There’s no greater threat to the liberal establishment than Donald Trump. And in the past three years, something about comedy has shifted. In class, Young has her college students diagram late-night jokes and label the incongruities—the hidden arguments that aren’t actually stated in the text. When they come to the May 2018 moment when Samantha Bee, in a rant about immigration on her TBS show “Full Frontal,” called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c—,” the exercise breaks down. The line drew a laugh, but there was nothing to puzzle out. No irony, no distance. She just meant it.
“There was no incongruity in what she did,” says Young, whose upcoming book, Irony and Outrage, examines the psychological underpinnings of political entertainment. “I don’t care she’s used the c-word a bunch. I care that she, like, didn’t make a joke.”
Or maybe Bee had made a joke, but a joke for the era of Trump.
Like the red meat at Trump’s rallies, it was pitched to the base, satisfying in the way that calling someone a “libtard” feels for people on the right; less a wry observation than a hard push back against a persistent enemy or a looming threat. If Trump has changed the tone of the presidency, he’s done the same for TV humor, creating a kind of insult comedy for the Resistance: less subtle, less civil—and, strangely, more conservative.