President Donald Trump likes to think of himself as a statesman, an author, an A-level negotiator, but at heart, he’s one thing: an insult comic. Every day in D.C. is a roast, the insults and belittling nicknames wielded like tiny comedy bullets. And if you haven’t seen enough of the fusillade on Twitter, all you need to do is turn on late night TV.
Television comedy has a strange, symbiotic relationship with the real political world, something between a feedback loop and a funhouse mirror. The Smothers Brothers flirted with the subversive side of the 1960s; the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of the ’90s was filtered through Jay Leno’s guffawing misogyny. And then, from 1999 through roughly the start of the Trump administration, the prevailing comedy tone was a kind of ironic detachment, perfected by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”
Odds are, even if you barely watched the show, you can still picture the Jon Stewart repertoire: the knowing pop culture references, the sharp satire, the wry take on America at large. His go-to move was perplexity at the absurdity of it all, and the message was detached and a little self-deprecating: If politics was absurd, well, so were we. “You have to remember one thing about the will of the people,” he once said. “It wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena.”
Stewart did make fun of both parties, but his style was fundamentally liberal, says University of Delaware communications professor Dannagal Young: playful, subversive, at once cynical and weirdly optimistic. It was far different, she argues, from the tone of Fox News talk-show hosts, who draw an audience for reasons that are “almost physiological.” Social science research has shown that liberals and conservatives are (on average) wired differently, with social and cultural conservatives personally more attuned to danger, worried about intruders, primed to protect an establishment under threat.
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.
Jon Stewart is often tagged as left-leaning—and it’s true that he was secretly invited to the Obama White House—but what he really represented wasn’t a political perspective so much as a distance from the fray. His “Daily Show” persona was fit for a deeply cynical age: a naïve, detached observer, trying to navigate the news, who kept stumbling across absurdity. His signature move was a reaction shot: after a news clip would play, the camera would return to Stewart, his eyes popping out as if his innocence were shattered by some fresh horror. His targets weren’t only politicians; he skewered the media, lobbyists, the whole self-aggrandizing, self-perpetuating system that made politics so frustrating. And he could be mercilessly bipartisan: In one 2015 segment that predicted Trump’s nickname, he mocked Joe Biden’s handsiness. One punchline was a faux book called “The Audacity of Grope.”
Then along came Trump, who wasn’t part of the system at all, and thus didn’t fit into Stewart’s man-versus-the-machine framework. The day Trump descended a Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy, in June 2015, Stewart was ecstatic. He treated the real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-star not as a viable player, but a professional clown. “America’s id is running for president!” he gushed. At the end of the segment, he and two “Daily Show” correspondents mimicked having orgasms.
By and large, though, Trump’s humor is different from droll, intellectual wit. “It’s impulse-based and it’s hyperbolic,” Young says, and its broadness is a key to his political appeal. His insanely impolitic language sends the media reaching for Xanax, but to his fans, it’s ongoing proof of his authenticity.
At the start of his administration, many speculated that Trump would turn more measured and sober once he felt the gravitas of the office. But his insult-comic persona isn’t artifice; he can’t be shamed or cajoled into being anyone but himself.
That’s great for his base. Most conservatives, love him or not, have found ways to brush off his rhetoric as Trump being Trump. But liberals see the language as not just authentic, but dangerous—they draw a straight line from the speeches and tweets to the murderous white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, caged kids on the Mexican border, and nuclear retaliation threats directed toward Kim Jong Un. So the chorus of left-leaning comedians who evaluate Trump every night has switched from detached amusement to sounding the warning bells.
And in posture, if not politics, the language often matches what Young has observed about conservative outrage. Not only is it positioned against fighting a threat, it’s also straightfoward in perspective—not a multilayered critique of a system, but a blunt roadmap for politicized anger.
“When satire is doing a good job, it’s not just punching up. It’s reminding us of our complicity,” Young says. But there’s no double meaning in outrage: “Outrage tells you, ‘Here is the thing, here is the thing that’s bad, here is the thing that’s good. … It says exactly what it should conclude. You don’t have to draw conclusions.”
That change might be personified, these days, by “Daily Show” veteran Stephen Colbert, whose Comedy Central show, “The Colbert Report,” was a masterpiece of cynical-age satire: a sustained, high-energy, high-wire parody of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, in which the comedian played a blowhard conservative host named “Stephen Colbert.” The show ended, and the character was retired, before Trump entered the 2016 race. And a few months into Trump’s candidacy, Colbert took over CBS’ “The Late Show,” this time appearing as himself.
Candidate Trump was one of real Colbert’s first guests, and while the appearance didn’t produce a moment as iconic as Jimmy Fallon’s hair-mussing, Colbert cheerfully let Trump repeat his campaign lines about building a wall that Mexico would pay for. The humor, at the time, was in the contrast between Trump’s unapologetic Trumpiness and Colbert’s bemused reaction.
But these days, when he talks about Trump, Colbert isn’t so easygoing; his jokes are more vicious and often less surprising. In a mid-May “Late Show” monologue, Colbert described a recent Trumpian insult: comparing 2020 Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg to the MAD Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman. “I see the similarity,” Colbert said, “in that they both are more qualified to be president than Donald Trump.” The audience roared, the band played a little victory tune, and Colbert, smiling, muttered under his breath, “They all came for that joke.”
Colbert has changed less than Bee, his fellow “Daily Show” alum. In 2015, Bee was part of the “Daily Show” sketch that mocked Joe Biden for groping. She played a star-struck, self-deluded reporter who had just come from a one-on-one interview with Biden, and now had brightly-colored hand marks on her chest and rear end. (She cheerfully explained that the then-vice president had just been touching chalk, strawberry preserves, motor oil and Cheetos.) The joke lay, again, in the disconnect: The audience knew Biden’s behavior was wrong, but the establishment, represented by Bee, pretended it was perfectly normal.
Today, Bee’s faux innocence is gone; her “Full Frontal” persona understands everything that’s happening. Her fury is directed not just at Trump, but at everyone on the right; she apologized for the c-word episode, but her anger hasn’t faded. A recent segment on Alabama’s stringent new abortion law, “Sex Ed for Senators,” explained that when a woman is designated six weeks pregnant, it actually measures the number of weeks from her last period, not from the moment of conception. “Bet you didn’t know uteruses were also time travelers,” Bee said. “That’s science, bitch!”
Like many late-night comedians, Bee has also become more didactic, delivering researched lessons about the dangers of Trump’s favored policies. 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.
Ethan Porter, an assistant professor at The George Washington University, notes that multiple studies have documented Fox News’ influence on conservative Americans—tracking how increased Fox News ratings have correlated not just with Republican shares of the vote, but with judges’ likelihood to impose longer prison sentences. “What you think of as ‘soft media,’ whether it’s humor or celebrity journalism,” Porter says, “people can actually be impacted by that, in ways that are interesting and surprising.”
In May, Porter and his colleague Thomas Wood, an Ohio State political scientist, published a paper in the journal Electoral Studies with the irresistible headline, “Did Jon Stewart Elect Donald Trump?”—though, as with most clickbait, the actual point was more nuanced: the authors claimed that the decline in “Daily Show” ratings after Stewart left correlated with a higher share of Republican votes in 2016. But that turned out not to be true: After they found a computational error in their data, the authors retracted their study a week after publication. But the absence of hard proof, Porter says, doesn’t mean the theory isn’ttrue—and they’re continuing to explore ways that the changing landscape of TV comedy has altered the outcomes of American elections.
They may just need to factor in the fact that comedy has changed—as has Stewart himself. It’s not just his increased likelihood to deliver dead-serious congressional testimony, as he did this week before a House Judiciary subcommittee, pleading for compensation for 9/11 first-responders. It’s not just the regret he’s voiced for treating Trump as such a joke in the beginning. He also sounds different when he pops up from time to time for a comedy bit, appearing as a kind of sage, greying Jewish Yoda who pretends to be living under Colbert’s “Late Show” desk. 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—-d 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.
As outrage, however, it does contain something that satire lacks, Young says: a consistent call to action. That feels like the purpose of this brand of late night comedy—not to wryly observe the world and encourage us all to do better, but to harness people’s anger, make them ready to revolt.
What effect that will have is open to debate; historically, it’s hard to draw a straight line between jokes and votes. But comedy, like all entertainment, can broaden awareness, rile up the base, focus attention on issues that drive emotions.
It could be that this new tone will be a left wing mobilizing force. The midterm elections drew unusually high numbers of Democratic voters; some predict a similar wave in 2020. Late night comedy could be a small part of that movement. But if that happens, it will be because comedians were less like Jon Stewart—the original version—and more like Sean Hannity and Trump.