The Whiplash Decade

The Decade Political Comedy Stopped Being Funny

Remember when you could actually laugh at a president?

This piece is part of the The Whiplash Decade, a package on the wild ride that was the 2010s.

TThe 2010s was the decade political comedy became unwatchable. I turned it off, not as a conscious decision, but as a result of politics fatigue. At the beginning of the decade, when I was still in college, forming my opinions about the world, I looked to comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as political authorities. But hardened by the Trump era, disillusioned with not only our farce of a political system, but a mass media that encourages our worst impulses, I increasingly look for solace outside of the news — which is why it doesn’t make me laugh anymore.

Stewart and Colbert were always at their best when they had something to parody. Stewart had his twist on the solemn, desk-bound news anchor when he took over The Daily Show in 1999, and Colbert in 2005 introduced us to an opinion-beast in the Bill O’Reilly mode. By 2010, Stewart and Colbert had been comfortably lampooning pre-existing structures for much of the new millennium, exposing the buffoonery of the politically influential. It was a kind of comedy that seamlessly moved what seemed like an impossible political divide — from the Bush administration to the Obama administration — but the smoothness of that transition belied how little had actually changed. The players were different, but the institutions were the same.

Everything changed in 2015, as the election cycle kicked into gear. Stephen Colbert ended The Colbert Report the year before, putting his right-wing pundit caricature to rest in order to host The Late Show on CBS. In his new position on network TV, no longer playing a character, he continued to joke about politics, but his new persona was significantly more tame. Soon after, Jon Stewart left The Daily Show in April 2015, and was replaced by Trevor Noah, who was competent, but lacked the je ne sais quoi of his predecessor.

Donald Trump’s presidential bid upended the foundation on which political comedians relied: pointing out hidden injustices, the doublespeak of politicians, the hypocrisies of the powerful.

It wasn’t just the end of Stewart and Colbert’s epic late-night tenures that signified political comedy was in trouble. 2015 was also the year that Donald Trump, then a Republican presidential candidate, hosted Saturday Night Live. The 40-year-old show had been in a slump at the beginning of the decade. Sketches poked fun at little known politicians, such as emerging Tea Party Republicans like Christine O’Donnell, who vied for Joe Biden’s empty senate seat in 2010, receiving much media attention for once admitting that she dabbled in witchcraft. Their Obama character was a problem too: Fred Armisen tried out the role first in what has been described as “honeyface,” and in 2012, the show smartly replaced him with Jay Pharoah, an expert impressionist who was able to emulate Obama’s distinctive pattern of speech.

Trump provided a welcome relief, a walking parody of himself. One of the first sketches that night, “White House 2018,” imagined Trump’s first term in office, complete with an Ivanka cameo. “Prosperity is high,” observed Bobby Moynihan, playing a Trump cabinet member. “You really made America great again... Everyone loves the new laws you tweeted.” At the end of the sketch, Trump made an earnest appeal to the audience: “If you think that’s how it’s going to be when I’m president, you’re wrong. It’s going to be even better.”

As Donald Trump’s presidential bid went from waggish long shot to terrifying sure thing, he upended the foundation on which political comedians relied: pointing out hidden injustices, the doublespeak of politicians, the hypocrisies of the powerful. Politics for the first part of the 21st century weren’t obviously funny or explicitly loony, but comedians like Stewart saw the underlying truth: it was a farce, and the hubris of the people leading the country were materially damaging our lives. Stewart and his ilk were the court jesters, mocking the kings. But then Trump, an orange-skinned jester, became the king himself.

Four year later, Saturday Night Live’s political sketches are now extra stale, in part because they are structurally identical to what the show was doing before Trump — as far as SNL is concerned, nothing had really changed. Kate McKinnon’s Elizabeth Warren is a dead ringer for Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton. Alec Baldwin’s Trump, in a bad toupee with a mouth full of spit, isn’t parodying the president, but simply imitating him. Trump, after all, performs the job of the political comedian, saying the quiet part loud, clowning around with power.

On cable and streaming services, comedians began leaning into the politics side of their job as a response to the changing political media and landscape. The network late-night hosts of the Trump era generally joke about politics while adhering to the mainstream center-left orthodoxy, occasionally entering into cringey resistance territory. Colbert remains smart, his natural comedic ability continues to shine, but he’s much fuzzier now than when he was on cable, doing Game of Thrones impeachment bits. Meanwhile Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, a naturally empty and fundamentally apolitical specimen, frequently jokes about Trump, mostly because he faces tough competition from Colbert and politics is in vogue, so he simply must. (Perhaps it’s a sort of cosmic punishment for the Trump hair tousle incident of September 2016.) Fallon’s requisite politics-related material has his distinctly fluffy signature, almost offensively mild, always utterly “Jimmy” — for a while he was recapping Trump’s tweets in a rap every week, and occasionally he oranges up and busts out his own impression.

Nothing is really funny anymore—comedy has to be important. It aligned with a shifting cultural expectation that pop culture ought to address big political issues

The spawn of Jon Stewart — Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Hasan Minhaj, the last correspondent hired directly by Stewart — landed their own late-night political commentary programs. Oliver in particular, whose show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver premiered in April 2014 on HBO, was able to foresee the next phase of left-wing comedy. Each episode was not merely an opportunity to tell jokes, but an opportunity to educate the audience about important social issues and the hidden injustices of the world. Although The Daily Show was treated as a news source by many, it always asserted itself as a comedy show about the news; Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, on the other hand, is a news show with the occasional joke.

Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj took the comedy show as lecture circuit one step further. Episodes of Patriot Act include “Protests in Sudan,” “The NRA’s Global Impact,” and “Censorship in China.” There’s nothing especially funny about the information he’s putting forth; and as I watched him explain what “consent decrees” are to the audience, it doesn’t seem like Minhaj was really going for funny. Nothing is really funny anymore—comedy has to be important. It aligned with a shifting cultural expectation that pop culture ought to address big political issues (The Cut’s Molly Fischer called this “pop culture’s great awokening”).

Both are quality shows, taking the well-documented trend of young people getting their news from late-night comedy shows to its logical conclusion. Still, I stopped watching Last Week Tonight in 2016, not because John Oliver did anything wrong, but rather because my social media feeds and my conversations with my family and friends became increasingly dominated by our dire political situation, and I primarily watch television to relax, not to feel distressed by the overwhelming injustice of the world. I’m burnt out on politics — it’s just not funny.

Columnist for GEN • Have also written for: the New York Times, NYMag, Vice, et al. • Subscribe to my newsletter: eve.substack.com

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