Is political comedy dead now?

It's too early to know how Biden's presidency will shape political comedy. But don't count satire out just yet

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published April 9, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, John Oliver and Kate McKinnon (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Comedy Central/NBC/TBS/Warner Media Group)
Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, John Oliver and Kate McKinnon (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Comedy Central/NBC/TBS/Warner Media Group)

In the days following the attacks of 9/11/2001, no one wanted to laugh. Jon Stewart burst into tears as host of "The Daily Show" and Bill Maher got fired from ABC for suggesting that you could call the terrorist attackers many things, but "coward" wasn't one of them. Then on September 18, 2001, Graydon Carter, then editor of Vanity Fair, suggested that the attacks signaled "the end of irony."

Carter's intervention was noteworthy, since he was the co-founder of one of the most significant U.S. satirical magazines, Spy Magazine. If one of the masters of satire thought satirical irony was dead, then, surely, we were doomed to live in an era of boorish, literal communication. 

Except Carter was wrong. As Michiko Kakutani explained in a piece for The New York Times, what Carter missed was the fact that irony always comes back, even if it is briefly held in abeyance during moments of extreme social upheaval. Sure, 9/11 led to a momentary pause in black humor, irony and cynicism, but those all-too-common forms of human expression popped back within weeks of the attack. By September 26, 2001 — a mere eight days after Carter suggested irony was dead — the satirical magazine The Onion ran the headline ''U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We're at War With'' in a special edition called "Holy Fucking Shit: Attack on America." Some might have bristled that the issue was an example of "too soon" dark humor, but it was clear evidence that only days after the shocking events of 9/11, American irony was alive and kicking.

This story is revealing because it reminds us that just as irony is a social constant, irony's critics are, too. In fact, we might take as the greatest sign of irony's social force the ironic reality that there will always be pundits out there signaling its demise. Isn't it ironic that the proof of irony's power is the never-ending parade of pundits suggesting it is dead?

This ironic fact was never more apparent than during the Trump years, when we kept hearing how Trump was killing comedy at the exact same time that Trump comedy was peaking. Perhaps the best example of this doublespeak was Dan Brooks' piece for The New York Times, "How President Trump Ruined Political Comedy," which offers a sweeping overview of a wide range of Trump comedy at the same time that it suggests that none of it matters. What Brooks hints at in his piece — and what is much more accurate — is that irony adapts with each historical transition.

Irony never dies; it just changes with the times.

Nevertheless, that truism isn't stopping a new wave of comedy pundits from suggesting that with the election of Joe Biden, U.S. political satire is now on its way to being truly dead. Given the penchant for old man Biden jokes, such a view could be wickedly ironic, except it's wrong.

First to come under fire was "Saturday Night Live" (SNL), which Lorraine Ali described as "remarkably weak" now that Trump was out of office. Much has been made, as well, over whether or not anyone will want to make fun of Biden. Fox News, unsurprisingly, claims that "liberal" comics are "scared" to make fun of Biden, but others have suggested that our new president will get a pass. Richard Zoglin noted that Biden has so far "been impregnable" to satire because his mannerisms and policies simply don't give comedians much material to work with. 

But just because Biden comedy has faltered in these early days doesn't mean it's doomed to failure.

In fact, it makes sense that the shift to Biden from a bombastic and absurd blowhard like Trump would send comedy through an adjustment phase. That does not mean, however, that we won't see plenty of political comedy under Biden. In fact, we can count on it for the simple reason that political comedy is a staple of American expression.

There are a number of reasons you don't need to worry that Biden's win means comedy's loss.

Trump isn't in office, but he still offers good material

When George W. Bush left office, political jokes about him quickly abated. Not so with Trump. Trump jokes have not stopped, even if they have stopped taking center stage. From Trump leaving the White House memes, to jokes over his farewell note to Biden, to jokes over the bizarre Trump statue at CPAC to political cartoons that mock Trump there are plenty of signs that Trump is still on the comedy radar. 

The good news is that he is no longer the center of comedic attention and that variety is a welcome development. In a study done by Robert Lichter, communications professor at George Mason, he found that a whopping 97 percent of the jokes Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon told about the candidates in September 2020 targeted President Donald Trump.  Thankfully, Trump isn't getting that degree of bandwidth today, allowing comedians a wider range of targets for their material. 

Trump may be gone, but he has plenty of allies still in government 

What we also have to remember is that Trump may have been the cherry on top of the absurd sundae, but he was never alone. The only reason why Trump political comedy got to take such center stage is because much of it focused on more than the man himself. The bluster, braggadocio and bullying of Trump are emblematic of a wide range of right wing politicians. When we bundle that with an aversion to the truth and the egocentric policy platform at the center of the Republican party, it is easy to see how there is no shortage of things to mock.

Think, for example, of the Ted Cruz jokes that emerged in the wake of his trip to Cancún as Texas faced a weather emergency. And who could forget the roasting Mitch McConnell got on Twitter during the second impeachment proceedings?

Probably one of the best recent Trump ally sources of satire has been the story of Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, a notorious supporter of the former president and who is under investigation over allegations of sex trafficking of a minor. Gaetz was often referred to as part of the "warrior class" that pledged to defend Trump, making his fall from grace even more spectacular, thereby offering satirists an irresistible target. Andy Borowitz, who has a regular column with The New Yorker, has taken to just posting his Gaetz satire straight to Facebook with mock headlines like "Gaetz Blames Liberal Media for Getting his Girlfriend Grounded," "Gaetz Fears that if He is Arrested He Will Miss Prom" and "CDC Urge Social Distancing to Stop the Spread of Matt Gaetz."

Comedians will eventually make fun of Biden

The sea change from Trump to Biden has clearly caught the comedians a bit off guard, but that hiccough doesn't mean they won't eventually find their comedic footing. It is worth remembering, too, that when Biden served as vice president under Barack Obama he was regularly roasted. In one example, a viral piece from The Onion held the headline "Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway." It got folks so riled up that there was even an effort to try to buy Biden a Trans Am.

The easy jokes about Biden's age, or the jabs mocking his stutter, may feel like punching down these days. And that's all for the good, since such jokes are just mockery and not satire. Soon enough, though, comedians will find ways to satirize his policies. Remember that even Obama came under fire from comedians like Stephen Colbert, who, on "The Colbert Report" liked to target Obama's hypocrisies. He delivered an especially scathing take-down in 2012 of Obama's drone program, for example.

"SNL" is not a barometer for the state of political comedy today

It is worth noting that many of those who fret over the current state of political comedy may overemphasize the role of "SNL." There is little doubt that the show plays a central and significant role in the history of U.S. satire, but it has historically had an uneven status as a source of U.S. political comedy. During the George W. Bush years, for example, "SNL" offered little in the way of biting political comedy. And, while it is true that a lot of powerful Trump material came out on Saturday nights, it is a mistake to think that if Jim Carrey's impersonation of Biden was uninspiring that that means political comedy for the nation as a whole is in decline.

In fact, late night comedy overall is not really the source of the most innovative political satire today. For many, the real source of cutting-edge political comedy this last election cycle was TikTok. For those of us older than our teens, we may have first stumbled onto TikTok thanks to Sarah Cooper's brilliant Trump impersonations. But Cooper is just one small example of the massive amount of political satire on the platform.

TikTok has offered a unique space for a very particular type of political comedy, one that is radically different from the style of late-night comedy. As Hannah Giorgis explains in The Atlantic, "Young people on TikTok don't need to supplement their short videos with lengthy explanations of the sociopolitical ideas they're poking at, nor do they justify their own antics by fitting them into an established format."

What makes the satire on TikTok so powerful and so edgy is the fact that some miss the irony. In one example, the teenage owners of a TikTok account called POCRepublicans found themselves being criticized by both the right and the left when their videos went viral on Twitter and were interpreted un-ironically. When your satire confuses people, it can be a promising sign that it is smart, creative and subtle.

The best political comedy isn't personality-driven anyway

One of the truisms of satire is that it isn't interested in balance or covering "both sides" of an issue. Instead it focuses on BS, abuses of power, human folly, and hubris. This gives satirists a never-ending supply of material, regardless of who is in the White House.

If we look back on the comedy of a number of on-air satirists over the past four years, we see that there are quite a few who were never Trump-obsessed. Sure, Trump was a staple on both "The Late Show" hosted by Stephen Colbert and "Late Night" hosted by Seth Meyers, but a number of late-night comedians made a point of not letting Trump dominate their material.

Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, is one of the few late-night comedians to regularly satirize race relations on his show. One of his most viewed segments is "White People Unnecessarily Calling the Cops on Black People," which has been viewed over 11 million times. Noah also likes to cover a range of topics, especially global politics, that aren't personality-driven. In fact, only two Trump-related segments even show up in his top ten most-viewed segments.

In contrast, Trump is featured as the top-viewed segment of Samantha Bee, host of "Full Frontal." Her Full Frontal Investigation, "Trump Can't Read" was seen over 5 million times. Still, a number of her best segments are issue-driven, especially when she takes up gun violence or women's rights. Her second-most viewed segment, "Sam Has Had Enough of the Thoughts and Prayers for Gun Violence," has been seen over 3.6 million times.  

For a satirist like HBO's John Oliver, who tends to investigate complex issues and package them in ironic comedy, the question of who occupies the White House is of even less consequence. Segments on televangelistsmultilevel marketingsex educationtobacco and FIFA are perfect examples of how his work isn't going to change under Biden.

So, while it is true that we now have an administration in office that can speak English, name the branches of government, do basic math, and understand science, it doesn't mean that our nation's satirists won't have plenty of chances to mock what they find stupid, absurd, and unjust. Biden may have a new job in the White House, but that doesn't mean that the satirists will be out of work.  

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."

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