Science and karma: Late night comedy makes peace with joking about Trump's COVID diagnosis

The evolving status of Trump's COVID-19 recovery obliterates the "tragedy plus time equals comedy" equation

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 6, 2020 8:09PM (EDT)

Desus & Mero | Stephen Colbert of The Late Show | Michael Che of Weekend Report (Photo illustration by Salon/Showtime/NBC/Comedy Central)
Desus & Mero | Stephen Colbert of The Late Show | Michael Che of Weekend Report (Photo illustration by Salon/Showtime/NBC/Comedy Central)

America, it's been a very interesting journey. Over the past week or so, we learned a lot about what comedians should and should not do with regard to Donald Trump's ongoing battle with COVID-19, which is fast proving to be an extension of his denial regarding the realities of COVID-19.

And we've learned it by really going to school. This is the real school. This isn't the "let's read the books" school. This is the school of quick takes and rewritten-shortly-before-broadcast monologues.

We get it, we understand it, and it's a very interesting thing . . .  because the conclusion at which all parties relevant to this conversation have arrived is that when it comes to reaping material from Trump's infection with the novel coronavirus, joke season is now officially open. Frankly, it should have been from the get-go.

Granted, it took a while for late night hosts adjust their targeting. On Peacock, Amber Ruffin shows the way by opening her second show with as straight of a read as possible. "I just want to say, the coronavirus is very serious," Ruffin says, smash-cutting to a clip of Trump in February describing COVID-19 as "like a flu." Back to her: "It's unfair that Trump caught it because he's always taken the virus seriously." And again to Trump, in February: "This is the new hoax!"

It went on like that, Ruffin appearing to say what propriety and civility would demand she say while editing Trump's own footage into her "thoughts and prayers" equivalent. "We just want to take a moment and say how unfair it is that this happened to him – and to the 7.31 million other Americans who caught this virus," she says, pausing before adding, "and that we hope he gets well soon."

Trevor Noah released a viral video that essentially expressed a lack of surprise that Trump, a man who flaunts his refusal to wear masks, eventually became infected. "If the President of the United States can get the coronavirus, then what excuse do the rest of us random a**holes have for not wearing a mask?" he asks, later saying "People, coronavirus doesn't care about your politics."

Stephen Colbert hosted a special Oct. 2 episode of "The Late Show" to address the diagnosis that Trump tweeted earlier that day. "Say what you will about the president – and I do – this is a serious moment for our nation, and we all wish the president and the first lady of the United States a speedy and full recovery," Colbert says.

A few gentle comic beats later he continues, "I really think it's important for all of us to separate the man from the office – and I hope on Nov. 3 we literally do – but for now I find it troubling, moving even, to see the president of the United States being taken to the hospital, and to imagine the responsibility those servicemembers flying that helicopter must feel."

Colbert recorded this episode on Friday, before Trump's image-bolstering and Secret Service-endangering joyride to wave at his loyalists cheering him on outside of Walter Reed Medical Center, where he received a cocktail of experimental drugs whose interactions and side effects haven't entirely been quantified, and where he was on oxygen for some unknown amount of time.

Cut to the title card opening the first segment of Sunday night's "Desus and Mero" on Showtime: "Thoughts and Prayers for Our Large and Handsome Leader" it reads. Next Desus appears and emits a dismissive, "Here's what I have to say about that" whoopie cushion pfft as the Kid Mero laughs: "Ha ha ha HA – Trump got that 'rona!"

In case it isn't clear, Desus and The Kid Mero came to that conclusion right around the time Colbert and his team were crafting their careful "Late Show" response. Premium cable comics have the luxury to be more freewheeling than their broadcast counterparts. But here was the voice from the big city bodegas, whose communities have been hit far harder by COVID and much earlier than most of the people to whom Trump panders. 

Desus and Mero point out that on "Hannity," Trump blamed "people from the military or from law enforcement" for infecting White House aide Hope Hicks and other White House officials, including him, with the coronavirus. "They come over to you, they want to hug you and they want to kiss you, because we really have done a good job for them, And you get close and things happen," we hear Trump tell host Sean Hannity in an audio clip of their conversation."

"Yo, stop, bro," Mero said. "They're losers and suckers and now they're super-spreaders?"

To the news that Trump would receive a round of experimental drug treatments, including Dexamethasone, Desus only laughs harder. "Aw, Trump gonna be a guinea pig? Yeah, bro. Can't wait to see it!"

Mero then asks, "What are the side effects?"

Funny you should ask, sir! By the time Colbert returned on Monday, the surgical gloves were off. Monday night's show opened with a wry fake ad for a rideshare service called "Achoober," whose drivers have "made their peace with God and are willing to sacrifice their lives so that you can wave at some people."

He went on to slam Dr. Sean Conley's dissembling the facts concerning the severity of Trump's symptoms, and riff on the side effects of Dexamethasone, particularly the part about "temporary burning, pain and itching around your anus." From there the jokes flowed fast and so cheap, they were like water. (Go ahead and insert a flaming diarrhea joke here. Colbert did.)

People like to talk about some version of a "line" in comedy, an invisible force projected by one's moral core that we decide can't be crossed. Such a thing, if it exists, is most often personal. Stand-up comics like to get a lot of mileage out of referring to past jokes that made overly sensitive audience members walk out before cranking out punchlines at the expense of said killjoy.

The morals of those stories tend to fall into similar categories about censorship, or calls to relax a little, lighten up, nobody's taking any of this seriously.

Trump has channeled this language effectively rile up his base and to "troll the libs" in a unique and dangerous fashion. To his supporters he'll say one thing that they'll take as gospel until that statement is contradicted by fact, at which point they'll either continue to believe what he said or shrug it off as not to be taken seriously.

This is precisely why the dramedy Trump is constructing around his diagnosis is dangerous, frustrating and farcical in equal measure. We've hit a terrible count of 210,000 Americans dead in this pandemic that has infected nearly 7.5 million, and after Trump received some of the finest medical care in the world including drug treatments only available to a handful of people in the world, his message to Americans was to relax a little, lighten up.

It's all jokes or – as he told his Democratic opponent Joe Biden during their first presidential debate, when Biden admonished Trump for advising people to shoot up household disinfectant to combat infection – sarcasm. (Sarcasm is the fierce punchline's less-attractive fraternal twin.) The next day Trump was at a rally in Duluth, Minn., eliciting roars from the crowd at the very mention of "Sleepy Joe," the jokey-joke name he's assigned to Biden in the sketch show running inside his head.

Maybe there was a fuzzy suggestion of a line for a while there, and there's no question that some still acknowledge that border exists, namely politicians and cable news personalities such as Rachel Maddow who were quick to tweet their wishes that Trump and the first lady would get well. But if comedians serve as the voice of the flabbergasted public's frustration and outrage, this situation is less a matter of schadenfreude than calling a leader's lack of empathy and efforts to downplay the virus for what it is, which is ludicrous.

If there were a line in situations such as this, Trump obliterated it long ago. Truth be told, he doesn't get all the credit for its erasure. Right wing media figures like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones have been fading it out for decades, emboldening attacks on liberals in media, politics and beyond under the guise of "humor" or "performance art." Vitriol masked as jokes is wingnut's lingua franca, as is the bloviated "how dare you" response to similar swings when then punchlines are coming from the left.

But with this situation Trump has placed a nitro-boost on the chronology involved in the classic "tragedy plus time equals comedy" equation. If Thursday night or Friday were "too soon," it only took a few hours for "not soon enough" to become an appropriate response.

Anyway, it didn't take long for complaints from the right wing about Alec Baldwin's and Jim Carrey's respective lampoonery of the first presidential debate on "Saturday Night Live" to circulate.  Purely from an impersonation analysis standpoint, however, Biden has more to complain about – Carrey essentially filters Biden through his old "In Living Color" character Fire Marshal Bill.

But the bit that captured the truth of the moment offers Carrey, as Biden, speaking to the audience. "You can trust me because I believe in science and karma," he says. "Now just imagine if science and karma could somehow team up to send us all a message about how dangerous this virus can be!" 

Carrey turns for a moment to meaningfully look in Baldwin-as-Trump's direction. "I'm not saying I want it to happen. Just imagine if it did."

Later on "Weekend Update," Michael Che is far blunter. "If it was Biden who got sick, Trump would 100% be at a maskless rally tonight getting huge laughs doing an impression of Biden on a ventilator."

His co-anchor Colin Jost offers, "I gotta say, it's a bad sign for America that when Trump said he tested positive for a virus, 60% of people were like, 'Prove it.'"

He's right about that. It's a terrible sign that the most powerful leader in the world spent the majority of the year sowing a cavalier attitude towards a deadly pandemic and then, after receiving a level of care 99.9% of Americans could not right now, is more concerned about appearing in Eva Peron-style photo ops on his balcony. This is on top of his dismissing the severity of the virus and cutting off a road to a stimulus package to help Americans who are most adversely impacted by its rolling effects on the economic and their health.

Jost adds a message for the news personalities and politicians traveling the high road. "It's been very weird to see all these people who clearly hate Trump come out and say, 'We wish him well.' I think a lot of them are just feeling guilty that their first wish came true." There's more than a little truth in that.

Trump's diagnosis, hospitalization and recovery is yet another test delivered by this uniquely disastrous presidency, and our satirists can and must ace this – and the whole reason of laughing to keep from crying is only part of it. The media is struggling to parse fact from fiction and feeling from everything else lest they be accused of bias or worse, carelessness and incivility.

That last part is rich for an entire list of reasons, beginning with a roll call of Fox News Channel's primetime line-up. However, given that Trump made it abundantly clear that he doesn't care about anyone but himself and leaves no sacred cow unslaughtered when given the opportunity to do damage, our topical comedians are in position to grill up that beef and serve it back to him, sizzling.

Let's also factor in the right wing double standard of freely dishing out insults and cruelty in the name of "owning the libs," even when that vicious laughter is in response to someone getting hurt or even dying -- some of the reaction over Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death is an example of this -- only to demand civility when the shoe is on the other foot.

From what I've seen of the late night comedians who are the most skilled at handling this presidency – Noah, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Colbert, Desus and Mero and others – in dire situations such as this the key to success is to go after the circumstances Trump's bungling creates as opposed to Trump himself. 

The evolving state of Trump's illness isn't funny. Neither are his efforts to pantomime strength, which place those who serve him in danger. The horrific tragedy of millions upon millions infected by a virus whose spread could have been slowed by wearing masks, a fact Trump has consistently dismissed or worse, joked away, is as far from comedy as it gets.

But the blank page signing at the hospital passed off as being hard at work is simply stupid, and his balcony pose is appalling. Despite his steroid-enhanced spin performance over the past 24 hours, many experts fear that his health may worsen over the next week or two. This is still a tragedy unfolding, one we're still processing as a people and that Trump is still refusing to.

"A lot of people on both sides are saying there's nothing funny about Trump being hospitalized with coronavirus even though he mocked the safety precautions for the coronavirus," Che says on "Weekend Update." "And those people are obviously wrong. There's a lot funny about this. Maybe not from a moral standpoint, but mathematically, if you were constructing the joke, this is all the ingredients you need. The problem is, it's almost too funny. It's so on the nose. It would be like if I were making fun of people who wear belts and my pants just immediately fell down."

(This is also a fine spot for a joke about Dexamethasone's anus-related side effects. Why not? Remember: the line is gone.)

Eventually he went on to wish Trump "a lengthy recovery" – not just for the jokes we presume, but to meet the demands of science and karma.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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