What (the Hell) Happened: Post-Trump Political Satire

Here’s the thing: Political satire—when it’s good—is the best. “The Onion” is hilarious, and so is “Veep.” “Saturday Night Live” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” are some of the sharpest political commentaries around. Satire serves a purpose—it makes news accessible, and it’s funny, and it’s the only media source so perfectly designed to wed the two.

Here’s something else: Donald Trump is inherently hilarious. It’s just a fact. For your average liberal, Trump all but writes his own jokes. In theory, our current political moment should be a godsend for the genre. How hard could it be to type up what he already does and slap a cover on it?

The answer, evidently, is “not hard enough.” For the past few years, bookstores have been steadily accruing Trump satire, and most of it is worrisomely bad. Think “A Child's Book of Trump,” or “Win Bigly.” None of these books received stellar reviews from major media establishments. Slate’s take on Alec Baldwin’s “You Can’t Spell America Without Me,” titled “Bad Impression,” speaks to comedy’s broader malaise. As Slate writer Jason Zinoman suggests, the current efforts are too one-dimensional, all the same fluffy take on a bizarre, serious topic.

It doesn’t take a careful analysis of Baldwin’s book to draw the same conclusion. The first page of “You Can’t Spell America” reads, “It was in January 1986, the day the space shuttle blew up, so tragic, but I was in a fabulous mood. My first casino in Atlantic City was doing unbelievably great.” That’s how Baldwin’s Trump goes—too many commas, à la the President’s tweets, and no deeper joke than the President’s blind selfishness and crass mannerisms. Hillary Clinton was right to ask: “What happened?” When liberal America needs a nervous laugh more than ever, why can’t it get one?

The obvious answer—and the right one—is that Donald Trump is too extreme to be rotely parodied. He takes something superficially funny (the bluster, the hair) and makes it deadly serious. One year in, and he’s clearly not joking.

Comedy has struggled hugely (or “yugely,” as the case may be) to speak to both aspects of the Trump phenomenon. Usually, modern Trump comedy errs on the side of easy humor with a touch of desperation. “You Can’t Spell America Without Me” dubs itself a “so-called parody,” and the blurb for “A Child’s Book of Trump” says the book “would be hysterical if it wasn’t so true.” But the problem with cheap laughs is that they’re just not that funny. A year ago, Stephen Colbert aired a sketch comparing Trump jokes to Oreos: delicious, tempting, and decidedly unhealthy. Gross caricatures of Trump are only interesting for their shock value and palatability. Neither are four-year commodities. Both are now being stretched beyond their potential.

In the short term, however, Trump comedy still sells beautifully. Modern presidential humor is mostly superficial, and though it’s never very funny, people are going to keep buying it. It’s capitalistic. It’s cathartic.

So, what the hell happened? Authentic satire is hard, and the current strategy (Colbert’s Oreos) is so easy. In the White House and the comedy section alike, the only real solution is to wait it out.

—Staff Writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at


Recommended Articles