While slogging through a slow period for theater, I thought I’d revisit a topic I’ve been following closely ever since my 2016 TIME cover story, “The New Politics of Late Night”:
The doctored video of Nancy Pelosi that went viral recently — her remarks slowed down just a hair to exaggerate her slurring speech patterns — struck some as a particularly low blow in the era of fake-news political attacks. I preferred to see it as a tribute to one of my favorite running Trump gags on late-night television. For the past three years, Jimmy Kimmel has been offering up snippets of Trump rally speeches, slowed down to half-speed and dubbed “Drunk Donald Trump.” It’s pretty easy comedy — more lampoon than actual satire — but in a strange way it seems to perfectly capture the discombobulated, narcissistic, verbally challenged, physically awkward, deeply weird nature of the man currently occupying the Oval Office.
The Democrats are scrambling to come up with the best way of booting Trump out of that office in 2020: Pursue impeachment, or steer clear of it for fear of a backlash? Make Trump the central issue, or stress a more positive alternative vision? My suggestion: follow the lead of the people who have been skewering Trump most effectively ever since the “tangerine-tinted trash-can fire” (Samantha Bee, 2016) began his campaign for President. The one weapon that seems to get under his skin is ridicule.
As the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum observed just after the election, Trump at his rallies has adopted the rhythms of a stand-up comedian: the withering sarcasm, the free-flowing insults, the call-and-response interplay with the audience, like a Catskills tummler. But I think he’s closer to a classic comic foil: the grumpy, self-important prig, like Margaret Dumont or Sig Ruman in the old Marx Brothers films. Has there ever been a major American politician who scowled so much? And though he often beams a smug, Cheshire Cat grin when he’s in full taunting mode (“Russia, if you’re listening …”), the one thing you never, ever see Donald Trump do is laugh. I await the video clip that will prove me wrong.
Trump of course has been Topic A for the late-night comics (as well as weekly pundits like Bill Maher, John Oliver and Samantha Bee) ever since he won the Republican nomination. But three years of Trump jokes has grown wearying. Stephen Colbert (despite his rising ratings, supplanting Jimmy Fallon for the top spot in late night) has become particularly hard to watch: too strident, too manic, too nakedly polemical. His jokes seem more designed to draw cheers from the audience than laughs. When Trump, after blowing up the recent infrastructure talks, complained that the Democrats “had a meeting to talk about the I-word. Can you imagine?” — we cut to Colbert, in a tight shot, with a beatific smile on his face: “I can. I’m imagining it right now. And that’s why Jim is shooting me from the waist up.” More cheers.
The most potent attacks on Trump, it seems to me, are coming from the more laid-back Seth Meyers and the underrated Jimmy Kimmel. Both dole out plenty of gag lines too. But they mainly adopt a tone of bemused condescension. Much of the time they simply replay Trump’s loonier clips— the bar-stool bluster, the rambling sentences, the garbled words — and put them on display, with an implied thought-balloon: Who can take this man seriously? Meyers’ response to a particularly murky bit of Trump word salad might be a simple, “What. Are you talking about?” Kimmel shows a clip of Trump hugging an American flag at the start of a rally and marvels, “Who does that?” When Trump, at a press conference, claimed to be “the most transparent President in history,” and compounded the absurdity by telling the reporters present, “I think most of you would agree to this,” Meyers’ comeback was a perfect, patronizing deadpan: “No. We would not agree. We can see right through you, but I don’t think that’s what you mean.”
Politicians and MSNBC pundits have howled endlessly about Trump’s flouting of the “rule of law” and the “norms of the Presidency.” The comedians are focused more on the norms of human behavior. Meyers often compares Trump to an addled grandpa in a nursing home; Kimmel has pegged him as a “potent combination of Adderall and dementia.” Nancy Pelosi seemed to pick up on the theme, responding to Trump’s temper tantrum during the infrastructure talks, when she pleaded (with tongue only partly in cheek) for the family to “have an intervention for the good the country,”
Trump’s response was to gather underlings in the White House to parrot his assertion that he was quite “calm” when he broke up the talks — and to boast, once again, that he is “an extremely stable genius.” Whatever else it shows about Trump’s mental state, the Dems should see it as the greatest straight line in Presidential history.