Last Week Tonight host John Oliver got one over on the Pence family this week. On Sunday, one day before the vice president’s daughter and wife published their children’s book Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President, Oliver announced a long-gestating plan to pre-empt the story, about Mike Pence’s work as seen through his pet rabbit Marlon’s eyes, by publishing his own version. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver Presents: A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, written by Jill Twiss and illustrated by E.G. Keller, parodies the original, with one hilarious twist you’ll never see coming:
This time, the rabbit is gay!!
Oliver is a comedian, and I realize this is a joke—but it’s just not that funny. I know, I know: Proceeds for Oliver’s book go to the Trevor Project and AIDS United, and those organizations will do some important, life-changing work in the world with the money this book earns them. That’s wonderful. And Mike Pence is a homophobic monster, rightfully deserving of mockery. Why then, does the core joke here, about a gay bunny, feel so tired?
In part it’s because the joke just doesn’t make sense. What about this children’s book makes it ripe for a gay parody? There’s nothing about Marlon Bundo, except perhaps the name, to suggest any sort of queering. Why is the rabbit gay, exactly? Oliver’s stated reason is that the Pence family book tour is scheduled to stop at the anti-gay group Focus on the Family, which seems like a stretch. Are we trying to get one over on Mike Pence or Focus on the Family here? No, the primary reason is because gay stuff is the way we troll Mike Pence now. It’s predictable, it’s lazy, and the joke is starting to sour. As my Slate colleague Andrew Kahn noted in his piece last year about Trump and Putin make-out memes: “The [gay] trope is deployed not because it is novel but because it is not. It is hammered like a schoolyard taunt, with a smug assurance that Trump has been duly ‘trolled.’ Like a lot of liberal comedy right now, it serves a fantasy of resistance through snark.”
In Oliver’s Marlon Bundo, the gay trappings (like Marlon Bundo’s eccentric bowtie, and desire to be gay-married) feel purely instrumental. The story of the book is rote and uninteresting, because it’s not a book about a story. It’s a story about a book: about how heroic comedy liberals served a truly legendary dunk—your rabbit is gay, dude!—in order to remind us that Mike Pence is annoyed by gay people. As if we gay people needed reminding.
As Oliver goes on a fluffy victory lap to chat with the likes of Seth Meyers and Ellen, it’s hard not to wonder who all this is for.* It’s not really for kids, as the story doesn’t make sense out of a political context. It’s also not for adults, as it fails as parody because the writing isn’t doing anything particularly interesting with the form. It also flounders as political performance art skewering Mike Pence, because why would Mike Pence care that you turned his rabbit gay for some reason? The Pence family has already turned the stunt into positive press for themselves, looking like good sports for indulging in the joke and benefiting a good cause. Oliver has almost certainly raised the profile of the Pences’ book in the process, and it’s still sitting pretty on Amazon’s best-seller’s list, right behind the physical and Kindle edition of Oliver’s book. The performance then, obviously, is for us liberals who feel disempowered by the moment, resorting to schoolyard jokes in the absence of meaningful protest.
Sure, there is something satisfying in seeing a book responding to Mike Pence shoot to No. 1 on Amazon and make a ton of money for good causes. But if our only recourse against bigotry is using gayness as a Styrofoam cudgel to knock down a Pence-shaped piñata, perhaps we need to revisit our tactics. After all, bunnies can’t be gay, not in the sense that makes you a target of hatred and oppression; that’s only for humans. No, living as a real live gay person in the Trump era is not very funny—in fact, it’s by turns terrifying and exhausting. So maybe next time we can be a little bit more creative in the way we mock Mike Pence. There’s plenty of material—just ask him how he feels about Disney’s Mulan.
Correction, March 22, 2018: This post originally misspelled Seth Meyers’ last name.