2016: The Year Political Comedy Got Real…Strange

Late night TV show comedy faces a new era with a president who fancies himself an entertainer and a critic.

John Oliver capped his latest season last month with an epic goodbye-2016 video that repeatedly employed an unrepeatable word.

The "Last Week Tonight" host ended the anything-but-fond farewell by pushing a dynamite plunger and blowing up the four numbers of ire.

It marked an explosive sendoff for a year that shook up the humor game: All the jokes aimed at Donald Trump, 2016's most pilloried comedic target, didn't stop him from getting the last laugh. And unlike any previous president-elect, the former reality TV star regularly responds to satirical jibes, even as he prepares to tackle the world's most serious job.

The coming year heralds more comedic climate change, boding for unpredictable storms with a television-savvy president who fancies himself an entertainer and a critic.

Amid the rise of fake news, comedy got real in 2016. Stephen Colbert's introduction of 11 years ago "truthiness" – a conception of truth as a gut feeling, with little or no relation to fact – played out in Trump’s election season campaign rhetoric.

So-called fake news comedy shows delivered their own version of the truth, cloaked in laughs. The "Weekend Update" team of Michael Che and Colin Jost gelled this season on NBC’s "Saturday Night Live" (“Calling Breitbart a news site is like calling the R. Kelly sex tape a rom-com,” Che cracked last month).

Trevor Noah affirmed Comedy Central’s confidence in him on "The Daily Show" with his October bit comparing Trump to an African dictator (“He scams money like a Nigerian prince, he threatens opponents like an Egyptian leader and he constantly spews (expletive) out of his mouth like he has Ebola,” Noah observed). Seth Meyers came alive on NBC’s "Late Night" with his “A Closer Look” feature – including a September segment in which he called Trump a “racist and liar” for claiming Hillary Clinton started the so-called Birther movement.

But Trump, a seeming gift to comedy, came wrapped in Teflon.  

The Republican president-to-be, known for bombast aimed at pleasing his fans, is at once fodder for comics’ jokes and their rival for attention.  Trump also is a veteran self-styled comedy critic: In 2013, he sued HBO “Real Time” host Bill Maher for joking about his parentage. Now Trump tweets his displeasure with Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him on “SNL,” a show he's twice hosted.

The incoming president may have sparked a larger backlash against funny folks: Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes recently got booed for slamming Trump. In October, some members of The Second City, Chicago’s famed comedy outfit, quit – reportedly, at least in part, because of apparently Trump-emboldened hecklers hurling hate.

It’s unclear if or how comedians might change their approach in the coming Trump era, though there are early hints of changing strategies.

Maher, whose pre-election show featured a Howard Beale-like rant against Trump, tendered a backhanded interview invitation to the next president. “Full Frontal” host Samantha Bee, the breakout late night TV comedy star of 2016, recently filmed a chat with conservative commentator Glenn Beck. Both bemoaned Trump’s rise as they sealed their odd alliance with a "strange bedfellows" cake.

Whether Trump declares, “Let them eat cake” or throws more verbal pies in the faces of comics remains to be seen. So does whether he’ll regularly visit late night TV comedy programs as Barack Obama did with greater frequency than any previous president.

What’s clear is that comedians will be thrust into uncharted territory come Jan. 20, with little clue as to whether 2017 will make 2016 seem like the good old days.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

Copyright FREEL - NBC Local Media
Contact Us