Jon Stewart's imitators have weaponized comedy in the Trump era

Jon Stewart was back in the news last week which may be what prompted Politico to publish a piece over the weekend looking at how comedy has changed in the Trump era. It turns out most of the comedians currently hosting shows with nightly or weekly political content all have a connection to Stewart. The core of the Politico piece is that Stewart presented comedy with a kind of ironic detachment which allowed him to occasionally go after both sides, even if he was obviously a progressive. But Stewart’s progeny have mostly dispensed with detachment and even-handedness in the Trump era. Now people like Samantha Bee are just trying to score partisan points:

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, [Delaware communications professor Dannagal ] 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.”…

On HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver, another “Daily Show” veteran, offers up even more facts: The central component of his show is a weekly Rachel Maddow-style lecture, only slightly more lighthearted, sprinkled with jokes that are often hilarious, but are also basically non sequiturs. The Netflix show, “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” (starring another “Daily Show” alum), and Seth Meyers’ “A Closer Look” segment on NBC’s “Late Night” serve up similar material. It’s comedy, in the sense that it contains setups and punch lines. But it isn’t necessarily fun.

Eventually, the piece points out that when Stewart turns up to do comedy it’s not like the satire he used to do, it’s more like the angry, not very funny, attack material used by everyone else:

In one Colbert appearance last summer, Stewart’s comic timing was as good as ever, but his rhetoric was less playful. “No matter what you do, it always comes with an extra layer of gleeful cruelty and dickishness,” he said, looking into the camera and addressing Trump directly. Then he turned to immigration, saying, again to Trump, “Boy, you f—ed that up.”

The audience laughed and cheered. But it wasn’t the kind of sharp satire that had made Stewart such a meaningful cultural figure in the first place.

The twist, as author Joanna Weiss sees it, is that Colbert and the comics he helped launch have adopted a style of comedy that has more in common with Trump himself: straight-forward, caustic, designed to win applause rather than laughs.

I think the author is right about the change that has occurred to comedy in the Trump era but I don’t think she has a handle on why. Stewart and his gang were always progressives but for eight years of the Obama administration, they had a leader in the White House whom they clearly liked and respected.

Back in 2010, Stewart and Colbert held the Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear in Washington, the point of which was to mock the seriousness of those (especially on Fox News) who were concerned about the direction Obama was taking the country. Mockery and satire made sense as a way to undercut the influence of anti-progressive voices. And it was okay to mock the left a bit too because, at the end of the day, their guy was in the White House.

But in the Trump era, the wrong person is in charge. Progressivism isn’t winning. And satire isn’t going to be enough to stop Trump. So the comics have moved to the outrage and clapper material that ignites the left-wing base.

All that to say, I think most observers underestimate the extent to which political comedy was strategically partisan all along. There was a time when satire was needed to go after the earnest conservatives who were concerned about Obama’s plan to fundamentally transform America. But they obviously don’t want to see Trump transform anything, so they’ve changed tactics to outright attacks on the opposition. But if another progressive wins the White House next year, the comedy will change back again to mocking the voices who raise alarms about where America is heading. Instead of ‘Orange Man Bad’ it will return to ‘Why so serious GOP?’ This is comedy in the service of partisan politics. That’s what it always was.