Satirizing a Spectacle

[Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator]

          During the 2016 presidential election, people turned to satirical news television shows for coverage of the latest dramatic events impacting the campaign. Satire has long been revered as a powerful form of media with the ability to use humor to reveal imperfections and an underlying truth. However, as James Poniewozik observes in his article “Donald Trump is a Conundrum for Political Comedy” in The New York Times, Donald Trump’s larger than life public persona, cultivated by his preexisting celebrity and coaching for reality television has rendered him unspoofable. Poniewozik claims that, “…Mr. Trump exaggerates himself — he’s the frilled lizard of politics, inflating his self-presentation to appear ever larger. Satire exposes candidates’ contradictions and absurdities. But Mr. Trump blows past those, while his supporters cheer” (Poniewozik). To address this problem, it is crucial to first understand why satire and comedy have been so important to this election season and what makes for effective messaging of underlying issues that need to be discussed. Current modes of satire need to be analyzed to reveal which truths they actually uncover and what false realities they help to reinforce.

          In his work Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, Stephen Duncombe asserts that comic relief is important because, “Jokes are active, social things. More than any other form of communication they demand participation from their audience. Meaning if a joke is incomplete; not all information is given, and the remaining part must be provided by the recipient” (131). People are actually able to feel like they are a part of political discourse instead of simply voyeurs when they are included in the inside joke. For a moment, quality satire has the ability to shatter sensationalized aspects of a campaign or the news. As explained by Michael Atkinson in his article “Trump TV: How Election 2016 Officially Turned Politics into Reality Television” he maintains that, “Campaigns have gone from public beseechments about governance to a subgenre of programming” (Atkinson). The performative and reality television-like aspects of this campaign are limiting the experience to pure entertainment. As Stephen Duncombe puts it, “Spectacle, by tradition, is antidemocratic. It is created by the few to be followed by the many, and while it can make the promise of inclusion… it actually reinforces the reality of hierarchy. The “participation” it encourages is a tightly choreographed sham” (Duncombe 133). The President-Elect has been able to fortify the awe that surrounds his celebrity status and protect it from being picked away at by satire, thus restricting democracy. It is of the utmost importance that the comedy industry keeps trying to effectively satirize Mr. Trump to get real people authentically engaged in the governmental systems that are supposed to be for them in the first place.

          A prime example of the different kinds of approaches that comedy can take towards this campaign is that of Saturday Night Live. The show has been a fixture of American mass media since the 1970s and originated from a specific societal viewpoint. John Matviko explains in his essay “Television Satire and the Presidency: The Case of Saturday Night Live” that, “In its early years SNL’s humor reflected the counterculture’s disdain for all things connected with the American Presidency…” (346). He adds that over the decades, the show has become more mainstream and puts more emphasis on parody of the candidates as individuals rather than critiques of the institutions they represent (346). This has contributed to the only partially subversive rhetoric that the show utilizes today and requires reflection on which kinds of satire actually resonate with its target audience.

          A specific instance of Saturday Night Live’s attempt to contribute to the commentary on the performative nature of the 2016 election was their spoof on the third Presidential Debate. The sketch opens with Tom Hanks playing debate moderator Charles Wallace who welcomes the audience by saying, “You don’t really want to watch, but hey, you’ve come this far” (“Donald Trump” 0:21). Right off the bat the sketch acknowledges the popular sentiment that the campaign season was like watching a train crash; devastating to see but impossible to look away from. As the sketch continues, the candidates roast each other with various insults but Poniewozik points out that, to some extent, this is what Clinton and, to a larger degree Trump, did in reality. He says that Trump in particular, “…stylistically, he works in the mode and rhythms of a stand-up. He riffs. He goads” (Poniewozik). But Trump does not do this to include his supporters in his rhetoric, but for shock value and he thus takes away the participatory element that making a joke should have. This raises questions as to whether SNL genuinely claims that this kind of political interaction is ridiculous or whether it reinforces the fact that it is entertaining. Another example of this is when Clinton, played by cast member Kate McKinnon, holds up a bingo board with all of the scandalous things that Trump has said during his campaign and says that she has “been playing all year” (“Donald Trump” 2:25). This implies that Clinton has herself been subjected to the role of voyeur amongst Trump’s absurdities and makes the embarrassing statement that she is treating it like a game. While when Trump, played by Alec Baldwin, bumbles through an argument about Iran, the satire is less effective because it is already known that his supporters can look past this. It may even serve to humanize him, reinforcing his proclaimed status as the “everyman.” (“Donald Trump” 3:30-3:44).

          The sketch also targets the celebrity status of the candidates by incorporating jokes about product placement. When Clinton makes the statement that Trump botched his meeting with the President of Mexico, Trump interrupts saying, “Wrong! Trademarked” (“Donald Trump” 3:02). This is perhaps meant to be a jab at Mr. Trump’s catchphrases that seem right out of his reality show The Apprentice, but again this is not something that his supporters don’t know about him. In fact, his image as a businessman is enticing. This joke is repeated again but targeted at Clinton after Trump calls her a “nasty woman” and, after admonishing his comment, she encourages those who agree to “buy a limited edition nasty woman mug” (“Donald Trump” 7:17). This exhibition of opportunism is more biting to Clinton’s image because this is not something that her supporters actively like about her and something that those who dislike her use as evidence for it (Gladwell). SNL was also responsible for contributing to, what in hindsight was, a false narrative that Mr. Trump had no chance of winning. When the moderator says, “Mr. Trump it has become clear that you are probably going to lose,” Baldwin’s Trump answers back “Correct” without the blink of an eye (“Donald Trump” 7:27). This false narrative is completely dangerous as it does not actively dismantle the power structure of spectacle. It caters to the viewer's preconceived notions instead of challenging them in the way that the best satire does. So, while Saturday Night Live may have accurately parodied the effects of the entertainment value of the debate, it did not attack any vulnerable aspects of Mr. Trump’s image.

          A more successful satire came recently from The Daily Show, that follows within the same format as a regular news show. The segment reported how the President-Elect has been telling supporters he will not go through with catchphrase crusades such as “Lock Her Up” on his Thank You Tour. In one clip Mr. Trump responds to chants of “Lock Her Up” by saying, “That plays great before the election. Now we don’t care right?” (“The Daily” 3:46). He even expresses his own surprise that “Drain the Swamp” caught on the way that it did. The host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah, makes the great observation that, “You know what Trump is like? He’s like a magician telling everyone how to do the trick, and still some people are like ‘Wow magic’” (“The Daily” 5:24). This is a successful satire because it deconstructs the way that Trump is trying to mitigate the anger he might face from the people who got him elected when he does not follow up on his promises and thus shatters the mirage he is trying to construct. Even though the joke targets regular people instead of Mr. Trump himself, James Poniewozik defends this by saying, “Some comedy critics might call this “punching down,” that is, picking on regular people rather than the powerful. But to ignore the role, and the collective power, of the millions of people helping Mr. Trump upend traditional politics is to ignore why his candidacy is news (which is to say, worthy of satire) in the first place” (Poniewozik).

          Looking forward to what four years under a Trump Administration could be like, there is no doubt that comedy will have to play a huge role in keeping the public vigilant. Using jokes to effectively reach people, express outrage, and break down the exclusive nature of spectacle will, with luck, help to reveal some truth amongst the circus. In the meantime, it is the responsibility of the comedians to commit to powerful satire and the audience is responsible for thinking critically about what narratives are being told and which create room for democracy.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Michael. "Trump TV: How Election 2016 Officially Turned Politics into Reality Television." Rolling Stone, 7 Nov. 2016, Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.

"The Daily Show- Trump Lets the Truth Come out Post-Election." YouTube, uploaded by The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, 15 Dec. 2016, Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.

"Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton Third Debate Cold Open- SNL." YouTube, uploaded by Saturday Night Live, 16 Oct. 2016, Accessed 23 Dec. 2016.

Duncombe, Stephen. "Participatory Spectacle." Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, New York, New Press, 2007, pp. 127-34.

Gladwell, Malcolm, producer. "The Satire Paradox." Revisionist History, episode 10, 18 Aug. 2016, Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.

Matviko, John. "Television Satire and the Presidency: The Case Study of Saturday Night Live." Hollywood's White House: The American Presidency in Film and History, by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor, Pbk. ed., Lexington, UP of Kentucky, 2005, pp. 333-48.

Poniewozik, James. "Donald Trump Is a Conundrum for Political Comedy." The New York Times, 16 Feb. 2016, Accessed 14 Dec. 2016.