12 May 2017

Is it cool to joke about the Trumpocalypse?

11:05 am on 12 May 2017

At times like this, all you can do is laugh. But should you?


Just say no: Jimmy Fallon and Donald Trump getting cosy.

Just say no: Jimmy Fallon and Donald Trump getting cosy. Photo: Unknown

When, against all odds, Donald Trump was elected US President in November last year, the world lost its collective shit. What? Why? How? Whom? Geographical proximity mattered not, as even in dear old Enzed we began to wonder how to cope with an unprecedented and increasingly uncertain future.

A little over 100 days later, it would seem, we have an answer: Comedy! But of course!

In times of political strife, comedy is often the go to for a populace riddled with anxiety and with that strife strife-ier than ever, demand is high. So too, however, is supply: Everyone and their mother is concocting jokes about long ties and small hands and bad fake tans.

With an outwardly egotistical figure like Trump, this is perhaps even more satisfying. “Sources say Trump hates this bad photo of himself” your fun loving social media buddies may post. “Would be a shame to retweet it!” And retweet it you might, your pacing heart slowed by your savvy contribution to the resistance.

For a generation experienced in memes but not so much in authoritarian regimes, the new territory on which we now tread will take some getting used to. Can we laugh at Trump and still fight human rights violations? Are our witty jibes eroding the alt right or only making it stronger? And is the temporary catharsis found in mocking a genuinely threatening public figure actually lulling us into a false sense of sassy security?


In Rudolph Herzog’s book Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler's Germany, he argues that political satire in Holocaust era Germany may have not only failed to resist the Third Reich, but in fact enabled and ingratiated it to German society.

Speaking to RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan in February, Herzog described the tone of the humour as “quite harmless.

“There were a lot of jokes about Göring for instance, who was kind of fat and vain, there were a lot of jokes playing on that.”

Though these jokes were unflattering, argued Herzog, the effect did not engage a dissenting public - instead it pacified them by focussing on Göring’s “human faults, not the fact that he was a sadist and a murderer” the jokes wound up endearing him to the public”.

It was, according to Herzog, “the humour of acceptance”.


But before you delete all your clever tweets comparing Mike Pence to Professor Umbridge, relax. We’re not banning politics jokes just yet.

For one thing, as comedian Alice Snedden points out, the topic is “almost impossible to avoid”.

“On the one hand you're like 'well, the political environment is so saturated with horrible and unbelievable stories that we don't want to be sort of hammering that stuff when people want to be entertained’”, says Snedden.

“But on the other hand it's like it feels more important than ever to not be existing in a world where you're not commenting or reacting to that stuff.”

There is also the small issue that the increasingly worrying state of the world is all anyone can think about - and we need an outlet.

“The thing I love about comedy is that it’s a way to deal with things that annoy you. It’s like scratching an itch,” says comedian Guy Williams. “Discovering political comedy was an eye-opener for me because it meant I could punch the things that really make me angry.”

It’s an understandable sentiment and, in light of the kind of rage and fear felt by so many, really quite healthy. However, it is also worth noting that comedy, as trivial as it may seem, can be very, if unintentionally powerful - and not always in a good way.

One now infamous example is US talk show host and comedian Jimmy Fallon’s bizarre - and totally ill advised - decision to not only have the then presidential-hopeful Trump as a guest on his show, but to use that as an opportunity to ruffle his notoriously strange mop of dandelion coloured hair.

Now considered a key moment in Trump’s campaign, the incident demonstrates the dangers of that most benign emotion - bemusement.

“I definitely think that Fallon thing normalised Trump,” says Snedden.

“It made any follow-up commentary from Fallon on Trump just shallow and insincere, even though I'm sure he personally doesn't share a lot of those views.”

Williams agrees that striking the right tone is, now more than ever, vital.

“Trivialising important stories is a really big problem”, he says. “Just reading twitter during the US presidential debates and seeing people’s reactions. In the second debate I remember being pissed off because trump was winning with his usual BS, and all anyone could do is make jokes about how he was sniffling a lot.”

Comedian Tim Batt agrees that beating around the bush won’t get us anywhere.

“Comedy's most affecting when it hits at a core truth and sometimes it's the only tool left to reveal that the emperor has no clothes. Especially right now, everything has to be thrown at those in power.”

It’s a fine line, and in these trying times it’s not getting much clearer. Yet, it seems, political comedy is not lost and, if done right, may be more important than ever.

“What's the alternative?” asks Batt. “Politics becomes off limits to comedy? That doesn't sound useful to me. I'll always try to be sensitive to vulnerable individuals but not to powerful people or institutions.”

Comedy, says Batt, not only provides catharsis and relief, but can foster resistance at a time when we need it the most.

“Earnestness gets tiresome, piety is a turnoff, but comedy cuts through and hits on that most human instinct: Rebellion.”

“It would be a dumb thing to neuter and terrible thing to lose.”

Alice Snedden, Guy Williams and Tim Batt are all currently performing in the New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Show times and bookings can be found here.