A strange thing happened a year into the Trump presidency. Well, something strange happened every day of Trump’s first year in office, but that’s a different story. This particular strange thing concerns me, and it is this: I lost my appetite for making jokes about the president.
Taking jabs at the highest office in the land has been a part of American culture as long as I can remember–much longer than that, really, but let’s stick to what I know. My earliest political memories date to Nixon, and while I didn’t understand those jokes I understood that something funny was happening. The grown-ups were laughing, after all, and Tricky Dick’s rubbery face translated well to kid friendly caricature. Even a kindergartner could find humor in Rich Little shaking his jowls while grumbling “I’m not a crook,” fingers waving peace signs toward the camera.
The Ford era coincided with the rise of Saturday Night Live. Chevy Chase’s pratfall president was sophisticated comedy, at least as far as I was concerned. There’s not much funnier to a fourth grader than a grown man falling onto a Christmas tree.
I spent most of the Carter administration doodling an anthropomorphic peanut with an exaggerated, toothy grin. Most kids did, at least the ones who fashioned themselves members of the grade school comedy vanguard. A television commercial ran regularly during those years for a comedy album in the style of Vaughn Meader’s First Family records. Physical presidential comedy was out. This was the new height of sophistication:
Rosalyn: “Jimmy, do you love me?”
Jimmy: “According to the Gallup Poll I do.”
I can only assume that I found this hysterical because I was a fifth grade idiot imagining the president seeking council from a “gallop pole,” whatever that was. Anyway, along with the peanut farm, the broad smile, and the Foghorn Leghorn accent, Carter came equipped with a beer swilling redneck brother. Jimmy’s was the first hillbilly White House to provide instant comedy material, but it wasn’t the last.
Reagan served as president during my teens. He was regularly skewered for being a bumbling, deaf, jellybean loving incompetent, and not just on shows like SNL and Carson. Mocking Ronnie was fairly common practice in music videos, the most ’80s of art forms after mall bangs.
Bush Senior hated broccoli and didn’t know how grocery stores worked; “Read my lips” and Dana Carvey’s “Not gonna do it.” Bill “Bubba” Clinton generated ample jokes of his own, mostly regarding his prodigious appetites for food and sex, but like Carter he came equipped with a redneck brother for bonus laughs. Bush II was an idiot man-child in a flight suit, and Obama had a stick up his well-educated ass, always willing to offer 1,000 words (and 500 “uh’s”) where ten would do.
We all joined in, but we left the heavy lifting to the pros. Late night hosts and comedy shows blasted whatever president was in office, as did the editorial cartoonists, punk bands, and celebrity impressionists. Satirical products were a given, from Halloween masks to novelty songs.
Nothing sucks the fun out of humor faster than an explanation, but I think lampooning The Man serves an unstated but collective need. The U.S. likens itself a meritocracy, after all, the myth being that we each have a shot at occupying the White House. Our leaders are not gods, kings, or emperors but rather fellow citizens. Knocking the Commander In Chief into the Christmas tree now and then reminds us that behind that presidential seal he’s just like you and me.
Humor eases discomfort and anxiety, too, and it can also be informative. It’s much easier to talk about the leader of the free world turning the Oval Office into a blowjob parlor if there’s a big, happy finish. (To the joke. I meant to the joke.)
But over the last year two cultural phenomena collided like raging wildfires and sucked all available oxygen into the resulting vortex. One of those was Trump himself, whose comic value is magnitudes greater than any other president of my lifetime. His corruption makes Nixon look like, well, a Quaker. His white trashiness far exceeds Carter, Clinton and their hillbilly brothers combined. Sex scandals? Come on. Not even Slick Willy compares. Malapropisms? The Donald makes G.W. sound like a polished orator. Bedtime For Bonzo nothing, D.J.T. is the big-time wrasslin’ president.
Vanity, hypocrisy, narcissism, incompetence, sloth, diet, intellect, temperament, appearance–there’s no satirical dimension in which our current president doesn’t outweigh his predecessors, including weight. We elected a human cartoon at a time when social media enables everyone in the world to be a comedian (that’s the second wildfire in this equation), including comedians. Donald tweets, we add some snark and retweet. Donald speaks, we quote him and point out his absurdity. It’s so easy.
And it’s so pervasive. My daughter sat down with me recently and watched a Stephen Colbert monologue. After a couple of minutes she said, “The worst thing about having Trump for a president is that every joke is about Trump.” Half of that assertion is inarguable. It’s true: Every joke is about Trump now, and they’re rarely funny anymore.
That’s not because the president has stopped generating comedy fodder at an unprecedented pace, but rather because he can’t stop. We’re at the point in the evening when we realize that the party’s funny drunk guy has a serious alcohol problem.
Joking about Trump at this point is like mocking the school bully long after you’ve learned that he’s a hydrocephalic orphan with anger management issues. Better just to nod your head sadly while he screams at CNN between bites of KFC, gleaming chicken bones propelled through the air by spray tanned bingo wings and impotent rage.
It’s just sad (“Sad!”), so I’ve opted out. I’ve stopped cluttering my social media feeds with feeble attempts at Trump humor. I’ve cleared them almost entirely of politics, for that matter, and as a result I’m enjoying my online time a little bit more. My daughter was onto something: Regardless of our long tradition of presidential mockery in this country, the fact that every joke is now about Trump has sucked all of the fun out of the game, so I quit.
But make no mistake: Eventually that goofball is going to get his ridiculously long tie caught in his zipper or fall into a Christmas tree, and when he does I’ll be ready.