothing funnier than the monkey running into the wall – then the rich, the powerful and the privileged could yet have the last laugh. At our expense.

The noble art of political lampoonery has been around since the Ancient Greeks, who invented democracy but had the decency to invent taking the piss out of it, too. Acid-tongued playwrights like Aristophanes caricatured their leaders as demagogues and warmongers; but two millennia later, comedians were reversing the trick. Charlie Chaplin’s disdain for fascist moustache plagiarist Adolf Hitler bore fruit in the 1940 film The Great Dictator, where suddenly – for two hours, at least – Hitler wasn’t a terrifying despotic monster, but rather a cack-handed, curtain-climbing buffoon. Fleetingly, people experienced power over this warmonger because they were laughing at Chaplin’s thinly veiled version of him.

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Chaplin in ‘The Great Dictator’

Satire is the weapon of choice for funny people wanting to keep the powerful in check, and the template has always been pretty straightforward: take a trait or affectation or rumour about a politician, and then exaggerate it to cartoonishly ridiculous effect. In the Eighties, when the Spitting Image writers saw Liberal leader David Steel toadying to his SDP alliance partner David Owen, they made Steel into a pint-sized puppet who lived, literally, in Owen’s pocket. The public loved it, and Steel’s career was effectively bulldozed.

The obvious problem with applying this tried-and-tested method to Donald J Trump, however, is that his traits, affectations and rumours already combine to make him cartoonishly ridiculous.

“It’s difficult to come up with an imaginative satirical approach to Trump, as it’s only ever a step away from what he’s actually doing or saying,” says Neil Rafferty, co-creator of UK satire site The Daily Mash, and script consultant on BBC2’s The Mash Report.

“In some ways, a bland, conventional politician is more attractive [for a satirist] because they’re a blank canvas. If the character is too big, too insane, it’s more of a challenge. And Trump really is a comedy character come to life.”

In other words, Trump cuts out the middleman. You’re already shaking your head in disbelief, so the satirist’s role is redundant. Part of the joy of good satire, for instance, is glimpsing behind the mask. In The Thick Of It, when cabinet minister Hugh Abbot says of the “real people” he’s being forced to glad-hand, “I look at their beady eyes and mean mouths… and I find myself thinking they’re from a different fucking species,” we laugh because it’s precisely what we imagine politicians are really thinking.

With Trump, we don’t need to imagine because it’s right there in our faces – his recent dismissal of El Salvador, Haiti and the African continent as “shithole countries” being a good/depressing example. With that one block-headed soundbite, Trump did the satirists’ work for them. The mask slipped all on its own, and we discovered that, in the real world, it’s not quite as funny. Especially when neither his popularity nor his power suffer as a result.

Quite the opposite, in fact. And therein lies the key to Trump’s satire-proof powers: what truly makes Trump difficult to satirise is the fact that his entire brand is rooted in opposition, and as such, it thrives on attack.

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He fought – and won – the election campaign on the idea that there is a cynical, out-of-touch ‘liberal elite’ who sneer down at the ‘ordinary Americans’ he claimed to represent. So, clearly, when Hollywood A-Listers start queuing up to mock and belittle him on prime-time TV, it merely serves to reinforce this worldview. Like him or loathe him, Trump managed to connect with millions of people who felt abandoned by the ‘mainstream’, and as amusing as Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live skits might be, they’re unlikely to do more than strengthen his fanbase’s convictions.

Alec Baldwin in his now-familiar Trump mode

However, if his apparent immunity to satire renders Trump untouchable for some comedians, he remains irresistible to others.

SNL might not be damaging his poll results, but Trump and his rotating cabal of wacky lackeys have provided them with a YouTube-melting shot in the arm (Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer being an obvious highlight). Late-night hosts such as Seth Meyers and John Oliver devote most of their airtime to picking apart the president’s latest gaffe, and then there are the millions of amateur wags cracking bad-hair and small-hand jokes on Twitter.

Speaking to ShortList from New York, SNL performer and head writer Michael Che explains how the president’s comedic omnipresence is actually forcing satirists to up their game. 

“We already know so much about Trump on the surface, so the obvious jokes get tired quickly. He’s orange, he’s bad at his job… we’re way past all that stuff,” says Che. 

“Social media now is trying to do what SNL has done for 40 years, so when hundreds of people are making the same joke, you have to come at it from a different perspective.”

Rafferty agrees that the sheer weight of material Trump inspires can be helpful – it closes the obvious avenues, forcing satirists to improve and evolve. “As a civilised human you’re horrified by the election of Donald Trump,” he says. “But as a satirist, it’s a test of your abilities: how do you deal with this guy?”

The Daily Mash tends to expertly tread the gossamer thin line between what Trump might and might not be capable of (“World ‘on the brink’ of Trump dick pic” was a nice recent headline). As for the SNL team, this evolution comes from accepting that, as Che says, “Sometimes even [the viewers] are exhausted with Trump stuff. But you have to keep covering him because he’s the president. So, the jokes come from honesty – from addressing how exhausting this whole thing is.”

It was this kind of thinking that inspired one of the best – and most-talked about – SNL skits of the Trump era. It arrived in August last year, courtesy of Tina Fey – whose pitch-perfect mimicry helped kneecap Sarah Palin’s ambitions in 2008. In the wake of the Charlottesville white nationalist rally – and Trump’s staggeringly fence-sitting response – Fey addressed the audience directly to confess her constant, nerve-shredding anxiety at what the president might do next.

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She then proceeded to stress-eat an entire sheet cake, by way of demonstration.

It was weird and bleak and funny and honest, and it felt more satirically powerful than a thousand Baldwin Donal-ogues. Because not only did it acknowledge traditional satire’s current impotence, it revelled in it.

This time, it wasn’t the politician being stretched and exaggerated, it was the reaction the politician inspired. Fey’s binging was almost nihilistic: it said, “the world is run by cartoon lunatics – Trump, Putin, Jong-un – so, what else can we do but stuff our faces and wait to see how it pans out?”

In ways like this, we can see satire beginning to mutate and adapt to this strange new age we live in. Whether it will actually have a hand in denting Trump’s presidency remains to be seen. In the long run, great investigative journalism or a half-decent new presidential candidate still seem far more likely methods of unseating Trump than a funny sketch. In the meantime, then, what say we all raid the cake tin and watch the monkey running into the wall?

(Images: Storms Media Group/Zuma/Eyevine/Getty/Rex/Time/Xposurephotos.com)