Why we need serious Trump jokes: From "SNL" to Colbert, comedians make sense out of impeachment

Once again it is the satirists who are best equipped to cut through the nonsense of the Trump era

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published October 8, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

Trevor Noah, Michael Che, Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers (Comedy Central/TBS/NBC)
Trevor Noah, Michael Che, Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers (Comedy Central/TBS/NBC)

Unusual times demand unusual measures. If you value Salon's original reporting and commentary, we urge you to support it — by supporting our writers directly. Right here, right now, you can make a contribution to Sophia A. McClennen to help make her work possible. All funds go directly to our writers.

It’s been roughly two weeks since the public learned of a whistleblower coming forward with an “urgent concern” that President Donald Trump was pressuring a foreign power to interfere in a U.S. election. Since then an impeachment inquiry has been put into place, the Trump administration has responded to it and the news cycle has been on a rollercoaster.

The pattern by now is familiar. As the mainstream news tries to offer serious coverage of the Trump administration, they often find themselves in an absurd struggle to make sense of a situation that doesn’t make sense.

Covering the Trump team has vexed the mainstream news from the start. Trump and his core supporters regularly offer a complex combination of lies, braggadocio, bullying, gaslighting, bullshitting, and irrational logic that tends to put the mainstream news on the defense. Too often they find themselves reacting to the Trump team’s narrative, making it much harder to place the facts themselves at the center of the story.

This dynamic, for example, was on full display when CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) on the Ukraine scandal. As Jordan spewed a bunch of nonsense, Tapper interrupted him. “Sir, that’s not what happened.” And then, “You’re not saying facts.” The exchange was satisfying for those of us who enjoy seeing that sort of BS shut down, but what needs to be remembered here is that the story became Jordan’s lies, rather than the facts. Tapper may have looked like he “won” that exchange, but, in the end, it was Republican gaslighting that became the story and not the facts themselves.

Luckily the public has an alternative to the mainstream news that offers both information and incisive critique: satire. As unlikely as it may seem, there is increasing evidence that satirists are doing a better job of informing the public and shaping debate than much of the mainstream news. Ever since Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted back-to-back shows on Comedy Central that gave viewers informative, sharp, and ironic coverage of critical issues, we have seen a rise in the role that satire news plays in informing the public.

Satire played a major role in shaping public perceptions of social issues in the United States well before Trump was a political candidate, but there is little question that it has taken on even greater significance since he emerged on the scene. That is because the nature of satire makes it the perfect foil for Trump and his allies. Trump is inherently absurd, making it extremely challenging for the straight news to offer serious coverage. Satire, in contrast, is uniquely suited to cover the Trump team because it is designed to go after BS, faulty logic, abuses of power, larger-than-life personalities, corruption, vanity and outright lying. The satirists get that Trump makes no sense and they have no worries over offering “all sides” to a story. Instead, they are able to target hypocrisy, spin, and deceit in ways unavailable to the mainstream press.

So, it comes as little surprise that the best coverage of the impeachment debate has come from satirists.  Here are a few highlights of some of the best satire coverage of the issue:

Trevor Noah reminds us that admitting to a crime doesn’t mean you aren’t guilty.

The Republican spin machine over the Trump scandals tends to be dizzying. The twists in logic on offer by Republicans can often be difficult to unpack.  Yet, because satire is designed to go after faulty logic, it often offers a valuable critique of the spin.

As Trevor Noah pointed out in a “Behind the Scenes” bit for “The Daily Show,” one of the oft-repeated tactics used by Trump apologists is to claim that he can’t be guilty because he has done the improper or illegal thing publicly. Those arguments make no sense whatsoever. “Why are people confusing Trump’s honesty for innocence?" Noah asks. “Just because you admit to your crime in public doesn’t mean it’s not a crime.”

Noah adds that one of the more noteworthy habits of the Trump team is the way they tend to go to two extremes when caught in a scandal.  They tend to be simultaneously clandestine and open about their illicit behavior, a weirdly incompatible set of habits difficult for the press to analyze, yet easy for satire to skewer.

Seth Meyers reminds us that covering Trump scandals is hard because his behavior is so weird and disturbing.

Stating another obvious fact that tends to be hard for the mainstream news to analyze, Seth Meyers reminded his viewers on NBC’s “Late Night” that it can be hard to cover Trump scandals because his behavior is so strange. Meyers assessed Trump’s impeachment meltdown in light of a number of other super weird reactions by the president and his supporters. Meyers pointed out the strange story about Trump wanting to build a moat at the border with snakes and alligators, and then highlighted the fact that Trump referred to the constitutionally defined impeachment process as a coup. The point is that Trump and his team’s reactions go beyond lies, bullying and gaslighting; they are often just flat-out bizarre. It turns out that satirical wit is able to counter that weirdness in a way the straight news can’t.

Also, oddly, satirists in the Trump era have often found themselves in the unlikely position of defending core institutions rather than just mocking abuses of power. Noting that the public simply didn’t understand how impeachment works or what was at stake, Meyers helped defuse the impeachment confusion by creating an ad that explained the process.

Samantha Bee angrily wonders why there are no adults in the room.

One of the particular features of Samantha Bee’s satirical style on TBS’s “Full Frontal” is her gloves-off edgy anger coupled with biting ironic analysis of the flaws in our system. Her signature move is use a combination of sarcasm and snark to point out the most obvious feature of a story that has somehow gotten lost.

In a monologue on how Trump has gone off the deep end, she covers the main facts, but then moves on to ask why all of the other Republicans in office continue to support him at the expense of doing their jobs as public officials. Focusing on reports that Attorney General Bill Barr asked foreign leaders for help supporting Trump’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a plot to frame him, Bee reminded her viewers that the Attorney General’s job is not to cave to any whim of the president, but rather to defend the public interest. “Is there one f**king human being left who is actually willing to do their goddamn job?” she asks.

In another monologue, she similarly asked why it has seemed so hard for the Democrats to do their jobs as well. Sure, it was good news that the investigation was under way, she claimed, but she mockingly wondered why it took the Democrats so long. Bee’s coverage has offered anger, insight and ironic commentary that offers her viewers a cathartic release unavailable on most mainstream news shows.

Stephen Colbert reminds us that many in the Trump camp are both corrupt and dumb.

Imagine CNN’s Anderson Cooper assembling a panel of experts to ask whether Rudy Giuliani is corrupt or dumb.  Seem unlikely? That’s because the straight news can often have a hard time stating the obvious when the obvious is ridiculous.

While the straight news may have to tiptoe around the hard truth, satire can just go for it.  Throughout the Trump campaign and subsequent presidency, Stephen Colbert on CBS’s “The Late Show” has consistently used his satirical wit to just state what needs to be said. In a bit on the possibility that Vice President Mike Pence may be implicated in the Ukraine scandal, Colbert pointed out that Pence repeatedly dodges any potential implications in Trump scandals by saying he was unaware of the situation.

This then leads Colbert to offer viewers a game show-style segment, “Corrupt or Dumb,” that allows Colbert to ask whether Pence is a “participant or a patsy.” Offering viewers an important lesson in the faulty logic of a false binary, he claims “Thank God. It’s always both.” In the bit, Colbert doesn’t just target Pence, though, he also goes after Rudy Giuliani. Colbert screens a Fox News clip where Giuliani displays his unique brand of hubris, nonsense and delusion as he struggles between the terms whistleblower and witch hunt. This all leads Colbert to call him the “reigning champion of ‘Corrupt or Dumb.’”

Andy Borowitz exaggerates an already ridiculous situation.

In contrast with the satire of Noah, Meyers, Bee and Colbert, Andy Borowitz’s satirical columns for The New Yorker are not facts wrapped in irony; they are outright exaggerations.  The art of Borowitz’s satire, however, is that by taking a ridiculous situation and exaggerating it, he can draw critical attention to a ridiculous reality in ways the straight news can’t.

In one of his first impeachment pieces, Borowitz underscored how absurd it was that we had normalized foreign interference in our elections: “Putin Saddened that Trump Asked Other Foreign Country to Meddle in Election.”  Another headline reads, “Democrats Beg Trump to Stop Impeaching Himself so They Have Something to Do”.  This one has a nice double edge to it: it mocks Trump’s self-incriminating behavior and also pokes at the idea that the Democrats have tried to avoid considering impeachment since the start of his presidency.

Exaggerating in order to underscore Trump’s blatantly obvious motives, Borowitz then ran this one: “Trump Sees New Polls and Orders Ukraine to Investigate Elizabeth Warren.”

In this piece Borowitz mocks the Trumpist spin that he is only concerned about corruption by emphasizing the stark reality that Trump’s interest in Biden is purely political.

"Saturday Night Live"’s Weekend Update ironically wonders if Trump is mentally fit for office.

In a “Weekend Update” that focused on Trump’s reaction to the impeachment investigation, Michael Che offered viewers a rundown of some of Trump’s actions. He noted that he was tweeting incessantly, had asked China to investigate the Bidens and had looked into a moat on the southern border. This all leads Che to wonder, “Are we sure it’s OK to make fun of this guy?”

It was a brilliant satire moment, since Trump is the most mocked president in U.S. history, yet he also behaves, according to some experts, as though he is suffering from cognitive decline or mental illness. The trouble, of course, is that what may seem like the behavior of someone with a condition like dementia, to use one example, is still the behavior of the president of the United States. Che ironically suggests that maybe we should feel sorry for Trump.  By over-stressing the idea of being compassionate to Trump, Che gives us a satirical wink that reminds us how badly we do need to make fun of him.

Michael Moore uses irony to reveal the uncomfortable truth.

Throughout the 2016 election, Michael Moore offered a range of satirical and sharp interventions designed to get the public engaged and informed.  He released two films, “Where to Invade Next” and “Michael Moore in Trumpland,” penned numerous open letters, appeared regularly in interviews, and participated in activist events. Once Trump was elected, Moore didn’t let up. He launched a Broadway show, released his most compelling film yet, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” and continued to take on the issues as a public intellectual.

On October 3, Moore posted a satirical, ironic, yet pointed jab to his 2.4 million followers on Facebook:

Have they taken the vote to Impeach yet? I had to run downstairs to throw another load in the dryer and I didn’t want to miss anything! Wait! What? He’s still President?! So — how many crimes does he have to commit before he’s impeached, tried and convicted? I think the rule is he has to commit 3 felonies, 2 acts of treason & have more than a dozen unpaid parking tix. I think that last one is what’s holding things up.

Moore’s post uses ironic wit to point out the fact that it is simply absurd Trump has not been held accountable for any of his alleged wrongdoings. Whether on screen or on Facebook, Moore consistently uses satirical irony to poke at political inertia, public apathy and a ridiculous status quo.

These are only just a few examples of the various ways that satirists have been helping to call attention to critical issues central to the impeachment debate. We often think that comedy is a light-hearted distraction from the troubles of the world; but satire is a unique form of comedy that uses irony, wit, sarcasm and sharp thinking to make sense of politics when it doesn’t make sense.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

MORE FROM Sophia A. McClennen