Four years ago, when Jon Stewart was signing off the nightly airwaves and Stephen Colbert was leaving the relative freedom of Comedy Central for the more tightly regulated network world of CBS, I worried in these pages about the future of political satire on television.
After all, I argued, just as the press plays an important role in the conversation of democracy, so does political satire. This is especially true of those comedians who critique some of the more absurd and dangerous politicians in ways that legacy journalists cannot for fear of being considered partisan. Think of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” during the campaign of 2008.
But as of last weekend, I am officially worried no more. In fact, if the term Golden Age had not been rendered all but meaningless through gross overuse by TV critics, I might be tempted to use it to characterize the current state of political satire.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, Bill Maher, Alec Baldwin and John Oliver, sliced, diced and so deliciously sauteed Donald Trump’s surreal Rose Garden performance in declaring a state of emergency that for a few moments, at least, I felt like we might just survive the madness of this presidency with our democracy intact.
And Monday night, Stephen Colbert piled on with what might have been the finest comic deconstruction yet of the president’s strange performance. Like the others, he said things I felt as I watched but was constrained by standards of mainstream journalism from saying. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Colbert’s inspired take on Trump Monday night is that he does this kind of work on a nightly basis, while the others I mentioned appear weekly or occasionally, as in the case of Baldwin on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
I admit I have not been Maher’s greatest fan. I long appreciated his willingness to be transgressive. That’s one of the places great satirists and comedians have to go from time to time to show us how wrongheaded mainstream thinking can be.
But I thought he was needlessly reckless and sometimes spoke from a position of privilege that he did not make much of an effort to understand. I’m on record saying I thought he should have been suspended in 2017 for what I saw as his casual use of the “n” word in one of his shows.
But there I was wading through all the HBO promotional trailers that preceded “Real Time” Friday night for fear of missing a second of Maher’s opening monologue.
He did not disappoint.
“Please, try to remain calm. There’s a national emergency. Haven’t you heard?” he said mockingly in quieting the audience’s opening applause.
“Yes, he did it today. [Expletive] did it today. He declared a national emergency,” Maher continued, shaking his head as if in disbelief.
“He was in the Rose Garden. This is morning. You could tell this is when he normally has ‘executive time,’ because he was still in curlers. And this was just completely crackers. I know I’ve said that before. But this was just one long, baseless, incoherent, stream of consciousness, call-the-nursing-home rant. You know, we don’t even notice it any more when he gets STUPID-ER.”
Maher was only 53 seconds into his monologue, still in first gear. But it was already comforting, liberating and democratically empowering to hear.
Comforting, because, for the tens of thousands of words I have written about Trump the last four years, the president’s performance in the Rose Garden seemed like a new level of off the rails. And the guy standing in front of the cameras agreed.
Liberating and democratically empowering, because Maher could be as profane as Trump in his name-calling. I can’t do that in my professional role. I have to use “expletive” for what he said.
For the record, Maher used the term “bucko,” but replaced the “b” with an “f.” Just the sound of it was funny, a reminder that for all the digital technology that defines our lives, stand-up comedy operates in the ancient traditions of oral culture — it can be as much for the ear as the brain.
But Merriam-Webster defines bucko as a “person who is domineering and bullying : swaggerer.” So, it is intellectually an apt term as well. Trump’s a bully and absolutely delusional in his swagger. Altering the term as Maher did makes a mockery of the president for the way he struts about.
For years, I worshiped at the altar of Mort Sahl, a keen political satirist who started his career in the 1950s taking on President Eisenhower. I admired Sahl for bringing his biting take on American conformity and anti-intellectualism to network television in the 1950s and ‘60s when political humor was all but out of bounds at CBS, NBC and ABC.
Watching Maher Friday night, I thought, “This guy is a worthy successor of Sahl. We’re lucky to have him.”
Baldwin, whose impersonation of Trump has been a gift to the nation, took the mocking-Trump baton and ran so well with it on “Saturday Night Live” that the show again drew the president’s ire on Twitter.
SNL opened the show with its spoof of Trump in the Rose Garden the day before, and Baldwin was dead on perfect straight through his sing-song mimicry of Trump’s prediction for how his declaration would fare in the courts.
“So, I’m going to sign these papers for EMERGENCY. And I will immediately be SUED. And the ruling will not go in my FAVOR. Then it will end up in the Supreme COURT. And then I’ll call my buddy, KAVANAUGH. And I’ll say, ‘It’s time to repay the DONNIE.’ And he’ll say, ‘New Phone. Who DIS?’”
Baldwin’s satire of Trump is every bit as good as or better than Fey’s Palin. And this comic critique of Trump is so much more important than one of Palin, who was never more than a defeated vice presidential candidate. Trump not only won his presidential campaign,but he’s been using his power to tear down the government and any notion of civility in public life for two years now.
John Oliver returned to HBO Sunday night and like the other hosts took dead aim at Trump’s emergency declaration.
“Yes, according to Trump, the border suddenly constitutes a ‘national emergency,’ Oliver told viewers. “And to be clear, there is zero actual emergency at the border right now. Illegal crossings have been declining for 20 years.”
Oliver then showed video of Trump in the Rose Garden rambling on from the actual declaration to say, “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster.”
Cut back to Oliver shouting, “It’s not an emergency then, is it?”
No one, though, hit harder than Colbert.
“It was clear from the very beginning [of the Rose Garden announcement] that the true emergency was taking place in his skull,” Colbert said. “Imagine your grandpa wandering out into the garden to yell at the trees about Mexicans. That’s what it felt like.”
These four are not alone in their comic critique of the presidency. Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel are among the list of show hosts doing the same for millions of their viewers each weeknight.
When you add up all the shows and comedians involved, the volume of comedic scorn being heaped on Trump on a nightly bass is unprecedented. We don’t usually talk about humor in such terms, but it is a potent political-cultural force, especially when you couple it to the tough reporting and generally harsh critique of Trump regularly appearing in mainstream journalistic institutions like The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and NBC/MSNBC. I believe that comedic-journalistic conversation about the Trump administration played a large role in the 2018 midterms and will play an even larger role in 2020.
And there is hardly any counterbalance beyond Dennis Miller, who regularly appeared on Fox News on Bill O’Reilly’s show before O’Reilly was pushed out in the wake of revelations of settlements paid to women who charged the host with sexual misconduct.
Here’s Miller from his “Fake News: Real Jokes” special in 2018: “You can’t trust journalists. You can’t trust The New York Times. You’re better off trusting the odometer readings in the ‘Auto Trader,’ for God’s sake.”
Yeah, he used to be funny.
Some conservative analysts explain the imbalance in left and right comedic voices with the charge that the entertainment industry is overwhelmingly liberal and conservatives are not welcome.
It has been my experience that anyone who makes money for the owners is welcome in the TV industry.
My belief is that before the arrival of Tea Party politics, conservatives were traditionally more invested and respectful of establishment institutions.
Comedy, meanwhile, is inherently oppositional. Sahl mocked FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as a fascist and hypocrite at a time when mainstream conservatives spoke of him as a great American patriot.
Whatever the historical reasons are for the trajectory of political satire in American life, the explanation for the volume of it on television today is an easy one: Trump.
Political targets don’t come much bigger, fatter or more outrageously in need of being deflated than him.
Those who are dismayed by his presidency can take comfort in the growing chorus of satiric voices opposing him on nightly TV. It’s a sign that our democracy is still alive and well.