Under The Threat of Authoritarianism, The Comedy Resistance Persists

The Three Stooges in "You Nazty Spy," released in 1940. 

The Three Stooges in "You Nazty Spy," released in 1940. 

At my office at MAD Magazine on Thursday I forced myself to watch part of Donald Trump's horrifying press conference. I watched because I felt that it was my job as a comedy writer to suffer through as much of it as I could stomach, which turned out to be around 20 minutes. It proved to be too much for me, as the weekend is upon us and I am still feeling nauseous from it.

At MAD we have been mocking Trump on an almost daily basis since he won the Republican nomination. For evidence, see our Facebook feed. I consider MAD, along with Saturday Night Live, Bill Maher, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and the other Daily Show alumni, as part of the comedy resistance. That said, I have no illusions as to our importance or impact. My biggest takeaway from the Presidential election is that humorists don't influence the course of nations anywhere near as much as the course of nations influence humorists.

MAD was certainly not in the tank for Hillary and we fired a fair share of pointed comedy shots at her. But Trump as a spoofable political target is in a class by himself. He is Richard Nixon squared, providing a steady stream of ugliness, nonsense and hypocrisy that demands ridicule. Noting this, many people have commented that comedy writers are going to have “a field day” over the next four years. Maybe so, but the field is a fetid swamp and we are up to our eardrums in toxic Trump muck.

Surely there are other things happening that are worthy of mockery. Are you following the New York Knicks? Did you happen to see the carpool karaoke version of “Sweet Caroline” at the Grammys? Have you seen “50 Shades Darker”? The world is still a very funny place. The problem for comedy writers is that turning away from Trump for as long as it takes to even quip about something else feels like a dereliction of duty.

Like everyone who didn’t vote for him, humorists are suffering from acute Trump fatigue. Making fun of Trump hasn’t been fun for us since he won the election, in part because we took his victory as a stinging professional defeat. It turns out that comedy writers, just like everyone else in the media, are preaching to the proverbial choir. The comedy audience, just like every other audience, is fragmented and trapped in an echo chamber of its own creation. It feels as though everyone’s position has already hardened to the point that there are no minds left to sway. What then is a comedy writer to do?

In the movie “Stardust Memories,” Woody Allen’s character encounters aliens who advise him, “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.” I’m all for that, but jokes to what end? Even if it’s true that laughter is the best medicine, we don’t need comedians now as much as we need satirists.

It was somewhat disheartening then to hear from a friend that Jerry Seinfeld, in a recent New York performance, did not mention Trump or address political issues even once in his 60+ minute set. As a long time Seinfeld fan, I hardly find that surprising, and yet it doesn’t sit right with me. With great comedy power comes great comedy responsibility.

This brings to mind The Three Stooges, those great slapstick comedians who are hardly remembered for their sharp political humor. But it was the Stooges – not Charlie Chaplin – who first satirized the Nazis in a Hollywood film. In 1940, nearly a year before shooting started on “The Great Dictator,” Columbia Pictures released “You Nazty Spy!” in which the Stooges lampoon Hitler, Goebbels, Göring and, for good measure, Mussolini. The following year, Moe, Larry and Curly reprised their Nazi roles in “I’ll Never Heil Again.” I don’t mean to pick on Jerry Seinfeld, who remains one of my favorite stand-ups, but if the Three Stooges, in all their over-the-top silliness, found a way to make two comedy shorts spoofing Hitler, couldn’t he have managed to serve up a few stinging Trump jokes?

For the record, I am not saying that Trump is Hitler or that Jerry Seinfeld is obligated to make fun of him. What I am saying is that we have seen enough of Trump to know that he has serious personality and character disorders which render him unfit for the Presidency. I am also saying that in this chilling political climate, we humorists, like all artists, define ourselves by the subjects we address – and avoid.

This then is absolutely not the time for us to surrender to Trump fatigue or indulge in self-pity over the limits of comedy’s political influence. With the threat of authoritarianism looming, sharp and revealing satire is essential to a healthy national dialogue. And so this weekend, when Trump holds a campaign style rally in Florida, I will push myself to watch. For American satirists, it is a must-see event.