The 2016 election was obviously pivotal for many reasons, including for members of the comedy community. As is the case with many others, the outcome would impact them directly—the line that was repeated relentlessly was “Trump will be great for comedy.” People seem to assume that comedians should be ecstatic about his election since it opens up so many doors for the craft, but, believe it or not, comedians are also people who are equally worried about what will come next. A vast number of people are worried about Trump being in a position of power—comedians just know how to funnel that.
In the year since, there has been a noticeable shift in the political and comedic landscapes. Politics has become more akin to entertainment, with news updates feeling like plot twists. The shift towards political comedy is being felt on many levels—Oprah is in the headlines as a potential candidate after all. There are also the late night talk shows and political satirists that thrive in this environment, but I’m referring to everyone else. John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel are succeeding in the footsteps of Jon Stewart, but John Mulaney, Marc Maron, and Sarah Silverman are turning to this type of humor as well.
Jerry Seinfeld became the highest grossing comedian of all time by making jokes about the most insignificant things. From his eponymous TV show to his standup specials to his series about riding around in cars and getting coffee, everything he does is about, well, nothing. Andy Kaufman, The Three Stooges, Steve Martin, and many more made their names by making people laugh—and leaving it at that. No metaphors, no deeper meaning, nothing.
Post Trump, there seems to be an obligation to make jokes “mean” something. In his most recent tour, John Mulaney said, “Building a gazebo during the middle of the Civil War is like doing comedy now.” Not helping the resistance is almost immoral in the comedy world now.
With that in mind, we are seeing plenty of new stand-up specials and shows pop up. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee premiered during the 2016 election, The Jim Jefferies Show began in 2017, and after both of them came The Opposition with Jordan Klepper. All three are similarly formatted political satires with a host talking to a camera about a range of politically oriented topics. In other genres, Sarah Silverman debuted her show I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman, in which she shows the benefit of opening a dialogue between people with differing opinions. She hopes to close the intense divide that currently plagues the US.
On the stand-up comedy front, Judah Friedlander released America is the Greatest Country in the United States, in which he adlibs off of crowd interaction to satirize problematic points of view. Marc Maron opened his 2017 special Too Real by doing a long bit about his overwhelming fear of Trump, and how he can only find common ground with supporters through Tom Petty—who, in a morbidly ironic turn of events, died shortly after the special’s release. Even John Mulaney did a bit about how Trump is like a horse in a hospital in the same special mentioned above, saying, “Like I think everything’s going to be OK, but I have no idea what’s going to happen next. And none of you know either. We’ve all never not known together.”
All of these comedians, and many more, are sticking to this trend. Unfortunately, the intention behind these actions may get lost in transmission. According to a recent study conducted by Comedy Central, the median age of the audience is 29 years old, with most of the viewership coming from the 18-34 age range. Additionally, according to a Brookings Institute report, only 26% of youth are conservative. The demographic that is watching comedy is millennials, especially men, and this demographic is overwhelmingly not conservative. Comedians may be trying to send a message to a wider audience about politics, but the ones listening already agree. Comedy events are more along the lines of echo chambers than they are revolutionary political manifestos.
In the same Comedy Central study, we find young people are comfortable with uncomfortable truths. Hearing something that goes against their beliefs, especially in a comedic context, is interesting and entertaining. When a liberal comedian presents their beliefs, a liberal audience finds it entertaining, while the intended audience will likely never hear it.
John Oliver and Sarah Silverman make active efforts to introduce campaigns and perform segments in their programs that reach larger audiences, but the vast majority do not. It is important to realize the audience’s demographic for work in this field, because oversaturation of a market can happen quickly—there are only so many ways to call someone orange. Comedians in 2018 must realize that politically fueled comedy will always have a place, but so will comedy fueled by the most mundane parts of life. It’s ok to tell a joke and laugh just for the sake of laughing.