Why isn’t Trump comedy funnier?

Five of several dozen Twitter search results for “nambia covfefe” on 9/21/17

When President Trump praised the non-existent country of Nambia at the UN in September, Bill Maher joked that the capital of Nambia was Covfefe. So did a seemingly endless number of Twitter users, not just over time but on the very same day. There is something about Donald Trump that encourages everyone to come up with the same jokes. There is also something about him that makes us feel the pressing need for political comedy. When a self-aggrandizing billionaire with an unusual physical appearance becomes president, satire should shine. Yet political comedy in the first year of the Trump administration has been strangely lackluster. Why isn’t the most comical president in history generating better comedy?

The New York Times Magazine let me consider this problem in a profile of Anthony Atamanuik, who plays Trump on The President Show on Comedy Central. Gigantic, sun-blotting props to Willy for helping to develop a unified theory of Trump comedy, which starts like this:

A funny Trump impression presents two broad challenges. The first is that the president exists in a cloud of signifiers: his infomercial hand gestures, his practiced facial expressions, his broad accent and narrow diction and relentless catchphrases, to say nothing of his hair and skin. Any impression of him must include these signifiers, but they are so numerous and recognizable as to weigh it down, limiting the space for the impressionist to contribute his own insights. The adage “It’s funny because it’s true” is a phenomenological account. It describes a change in the audience: It’s funny because (I just realized) it’s true. We laugh when we are surprised to recognize something. The problem with Trump is that everything about him is recognizable immediately. There seem to be no subtle truths under the cacophony of overt signifiers, so that every joke about him becomes merely a reference.

That’s the Covfefe Problem: It’s hard to think of an original joke about Trump, but it’s easy to think of a recognizable reference. The other horn in this comedy dilemma is the Clapter Problem. What is clapter? You’re just going to have to read the profile and find out, or buy Mike Sacks’s book Poking a Dead Frog, which is where I first encountered the term. But while you’re waiting for the book to arrive, read the Times piece. Remember how Combat! blog was on hiatus for weeks and everyone stopped reading it? This was one of the four big projects that forced me to put the blog aside. Now all of them are done, and I am rich. We’ll be back tomorrow with more self-promotion.

Can a Daniel Tosh joke ever be funny?

I’m not certain what it says about us, but this is not the first time we have talked about rape jokes. By now you have probably heard about Daniel Tosh, who responded to a woman who shouted out, “actually, rape is never funny” during one of his stand-up shows with “wouldn’t it be funny if five guys raped her right now?” That’s what we call a First Idea. Tosh can be forgiven his mediocre ad lib, but he can also be taken to task for promoting a rape culture. The internet is pretty much divided on which to do. Careful thinker and talented jokewright Carolyn Jacobson sent me this link considering that there may be a middle ground between “anything is funny” and “some things are never funny.” Its sentiments are eerily reflected in this one. While you read those, I’ll just think about the summer I spent at Boy Scout ca—no! No I won’t!

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A theory of taste: fantastic naturalism

First, I’m warning you right now that there is going to be way less Combat! blog than you want this week, yet way more than I actually have time to write. Here’s a pro tip for all you freelancers out there: tell everyone you’re going on vacation. I have received more projects labeled “emergency” since I went on vacation than I had previously gotten in my entire career. The next time you see me, I will be wearing a panda skin monocle. Second, the Theory of Taste promised in the headline is not the useful kind of aesthetic theory. It is a theory of my taste, which is notoriously bizarre. Ready? Yesterday, while inflicting an interpretive rendition of a cartoon I had seen six years ago on my brother, who has long since reconciled himself to such tortures, I realized that there is a through-line in much of the animated humor that I like: ultra-naturalistic dialogue and voice acting in the context of fantastic situations. I think that cartoons in which monsters, superheroes, space cowboys and other fantasy characters have to live in apartments and work at jobs are hilarious. Those of you once forced by the pursuit of English degrees to read the execrable Gabriel Garcia Marquez are familiar with the literary genre known as magical realism, in which key aspects of human consciousness go unaddressed in favor of love turning women into butterflies. That sucks. But what does not suck is the style of humor that I’m going to call Fantastic Naturalism.

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The unpopular position: rape isn’t funny

I opted to not go with a rape-related image for today's post. Although, frankly, this picture may be funnier in that context.

Today's graphic will, you know, not relate to the subject at hand. Although it is probably funnier in that context.

Alert reader/irascible curmudgeon Ben Fowlkes sent me a link to this post over at the feminist blog Shakesville, in which the author lambasts Ricky Gervais. The comedian—whom you probably remember from the original British version of The Office, or from this comedy about a man whose paranoid schizophrenia leads him to become fixated on a woman in his building—recently came under fire in the British press for the following joke:

“I’ve [driven drunk] once and I’m really ashamed of it. It was Christmas—I’d had a couple of drinks and I took the car out. But I learned my lesson. I nearly killed an old lady. In the end I didn’t kill her. In the end, I just raped her.”

First of all, that is not a funny joke. Who can tell when non-John Cleese British people are being funny, though? Bafflingly, the UK press describes it as a “drink-driving joke” and seems to find it objectionable on those grounds—in response to which I refer you to the second sentence of this paragraph. Gervais, in his own defense, says that the turn is “comedically justified” because it addresses the phrase “nearly killed her.” The idea is that rape is less bad than murder, kind of, and the sudden recontextualization of the “nearly killed her”—from hyperbolic expression to literal statement—is funny. Explanations like these are why you shouldn’t talk during comedy or sex, but that’s beside the point. Gervais argues that it’s not a rape joke, which is a difficult position to maintain when you compare the joke with other jokes that do not contain the word “rape.” Shakesville blogger Melissa McEwan argues that the joke is unfunny—in fact, unacceptable—because it’s about rape. I contend that Gervais’s joke isn’t funny, not because it’s about rape, but because it’s not funny. So in fact the subject of today’s blog is that rape isn’t funny, which is why it’s such a good subject for jokes. Gotcha!

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