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Comedy in the Age of President-Elect Trump


Comedians are having trouble laughing at president-elect Donald Trump. It’s easy to assume Trump is a gift for comedy, like a never-ending punch line. But for comics who feel confused, angered, or personally targeted by Trump’s win, making light of the next four years is no joke. Katherine Sullivan reports.

The night after this past year’s election, November 9th, stand-up comedian Phil Stamato tweeted: “Performing comedy tonight would feel like showing up at a funeral and only talking about Pokemon with the family of the departed.”

STAMATO 1: The person whose show I was hosting messaged me and was like, you are performing comedy tonight. And I was like, Oh damn.

So, Phil walked onto the stage of a monthly comedy show in a Chelsea lounge.

((SOUND: “MR. PHIL STAMATO…..”))

STAMATO 2: I went up and said, “How’s everybody doing? Feel free to lie!” (0:10)

It seemed this audience of NY liberals was there to escape the events of the past 24 hours.

STAMATO 3: And I was like, do we want to talk about or do we want to just pretend it didn’t happen be as happy as we can? And people went with that second option. (0:10)

Despite the discomfort, one study suggests this might be the best time to bring up sensitive subjects on stage. A 2012 study from the University of Michigan said viewers of late-night satire are more likely to discuss and debate politics.

But how to satirize Trump?

May Wilkerson is another New York based stand-up comedian. She describes herself as a feminist comic who has never shied away from political jokes.

((SOUND: “Introducing May Wilkerson….”))

WILKERSON 1: I would talk about Trump in this dystopian, like the worst thing ever…and if people agreed with me they were really on board, and if people didn’t they would just like shut down and hate me.

Like many comics, May’s comedy is deeply personal. But her politics sometimes became a liability. She made jokes about public perceptions of Hillary Clinton.

WILKERSON 2: When I would make jokes about HRC people would boo. Like if there were Trump supporters in the audience they would boo. I’d try to power ahead and just be funny. But it’s hard when people are just like so angry and heated. (0:19)

Because of these reactions, because you never who may be in your audience, Some comedians just avoid politics altogether. At Wilkerson’s first show after the election at New York Comedy Club, not one comic addressed it. One after the other got up without even mentioning the one thing on everyone’s mind.

WILKERSON 3: I understand why you need to do this, that this is their livelihood and that this is what these people want to laugh at it but I feel like screaming WAKE UP SHEEPLE, but ya know, that’s not my comedic voice.

Wilkerson and Stamato agree writing original jokes about Trump is harder than it seems. Comics are trying different ways to satirize a man that seems stranger than fiction.

STAMATO 4: I’m going through a thing where I compare Trump to the Roman emperor Caligula and point out all the ways that Caligula would have been a better president than Trump so far. In his appointments where he like made his horse a senator and it’s like a horse wouldn’t be that bed to have in office compared to like, neo-Nazis. (0:20)

He says so far, that joke hasn’t gone over so well.

Hard as it is to make like-minded audiences laugh, it’s even more difficult is connecting with people with totally opposite views. Wilkerson say this is something everybody in the industry is struggling with.

WILKERSON 4: I would love to make Trump voters laugh. I mean I wish they would stop yelling out during my sets.

The comedy industry is overwhelmingly left-leaning, so Trump supporters might always feel alienated in comedy clubs. But that’s not stopping Wilkerson from questioning her approaches.

WILKERSON 5: One thing liberal comics are going to have to work on that I personally know I need to work is being less condescending when i talk about people I disagree with.

It’s a tough balance to find when writing jokes.

WILKERSON 6: We have to question our beliefs now, we have to listen to people more. Comedy is going to get interesting.

The question is: Will it still be funny?

Katherine Sullivan, Columbia Radio News.

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