Much has been said about the media echo chamber and its contribution to our hyper-partisan politics, but not about the comedy echo chamber. Let’s face it, Trump is funny and fun to dump on, providing wave after wave of material often predicated on simply repeating Trump’s own, shoot from the hip words. Trump is to comedy as 9/11 was to CNN, with ratings fueling partisanship because, as Forbes noted, “Dumping On Trump Pays Off For Late-Night TV Shows.”
Before the elections, Stephen Colbert consistently ranked third behind the less partisan Jimmy’s: Fallon and Kimmel. Now, with his nightly Trump flayings as the “Anxiety Translator” for liberals, Colbert is vying to topple Fallon as king and consistently beats Kimmel for second.
But in many ways, comedy is missing the mark in actually helping Americans deal with President Trump, a political phenomenon who is not black, not white but shockingly orange. Samantha Bee on “Full Frontal” may be the comic who has most consistently turned the Michelle Obama mantra on its head: “When they go low, we go lower.” Going comic medieval has paid off for Bee. With pink-power, expletive-filled, anti-Trump fury, Bee has seen a 37% ratings increase among the prized 18-49 advertising market.
In an outstanding tour d’horizon of today’s comedy, Caitlin Flanagan grills Samantha Bee in the May latest edition of The Atlantic as probably the nastiest of the late night comedians—and not in the good (i.e., Hillary) kind of nasty. Flanagan recounts a story of Bee and her crew tricking a child into a humiliating prop role as a Trump ignoramus, noting that “Trump and Bee share a penchant for verbal cruelty and a willingness to mock the defenseless. Both consider self-restraint, once the hallmark of the admirable, to be for chumps.”
John Oliver’s most watched show on “This Week Tonight” revealed that the Trump family had once been the “Drumpfs,” seeing a 33% ratings surge. Flanagan notes that on Oliver’s show, even on complex and challenging issues like abortion, Oliver demonstrates his belief that he and his fans “are intellectually and morally superior to those who espouse any of the beliefs of the political right.”
Before the election, new Daily Show host Trevor Noah hoped to transcend party lines: “I guess my long-term vision of the show is… More pointing out the folly on both sides.” But since the elections, Noah has rarely invited conservatives onto his show. For Noah, it may be personal; he may see Trump as a spiritual heir to the apartheid regime that launched and still haunts his comedic vision. Noah is the only comedian to label the Trump Presidency, without irony, “the Trump Regime.” Since Trump’s victory, Noah has sharpened his tone further, enjoying an 8% increase in ratings. Noah clearly assumes only anti-Trump viewers are watching when he says, quite seriously, “I know we all agree that Donald Trump is going to destroy the earth.”
Many Americans no doubt see current late night comedians as liberal elites repeating Hillary’s mistake of Dissing Deplorables and other forgotten Americans. When Trump supporters look at Oliver, Noah, Bee and the other comedians belittling Trump and his supporters, they see an extension of the “Fake News Media Empire.” As Flanagan argues in The Atlantic, “Sneering hosts have alienated conservatives and made liberals smug." She continues "No wonder so many of Trump’s followers are inclined to believe only the things that he or his spokespeople tell them directly—everyone else on the tube thinks they’re a bunch of trailer-park, Oxy-snorting half-wits who divide their time between retweeting Alex Jones fantasies and ironing their Klan hoods.”
Because of its overt political agenda, late night comedy seems to be more regularly violating the comedic Hippocratic Oath: Above All, Do No Unfunny. When the main point of comedy is to attack, vs. being funny, it loses effectiveness. Comedy that seeks balance brings people together and is often spectacular. Before the elections, Saturday Night Live was praised for having Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon break character as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and lower political tensions with a magical romp around Times Square.
After the election, SNL lampooned liberals living in a bubble of denial over Trump’s victory and others wanting to kill a pro-Trump pug empowered to speak his mind through advanced technology. Samantha Bee invited Glenn Beck to an hysterical Christmas sweater encounter to promote comity. Even the efforts that fail to achieve comedic gold are a welcome cease-fire, such as Jimmy Fallon’s skit on Republicans and Democrats finding common ground.
With a little creativity, comedy could be fertile ground for reconfirming the basic truth that good Americans occupy both sides of this battle. Less political sites like Funny or Die and College Humor can poke fun at both sides and raise bipartisan awareness of issues like fake news. Rare conservative comics like Dennis Miller could team up with liberal comedians in shows to poke fun at each other while highlighting the vast common areas Americans share.
Humor could energize and project the message of nonpartisan, pro-civility groups like The Bridge Alliance that fail to satisfy mainstream media cravings for drama. Humor can bring Members of Congress together, creating more Ronald Reagan/Tip O’Neil friendships to open the doors for dialogue and compromise, like the humor-filled friendship between Senators John McCain and Al Franken.
Our colleges are a mess and increasingly hostile to intellectual diversity. Humor can counter intolerance of the left and right on college campuses, foster better dialogue and debate, and help end what The Atlantic has described as the “Coddling of the American Mind.” As Bill Maher notes regarding the Ann Coulter/Berkeley brouhaha, banning conservatives from speaking on college campuses today is "The liberal's version of book burning." Ideologically mixed comedy platforms can bring together thought leaders from all sides on campus and around the nation, forcing people out of their echo chambers to hear opposing thoughts.
So comedy itself can be a powerful vehicle for opening the door out of the comedy echo chamber—and the broader American echo chamber. The alternative to breaking out of the echo chamber is likely more of what Flanagan describes as “A race to the bottom, as the crudeness of the president is matched by that of ‘the resistance,’ with all of us being judged by how well—how thoroughly and consistently and elaborately—we can hate each other.”
Komodia believes that such a future would kind of suck.