It’s much more likely that Trump is a symptom, or at least a correlate, rather than a cause of whatever has drained the funny from traditional joke telling. The explanation may be as simple as this: We have witnessed the death of an art form. Stand-up joke telling has died in the same way that some of us of a certain age have watched the Broadway musical die, and as our lucky grandparents before us watched the operetta die. (I would have paid to see that.) Jokes that nearly everyone understands as jokes require shared assumptions, even a broad reservoir of lightheartedness and goodwill, and we no longer share those in our fractured republic. Humor has been privatized.
While feeling terrible for the Times interns, we should reserve some sympathy for the comedians and their writers. They must be miserable. Colbert, the Jimmies Kimmel and Fallon, Corden, and the others have shown genuine comedic gifts in earlier phases of their career. Surely they don’t pay top dollar to hire subpar writers to furnish them with non-jokes and pull their slack marionette strings. It can’t be fun, much less funny, feeding line after line to a studio audience only to elicit what Seth Meyers—in an earlier, funnier phase of his career—called “clapter.” Meyers coined the term to describe a reaction that’s 2 percent laughter and 98 percent applause, a way for an audience to let the joke teller and one another know that they’re all on the same team. Still, the videos on the Times’ “Best of Late Night” page show the studio audiences clapting to the point of seizure, five nights a week. I can’t image how they keep it up. Maybe they get a popper of amyl nitrate with their Late Show tote bags.