Acerbic US comics have been forced to walk a fine line in the new Trump paradigm, questioning when political satire becomes redundant.
Sharp-edged comedians like John Oliver, Bill Maher and Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee scramble to keep up with the warp speed of political upheaval. Meanwhile Saturday Night Live leads the way in limping political satire to a premature death.
Yes, it’s funny to take the piss out of President Donald Trump and his administration’s buffoonery - Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation and now that of Melissa McCarthy’s White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer have been spot on - but in the end all it amounts to is manna from meme heaven for the internet.
Pedaling in cheap imitation can only preach to the converted and further fracture an already divided country. The stock standard mockery that SNL is pushing will bait Trump to react with an insecure tweet and Spicer to call the show “mean”. It won’t change the administration or its leader because an actor caricatures him as a dullard with a toupee.
Cheap shots have never been easier to take then they are now but they’re fast becoming redundant in a bourgeoning climate where American politics has become the satire itself. It is more absurd than the wildest imaginings of comedy’s most acerbic minds.
Who could have thought that even Trump would use his first National Prayer Breakfast as president to take a pot shot at his reality show successor? Or fail to mention the Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day?
Some in the political satire firmament are questioning the point and purpose of the form. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have, at least for now, said they’re giving up lampooning Trump. His administration is funny enough in its absurdity as it is they say. It’s just too hard to keep up.
We all need a laugh in these uncertain times but that happens most effectively with constructive political satire, facing the truth with wit, intelligence and insight.
The challenge for political satirists is to keep up with the curve and maintain a truthful, merciless edge. Or to borrow Dan Rather’s call to action of journalists, not to “back up or back down or turn around,” not be “distracted or lose focus or, for that matter, deal in any kind of cowardice, small or large.”
And the less earnest sentiment involved, the better. In his recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart replete with a type of road kill toupee and a ridiculously long tie, effectively ridiculed President Trump’s early executive orders then followed that with a jarringly idealistic rant.
But there is an advantage to a certain kind of earnest sentiment to compliment the hard-edged commentary, most notably the positive aspects of political demonstration. Satirists can make fun of an administration’s insane rejection of the facts then celebrate the groundswell of peaceful protest. Trump may say things are rosy but no one can deny the millions out there hitting the streets to tell him resoundingly and defiantly that that is far from the truth.
Without the veil of imitation, political satire can still be a powerful force and would you believe, an entertaining one. On a recent episode of Full Frontal, Bee called out Trump’s disturbing fixation with loyalty by addressing his vindictive firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates for having the temerity to act against his immigration ban. She did so by comparing the president to a character from ‘Gilmore Girls’.
“Remember on ‘Gilmore Girls’ when Paris Geller staffed the school newspaper with her most loyal friends with no regard for talent level? It’s like that, but with the leader of the free world and nukes.”
In a scathing dissection of President Trump’s second week in office on Real Time with Bill Maher, all the host had to do was relay the truth with his wry execution. After precisely detailing the administration’s ludicrous flip-flopping on whether its Muslim Immigration policy is a “ban” or not, he simply laid it out on the table.
“They’re really on message and the message is ‘We have no idea what we’re doing’.”
Armando Iannucci’s Veep takes a different approach mirroring the absurdity of US politics via a loosely veiled fiction. It has cut so close to the bone and proved so freakishly prophetic that it hasn’t needed to pointedly reference the orange elephant in the room.
What real political satirists have in their arsenal is the truth.
In a segment on The Daily Show back in the early days of the now commander-in-chief’s presidential campaign, correspondent Jordan Klepper made the not unexpected prediction that “Donald Trump could very well be our first openly a**hole president” with his brazen attitude of “‘I’m here, I’m an a**hole, get used to it, you Mexican rapist losers!’”
This type of razor sharp critique might seem mean spirited but political satire’s role has always been to spotlight with military precision hard and harsh truths.
If nothing else, Trump’s prolific defensive tweeting tells us that political satire is keeping him up at night, needling him like a voodoo doll. Those losing faith in it can at least take some comfort in that.
Each week Full Frontal with Samantha Bee delivers some of the weeks most pointed comedic attacks on Trump. It airs on SBS VICELAND Thursdays at 8pm and is available to stream on SBS On Demand: