These comedians made their names poking fun at Trump. The election may change that
I am not about to make any predictions as to the results of Tuesday’s election — if there will even be a Tuesday result — but I can say with some assurance that if the incumbent loses, we will be entering a different era of Web-based comedy.
This long moment has created at least one bona fide star in Sarah Cooper, who famously embodies President Trump to the soundtrack of his own voice, and who has made a Netflix special, subbed for Jimmy Kimmel and appeared at the Democratic National Convention. But plenty of others have made a mark in the world of sociopolitical miniature comedy and seen their stars rise in the Trump era.
The president is always the biggest target in town, of course, and because Trump is so far out of the norm — every norm you can think of, really — he, and the culture that has grown up around him, is a more tempting target than usual: the broad side of a barn that begs to be hit. You can count on a hand or two the comical pratfalls and supposed faux pas of past presidents — choking on a pretzel, wearing a tan suit — but in this administration, nearly every day brings something amazing, the satire that writes itself.
The forces shaping this do not all emanate from the White House, to be sure. Social media, which has coalesced around short-form expression, has made comical comment all the easier, if not inevitable, not the least because that is where the president himself may be found. TikTok, a favored platform for this kind of performance, launched in China in 2016 and elsewhere in 2017, the year Trump took office. And there is the added effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made social media even more of a distraction. Indeed, we might have come to the point where what we used to call real life is a distraction from social media.
For some of us, these clips and posts have been a relief, islands of amusing calm in a roiling sea of insanity. Like a jug of wine shared around a beatnik campfire, they bind us and define us. (Maybe the most important thing you can know about a person is what they find funny.) Recognizing your tribe, you feel seen — through your screen — in turn.
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Bite-sized, the best beg to be replayed, like a video of a goat/cat/elephant/baby dressed as Eugene Levy you let repeat 20 times and then urge upon your significant other. Like all comedy, these clips are not just about the “subject matter”; they are about comedy itself, the physics of tension and release, the pie that hits you from the side when you are expecting it in your face. (And they are short: It behooves an internet comedian not to go on too long, at least until she’s able to post 10-minute highlights from her TV special.)
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That they are about Trump, or whomever, is only part of the point, and not necessarily the greater part. They are satisfying not because they “own” the conservatives, if you will, but because they are funny; the pleasure is in the performance. When U.K. comedian Sooz Kempner delivers Trump speeches in the person of Liza Minnelli, it’s less a political statement than a theatrical concept, like an old-school impressionist’s “What if John Wayne taught drivers ed? It might go something like this.”
Still, the idea speaks to the madness of the moment. Like Cooper, Kempner takes Trump at his verbatim word — that is, takes his words — and applies a twist. She has a channel on Twitch, has made regular appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and often performs with Richard Thomas (composer of “Jerry Springer: The Opera”), but I never would have known of her if not for her brilliant series of pond-crossing Trump as Liza/Liza as Trump videos, in which she applies Minnelli’s wide-eyed, careering excitability to his wayward ramblings. “I got incredible care at Walter Reed. Incredible dok-tahs! And this medicine in pa-tic-u-lah, one medicine it was unbelievable! [Sings:] You’re goin’ to get the same medicine. You’re going to get it free! [Jazz hands:] No charge!”
Something more than mockery is going on here. There is also a kind of sympathy that comes with getting inside a character; targets are not simply insulted, as Trump and his court jesters are wont to do, but inhabited. There is something surprisingly complex about Brent Terhune‘s Redneck You All Love to Hate character, with his catchphrase “I don’t thank so!,” who goes on about “Dumbocrats” and the “lamestream media and Warshington Compost” and “Karmela Harris” and has been mistaken for real from the right and the left.
That it does not take a particularly close reading to recognize the irony in the Redneck’s rantings — “All you sheep are criticizing Trump for backing out of the debate in the first place, well of course he backed out. … It’s much easier to not condemn white supremacy when you’re not allowed to ask about it in the first place” — speaks to Terhune’s well-rounded conception and portrayal. His masterpiece, if such a word may apply, is “My Boat Sank in Lake Travis,” for its unexpected tenderness; draped in a towel, as if just pulled from the water, and close to tears, Terhune laments, “I don’t know what happened. I just think we had too many MAGA flags on the boat. I never thought I would say that.”
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Terhune, who has said he takes his subjects from what’s trending on social media in order to ride the algorithm, got that video up in short order. Particularly rapid in her responses is Blaire Erskine, who, like Terhune, takes a lo-fi, phone-shot selfie approach to her posts, which is to say they are practically indistinguishable from their non-satirical models. A clip in which she played an attendee at Trump’s Tuesday rally in Omaha, where supporters were left stranded in the cold, was posted that same night, before the virtual ink was dry on the metaphorical newsprint.
“I think he did this to teach us a lesson, I really do,” Erskine tells an implied interviewer. “What was that lesson? Well, that’s really not for me to know, and that’s actually pretty nasty of you to ask. Yes, I’ve seen some elderly people passed out and unresponsive, but to be honest, the only reason there’s so many of those people is that the media keeps counting them.” By Wednesday afternoon, it had been viewed 1.8 million times.
Erskine has a fresh-faced sorority sister look that lets her play a range of ages, and it tends to make you credit as genuine her most outlandish statements. She doesn’t do much physically to distinguish her characters, just a little something with her hair, or a hat, or perhaps a change of scene from room to car. Some are generic. There’s the woman angry because she can’t enter her daughter’s school without a mask: “I think they want the kids at school wearin’ masks so they can’t tell who’s a boy, who’s a girl, and then they end up in the bathroom having an accidental orgy, I think that’s what they want them to do, and that’s the rumor I’m going to start.” Or the undecided voter: “I can’t be a decided voter until I’ve read all the facts, and I refuse to read all the facts.”
But frequently she’ll play the supposed wife or daughter of a person in the news, as in the clip titled “I am PROUD of my mom, Amy Coney Barrett” (“I don’t know if you guys saw but Sen. Harris almost got my mom to admit that climate change is real, but thankfully my mom’s seen ‘Legally Blonde’ enough to know how this works”). Or, taking a break from conservatives, “I am Jeffrey Toobin’s daughter and I have some things to say!!” in which she is prompted by an offscreen parent to post a supportive message but goes off script.
“I know what my dad did was inappropriate, but you have to understand he’s very, very old and he still thinks it’s 2008 and in 2008 you could get away with stuff like that,” she says in the Toobin video. “It’s just crazy to me that this is what my dad is in the news for, like y’all aren’t even talking about that time he knocked up that much younger woman he was having an affair with and when she came to him like, ‘I’m pregnant,’ he was like, ‘Good luck,’ and she had to force him into taking a paternity test and paying child support.”
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Where Terhune and Erskine go lo-fi, Randy Rainbow applies a professional gloss to his productions. One of his devices is to cut himself into interviews with the president, always identified onscreen as “Donald Jessica Trump,” or to appear as the moderator of a Biden-Trump debate. These usually begin with some variation on “Welcome back,” as if we have just returned from a commercial break, and end, like all his posts, with a song parody, to a musical standard, such as “I Won’t Vote Trump” — to the tune of “I Won’t Grow Up,” from “Peter Pan” — “A Spoonful of Clorox” or “There Is Nothing Like a Wall.” Patti LuPone appears in one clip to duet on “If Donald Got Fired,” to the tune of “If Momma Was Married” from “Gypsy”: “If Donald got fired, would that be sublime? / I’d put down my bottles and bongs / I’d be back on Broadway and belting Sondheim instead of cheap internet parody songs.”
“I get it,” Randy tells the president, in a sympathetic tone, describing his method and the times. “I was once an aspiring comedian, just like you. I posted offensive things for shock value. The difference was I was doing it satirically, using irony and exaggeration to point out absurdity, saying and doing things through a persona that I wasn’t actually doing, kind of like how I’m not really at the White House with you right now — it’s just a green screen. But I changed my act when I realized there were actually awful things being actually said and done by actually awful people, just like you.”
The gentlest of all posters is Canada’s Stewart Reynolds, who goes by Brittlestar on Twitter and YouTube, and whose folksy video posts have the sheen of high-end ad spots. (He has a co-career in branding and marketing.) In his latest missive to the south (“Hi America, Canada here”), he sends what might be called warmly ironic words as “America the Beautiful” swells in the background: “There’s an old saying that goes kind of like this: You can always count on Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have exhausted every other possibility. I don’t know if you’ve been following the news lately, or for the past four years, but up here, I mean, we’re far from perfect, but we’re exhausted for you. I don’t know if anyone’s reminded you, but don’t forget to vote, eh?”
Well, don’t forget that. And don’t worry about these performers — it’s possible that some may fall prey to Vaughn Meader syndrome, the once-popular JFK impressionist whose career evaporated in the wake of the assassination, as Lenny Bruce famously predicted from the stage that night. But there is a lot of talent there, and the world and its problems, and its problematic people, will still have a long road to sanity whoever wins on Tuesday, or whatever day after Tuesday a winner is announced.
The best of times, the worst of times, the most absurd of times. We will need their like.
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