Politics are a joke, and right now, more folks want to laugh than cry over the state of the union.
For proof, look no further than the unlikely ratings success of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” and on a platform designed in a much tamer, apolitical era. Colbert has trounced the competition thanks largely to his eviscerating political humor — a talent that, in any other era, would have alienated more viewers than it attracted.
And when ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel began spending more time on his own show lampooning D.C.’s drainless swamp, his show went from amusing background viewing to a water-cooler event. People even began to notice that Seth Meyers had a late-night show (it’s coincidentally called “Late Night With Seth Meyers”) when Trump took office, and the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member began drilling down nightly on the “wannabe dictator” and all-around “weird man” occupying the White House.
The more extreme the picture on Capitol Hill, the more extreme comedy about America’s seat of of power has become. While the role of congenial late-night host has largely morphed from witty entertainer to sharp-tongued political satirist, cage-rattling comedians with series and specials on HBO, Netflix and Comedy Central have had to outmaneuver already absurd headlines to get laughs.
They’re flipping a convention as old as television — that comics appealing to a wide, national TV audience should tread lightly around Beltway topics for fear of offending viewers or worrying sponsors (because even Alka-Seltzer gets queasy).
It’s a far cry from the days when getting political on terrestrial TV meant Jay Leno joking about Barack Obama’s oversize ears, Conan O’Brien making fun of George W. Bush’s inability to pronounce “nuclear” and David Letterman strategically pausing when using “Bill Clinton” and “blue dress” in the same sentence. And then they all moved on to other subjects with the same levity, be it Brangelina, the skyrocketing price of gas or the old sexist standby … Dolly Parton’s cup size.
But that doesn’t mean comedians have a clear playing field. Just ask Kathy Griffin or Roseanne Barr. Or this week, Kevin Hart.
The new rules in this era of political comedy? Don’t push your material anywhere near The Red Line. Or the line in the sand. Or too far.
How far is too far? The border between wickedly funny and downright offensive isn’t easy to find. It seems to move mysteriously, like the tides, but influenced by the pull of the news cycle. It’s also a conditional boundary depending on the performer’s gender — women mysteriously step over the line way more than men — and how preoccupied an easily enraged social media happens to be when a comedian drops an offending witticism.
Yet we’re still willing to take down comedians who overshoot that illusive border, and that list of martyrs is growing.
Queen of snark Griffin lost much of her empire after she posed for a photo in 2017 holding a mask that was made to look like a beheaded Donald Trump. Critics pounced and she apologized, but Griffin was still dropped from her CNN New Year’s Eve hosting gig with Anderson Cooper and lost several more high-profile gigs. Social media created its own volatile weather system filled with angry/happy emojis, for-and-against posts and GIFs that made no sense but OMG so funny!
Griffin, who later took back her apology (“You can hate that picture … but it’s important to know it wasn’t against the law”), said she was questioned for two months by the FBI and placed on the no-fly list. “I probably got a little lazy during Obama, thinking this was now going to be the future,” she told GQ over the summer. “We've had our first African American president; we're going to have our first female. I didn't know it was going to [expletive] turn into ‘The Handmaid's Tale.’ The [crap] I've been through in the last year is just unbelievable.”
Then there’s Michelle Wolf, whose shot at the big time hit a brick wall when she hosted the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner. The comedian riffed about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway and Trump, among others, upsetting conservative critics who were uncomfortable with her “crass” routine. The White House Correspondents Assn., which recently announced it would not invite a comedian to host next year’s dinner, apologized almost immediately for Wolf’s routine (she did not), and her ensuing Netflix series “The Break” was canceled after only three months and 10 episodes.
Hart, who broke comedy records with more than a million tickets sold for his current Irresponsible Tour, was set to host the Oscars but stepped down this week after homophobic tweets he posted between 2009 and 2011 surfaced on Thursday.
How Hart handled the criticism is still being debated — many demanded he step down, “The View's” Joy Behar defended the comedian, and GLAAD said he shouldn't have opted out of the hosting gig but have used the platform to educate. What's clear is that his jokes from nearly 10 years ago, considered funny by many at the time, are not funny anymore. The landscape has changed, especially around jokes about women, blacks and LGBTQ issues, though some groups — such as Mexicans and Muslims — still appear to be fair game by some comics.
Comedians speaking their mind in a hyper-reactive ecosystem might be richly rewarded for their brash candor or taken down.
TBS’ Samantha Bee (who found herself in the hot seat earlier this year for an Ivanka Trump comment), HBO’s John Oliver, Netflix’s Hasan Minhaj and Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah are among those who’ve thrived delivering punchlines that might have killed their television aspirations a couple decades ago. It’s no coincidence all came from (or are still with) “The Daily Show.” Meanwhile, HBO’s Bill Maher, who lost his ABC show “Politically Incorrect” in 2001 over a 9/11 comment, was just celebrated by politicians and celebrities in October for 25 years in television.
It’s a crowded field, but there’s no shortage of material. Angry White House press briefings, contested midterm-election results, flubbed G-20 appearances and blood-red Christmas trees are ripe for the picking.
This bounty of riches isn’t, of course, the catalyst for a bipartisan comedy revolution. The movement leans left and rarely if ever veers in the other direction.
Barr was the exception to that rule before she also went too far doing the thing people wanted to see her do — be obnoxious, unPC and full of contempt for those around her who drank the Kool-Aid of media outlets that weren’t Fox News.
A veteran at courting controversy, Barr began to feel the heat after she came out in support of Trump, tweeted seriously about her belief in alt-right conspiracy theories and posted fake news in earnest. She recanted after she falsely accused a Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivor of giving a Nazi salute at a March for Our Lives rally. Calls for a “Roseanne” reboot boycott were growing before Barr posted the racist comments that resulted in her being fired from her own show.
Of course there are still those who prefer to remain largely apolitical, including “The Tonight Show’s” Jimmy Fallon. Though he goes back and forth with Colbert for the top spot in the race for adults 18-49, his overall viewership has suffered in the face of Colbert’s pointed Jared Kushner jokes and Kimmel’s suggestions on how to pay for Trump’s wall. But if Fallon waits it out, his time may come again, when escapism wins out over Oval Office satire and the old pie-in-the-face routine returns to reclaim its former glory.
Until then, the joke’s on politics, and comedians are dancing over the line, hoping they’re agile enough to avoid becoming the next punchline.