Is ‘President Trump’ Funny? Late-Night Reconsiders What’s Good for a Laugh

SNL Trump Clinton Saturday Night Live
Dana Edelson/NBC

Stephen Colbert had packed a veritable arsenal of Donald Trump jokes for a live special broadcast of his program on Showtime on Election Night. A cartoon poked fun at the candidate’s thin skin and questionable temperament. And actress Laura Berlanti, who has won acclaim for her hilarious, note-perfect impression of Trump’s wife, Melania, took up the role again, suggesting she may have voted for another candidate.

A few nights ago, that material would have killed. But as election results continued to pour in late Tuesday evening, one thing became clear: Colbert was lampooning America’s next President – and the next First Lady.

The nation’s late-night hosts have for months let loose with a steady barrage of one-liners, sketches and bits, all poking fun at Donald Trump. As it turns out, a good portion of the audience wasn’t in on the jokes. Now that Trump has won the race for the White House, there’s a growing sense that many of the comedians who won notice for tackling his foibles as a candidate need to consider the fact that a significant percentage of the populace supports his campaign initiatives.

“I imagine we’re going to see some soul-searching among elite, left-leaning comics,” said Danna Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication who has studied TV’s late-night shows for more than 15 years. “They are going to have to deal with the fact that half of the country felt heard by this man.”

A good portion of the late-night crowd has used Trump to full effect. NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” has seen some of its best ratings in years, thanks in part to Alec Baldwin’s depiction of Trump in recent weeks as a Ku Klux Klan-kissing egomaniac (It’s not clear if Baldwin signed on to do the impression for the entire season, and an NBC spokeswoman for the program declined to discuss the status of Baldwin’s ties to the show). Likewise, NBC’s Seth Meyers has seen his profile rise by offering smart political commentary on the election – and Trump – with its signature “A Closer Look” segments. Meyers even not-so-jokingly banned Trump from his program, “Late Night” after he made efforts to block the Washington Post from covering his campaign.

Trevor Noah has examined the implications of a Trump presidency on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” going so far in a recent episode to report from the not-so-distant future, after Trump had taken office. On TV and Twitter, Colbert has made no secret of his dislike for Trump’s positions and personality. And TBS’ Samantha Bee has used her relatively young “Full Frontal” to express outrage at a candidate she has referred to as everything from “America’s burst appendix” to a “melting hunk of uninformed apricot Jell-O.” John Oliver has spent an ever-increasing amount of time analyzing the candidate on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.” Even Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien, three hosts not known for getting overtly political, have made Trump a mainstay of their opening monologues.

Johnny Carson rarely wore his politics on his sleeve, and with good reason. Such stuff can divide the audience a late-night host wants to watch. “It’s one thing to use humor to point out the ridiculousness of politics but another to use humor to shame people. The humor in this election cycle became an occasion to preach to people and persuade them of the wrongness of their political opinions,” said Steven Benko, an assistant professor of religious and ethical studies at Meredith College. “What we saw with this election is that there were a large number of people who were being missed and they seemed to take it very personally about how they were not being included in culture.”

“My guess is the people who voted for Trump don’t enjoy these people and see their material as elite condescension and have tuned them out.” said Jeffrey Jones, author of “Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement,” and the director of director of the George Foster Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia. “I’m sure industry executives are going to think about this.”

They have some room to maneuver. Late-night TV has become increasingly reliant on digital distribution for its buzz. There’s a sizable portion of each host’s fan base – and casual observers as well – who get their fix of Fallon or James Corden or Bee via YouTube, Twitter or a myriad of social-media or streaming-video outlets. Because these venues typically attract narrower bands of consumers – many of them younger – the comics’ broadsides increasingly reach the exact audience that wants to hear them.

And since TV’s ad dollars largely revolve around getting younger viewers to watch, the wee-hours hosts may operate in something of a safety zone, Jones suggested. “The 18-to-25 vote – it’s a blue map,” he said. “If that’s the profit demographic, I think a lot of the late-night hosts are going to keep doing what they’re doing, even if a majority of the voters don’t like it.”

An unspoken rule of late-night comedy is that it must be authentic. Viewers don’t want to tune in to see a host doing something about which he or she is not passionate. A true voice, so the theory goes, can win fans from a broad range of backgrounds. “Our goal is not to have the widest audience. Our goal is to put on the show we want to do, and it will have its audience,” said Jo Miller, the “Full Frontal” executive producer and showrunner, in an interview earlier this year.

When “Full Frontal” visited this year’s Republican National Convention, producers encountered Republican delegates, she said, who were also fans. “They have quite a good ability to laugh at themselves,” she noted, adding that the program is also a comfort to “liberals who feel like they are living in occupied territory. Once you get outside New York, you need a show like ours.”

Even before the results of last night’s election surfaced, however, some of the late-night programs appeared to make outreach to the supporters of the candidate who has provided them with so much fodder. On last week’s “Saturday Night Live,” Baldwin and Kate McKinnon, who plays Hillary Clinton, broke from character and urged people on both sides to vote. Last week, HBO’s Bill Maher told viewers of his “Real Time” that liberals had made a mistake in the way they portrayed prominent Republicans like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. ““They were honorable men who we disagreed with, and we should have kept it that way,” said Maher. “So we cried wolf and that was wrong. But this is real. This is going to be way different.”

If changes are in the offing, they may not be seen for a while. The late-night programs run every night, and transformations often take weeks, not days, to put into effect.

Late-night viewers will get to see this very evening if any of the hosts are willing to tweak their style. CBS’ Colbert last night capped off his Showtime special with a monologue urging people to focus less on politics and instead “vote unanimously on things that bring us together.” He will host another live program this evening. Before he does so, Samantha Bee will lead a special episode of “Full Frontal” Wednesday night, making her voice the first to sound post-election. Others will no doubt follow.