Constitutional Crisis of Comedy

Donald Trump’s defenders say his apparent obstruction of justice was a joke. Comedians don’t get it.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU/via Getty Images and REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.
Comedian Mike Birbiglia says jokes shouldn’t need to be qualified with “I’m joking.”

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU/via Getty Images and Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.

A few weeks ago, President Donald Trump seemed to have triggered a teensy constitutional crisis when he fired FBI Director James Comey. Among the shifting kaleidoscope of reasons for Comey’s termination was his investigation into Russia’s role in Trump’s election victory. The problem for Trump—which could rise to actual obstruction of justice charges—is that he fired Comey after inviting him to the White House, clearing the room of witnesses, and then allegedly telling him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” In case that message didn’t get through, he also allegedly added, “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” (The case for obstruction has since been bolstered by reports of other witnesses and similar incidents.)

The White House of course disputes this account, which Comey has reportedly detailed in careful contemporaneous notes (as FBI agents tend to do). Meanwhile, as New York’s Jonathan Chait has noted, several of Trump’s defenders have argued that while Trump perhaps said these words, he probably didn’t mean them.

Now this is a bit like arguing that when Richard Nixon was caught on tape in 1972 explaining to his chief of staff Bob Haldeman precisely how to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of Watergate, he was just working up material for a guest appearance on Laugh-In. It may be possible. But it’s not probable. (“They [the CIA] should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case.” Hilarious!) Somehow, though, “it was only a joke” has become the GOP and Donald Trump’s equivalent of “the dog ate my homework,” a catch-all defense for genuine gaffes and even for potential criminal obstruction of justice.

This is not the first time Trump and his advocates have deployed the “just kidding” defense. At a White House lunch in April, the president asked members of the United Nations, “Does everybody like Nikki?” as his U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley sat awkwardly next to him. Amid uneasy laughter he added: “Otherwise, she can easily be replaced.” Quel bon mot, Mr. President!

During the campaign, Trump told a crowd of supporters that if Hillary Clinton were to win there would be “nothing you can do, folks.” He then continued: “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I dunno.” That was apparently also just more mischievous ribaldry from Donald “Lenny Bruce Reincarnated” Trump. Same deal when he asked Russia to hack Hillary’s emails. Then there was also the infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump joked about serially sexually assaulting women—this time that was played off as “locker room banter.” For a man who, as Sen. Al Franken notes “never laughs,” the new president is a monster comedic presence. Add all those punchlines together, and Trump is either the least funny comedian in American history or the most optimistic that he’s just about to break through. Either way, just listen to the Watergate tapes—Trump doesn’t have anything on Richard M. Nixon. That guy was a laugh riot. And don’t even get me started on Josef Stalin.

It’s not just Trump of course. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan both claimed last week that they were merely doing stand-up last summer when they shared a laugh in a closed meeting about the possibility that the Russians were buying off the future president of the United States along with a Republican member of Congress. And before he actually assaulted a journalist, Montana Republican congressional hopeful Greg Gianforte advocated attacking them, a comment that his campaign later dismissed as a “joke.”

All of which leads to the question: Perhaps America is not in fact being strangled in the grip of our most serious constitutional crisis in nearly 50 years but merely trapped in a paralyzing comedy crisis? Maybe nothing is serious anymore. Everything is just comedy that happens to not be very funny. The thing is, I could live with the president’s slow-motion deconstruction of this little experiment we call constitutional democracy, but I am going to be pissed if he also breaks comedy. So: Is comedy killing democracy, or is democracy killing comedy? Or maybe it’s a suicide pact.

In her important post-election meditation on jokes and the election, the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum located the white nationalist politician Trump, the white nationalist meme Pepe the Frog, and the white nationalist famous for being a famous person Tila Tequila along a new continuum of insult comics in our irony-saturated age. She pointed to TV shows like South Park—along with other opponents of political correctness—that have blurred the line between politics and entertainment, but have also pushed the line of humor and irony so far into the political sphere that nothing might ever be serious or real again. The question for comedians is what does that do to comedy?

“This has been happening forever, not just with politicians but with extremist pundits like Ann Coulter or radio talk show hosts,” Lizz Winstead, co-creator and former head writer of The Daily Show, reminded me. “They would say something reprehensible and when there is a public outcry, they’d cry, ‘It’s a joke.’

“I pay my bills writing and performing jokes,” she continued, “and if my jokes landed the way theirs do, with the frequency they do, I would not have a career.”

I asked Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the same question: What does it do to actual comedy writers when everything and nothing is reduced to a joke?

His response, via email, is illuminating and scary-making for those of us who still like jokes:

The problem for people in our business is that just like you need a bass line for a guitar solo, you need something real to make up stuff about. For example, you could make jokes about President Bush being illiterate or reading kids’ books because he wasn’t really illiterate. He was just incurious so we were able to exaggerate that and make jokes. Making jokes about Donald Trump being functionally illiterate isn’t funny because, well, he seems to be functionally illiterate. If nothing the President says or does is “real,” then what do we have to push against?

Jo Miller is executive producer and head writer of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. She pointed me to a Masha Gessen piece on how demagogues destabilize language as a mechanism for further destabilizing shared reality.

As Miller explained to me over email:

When it comes to jokes, they depend on a shared reality. A joke that is built on an untrue or only partially true premise isn’t funny. Which is why partisan ‘comedy’ isn’t funny. It puts an agenda before truth and is merely tedious.

Think of Fox News’ disastrous attempt at a conservative version of The Daily Show to see how this sort of thing historically has played out in the comedy world (Metacritic score: 13 percent).

In his new special Thank God for Jokes, comedian Mike Birbiglia tackles this same question: How can you even do a joke when everyone is suddenly a comedian?

“Every time there’s an article, about Trump, or Ryan, saying they were just joking, I am bombarded with tweets because the whole new special is about the whole nature of jokes,” he told me. “And I always refer them to one of my rules from the show, which is that no joke should ever end with ‘I’m joking.’ ”

Birbiglia echoed Sagal’s point about needing a “bass line” of truth to make funny jokes. He says this is the core dilemma in comedy right now too. “A setup,” he explained, “is based in truth. And if there is no collective truth, there can be no collective setup. And if there is no collective setup, there’s no collective punchline.” And that, it seems, is how comedy finds itself lying limp and bloodied beyond recognition at the base of Sean Spicer’s podium or how it’s starting to seem as though Donald Trump and Alec Baldwin are slowly morphing into the same indeterminate creature.

What’s more terrifying is how far you must reach to even find a shared notion of what is a real, factual, unironic statement right now. “In a way, that’s why so many of us return to the ‘grab them by the pussy’ tape,” Sagal wrote in an email. “It’s one time when we can be relatively sure that Donald Trump was actually speaking the truth.” He then adds, “Ironically, of course, it’s one time where he himself claims he was just joking.” And it’s yet another time his supporters have chosen to not take his words at face value.

This distortion of language and truth to the point that they have no meaning is also a problem for those of us who work with the law. It has become virtually impossible to be neutral as a legal observer, because now that real things are being so consistently deemed unreal, what any objective person would previously view as neutral facts can also be perceived as bias and “fake news.” Even questions about inaugural numbers or popular vote counts, verifiable truths, are fake. Don’t get me started on actual words in the actual Bill of Rights.

The current dilemma of jokes has a practical impact. Birbiglia is, for instance, scrupulously careful not to talk about politics in his shows, going so far as to not mention the president’s name in his new show because the topic has become so polarizing.

Here’s one revelatory anecdote from the comedian:

So, I have a joke where I say, “The baby is the most powerful passenger on the plane. He whines and we ignore him and he whines and we ignore him, but if we keep ignoring him, eventually he’ll be president.” That’s not a political joke, it’s just a joke about whichever president you feel like has the temperament of a baby. Because I want to flip it on them, and let them name the president. But even leaving it to them to fill it in makes it polarized.

That’s kind of terrifying, right? Even a joke in which the listener writes her own punchline is too polarizing to tell. Sagal tells me a version of the same thing about his attempts to be neutral in the current climate:

I like to say that we at Wait Wait are never part of the game being played on the field between the two teams. … [W]e’re up in the stands watching the game with the audience. … But now I’m thinking that it’s bad when the actual players insist they’re up in the audience too. … They should get back on the field, dammit, and let us watch the game in peace.

Basically, it’s hard to know how to make a joke when the politicians are no longer making sense. “What we can do is make sense of our shared experience of living aboard this unmoored ship piloted by a skeleton crew of charlatans and idiots,” Miller wrote. “When we get that right, people recognize it as truth.”

The whole predicament is something of a punchline in itself: Things that aren’t funny are being written off as jokes, but real jokes that are carefully constructed not to offend at all are now too offensive to tell. Womp womp.

The perfect nihilism of casting that White House conversation with Comey as an after-the-fact joke led a chortling Mike Birbiglia to imagine President Trump setting himself up to do some serious comedy. “So wait, he’s shooing away Pence and Sessions right?” Birbiglia says. “These two guys who are guaranteed to laugh at him … he’s shooing away his whole potential audience because, ‘Hey, I have a private one-on-one joke for my FBI director, and it won’t work unless it’s a one-on-one joke, unless he alone hears it. … And the joke is that I’m going to fire him.’ ”

As Chait wrote, “Nobody would be that committed to a bit.”