Trump didn’t kill satire – he forced comedians to revamp it

Using a walking pantomime as comic fodder has been tricky to do in any original way. But there are some people who’ve managed to crack the code. Now the job is to find the funny in Joe Biden

Shaparak Khorsandi
Friday 06 November 2020 16:32
Trump aides staging 'intervention' to tell him he has lost

Like many people, I haven’t been able to get on with much this week. I’ve been too absorbed in who will become the president of a country I don’t live in.  

As a leftie, my political wants and wishes have taken quite the battering these last few years. I didn’t allow myself to imagine Donald Trump might be defeated in this election because it’s lockdown and I can’t drink away my woes (I have no other adult to drink with and drinking alone only adds to my gloom). But, as it happened, it has been extraordinarily compelling to watch this nail-biting box set of an election.  

Following the developments has given me the same adrenaline rush I get when I happen to be sitting near a couple having a juicy argument in a pub or a restaurant. I can’t concentrate on my beer and crisps because my full attention is actually on them, dying to know how it all pans out.  

Obviously, a rowing couple in the pub won’t have caused Trump-levels of indecency and upset, nor would they have been the most powerful people in the world, but, like him, they still put on a compelling show that I find impossible to ignore. It’s been fun to watch how comedy and satire has developed to accommodate this man who seems like a parody by just being himself.

Mr Trump has been so tremendously easy to lampoon that any jokes about him being a baby, a liar, orange, a sex pest, became hack and tired about 30 seconds after he became the Republican candidate.  

There was a time, BI (Before Internet) when we would eagerly wait for Have I Got News For You to come on once a week and we could see panellists tear apart our leaders and whatever had gone on in the news. Now though, we don’t have to wait for the fuss of scanning newspapers in writers rooms, booking comedians, lighting sets and directing cameras before we get to hear topical jokes. Now, within a moment of an event or a speech, during it for heaven’s sake, the funniest takes are on Twitter and go viral. Comedians have to be careful that their topical joke hasn’t already been said online by the time they actually get to go on TV.

How to satirise Mr Trump and use him as comic fodder – as is the duty and tradition of satirical comedians towards those in power – when the man himself is a walking pantomime, has been tricky to do in any original way. Cue Sarah Cooper, the American comedian who was retweeted by Jerry Seinfeld no less when her satirical take on Mr Trump, genius in its simplicity, was shared and viewed by millions of Twitter users, making her an instant star. She lip syncs Mr Trump’s speeches and interviews word for word, adding her own subtle but hilariously powerful facial expressions and flourishes. The observation that his voice and his words coming out of her own mouth were enough, that no cartoonish embellishment was needed, breathed fresh life into the ancient art of satire.

Topical comedy online has also pivoted beautifully away from the usual panel show and stand up staples by Michael Spicer and his online series The Room Next Door. Playing the part of an advisor within another room feeding lines to politicians during important speeches, he has been metaphorically yanking down Mr Trump’s pants, leaving the tired jibes about his half-eaten Jaffa Cake hue and toddler-like tantrums far behind him.  

My first ever stand-up comedy gigs were when I was just seven years old, doing impressions of Margaret Thatcher for my parents and their friends. Someone who values being seen as respectable is much easier to take the Mickey out of, even a child can do it. Spitting Image was blamed for the demise of David Steel’s political career when he was depicted as David Owen’s teeny tiny, adoring sidekick. Mr Trump though, has been relentlessly unrepentant and unembarrassable. His army of goons helped enormously with an online war against decency compassion. Accusations of misogyny, racism, and blatant lying would be crushed by their relentless trolling by the Trump-empowered online army.  

 Don’t like a president who says he uses his fame to get women and just “grabs their pussies”? Then you’re a “feminazi”. Call out injustice? Then you’re a “snowflake”, lend a hand to others who need it? Then you’re “virtue signalling”. Eventually, the likes of Spicer and Cooper found a way to get Mr Trump himself to unwittingly participate in their hilarious lampooning of him. They have been a masterclass in how comedy and satire will always shift and bend and yank the rug from under the feet of power.  Now the job is to find the funny in Joe Biden. There will be plenty. There always is once they are holding the reins. Even if a Biden win is what you wanted, if you’re a satirist, he is now a target.

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