Confronting Trump and Nixon: Comedy’s Changing Perspectives

In the wake of the January 6 Capitol attack few would dispute the assertion that Donald Trump is the most controversial president of our lifetime. Surely, he seems to bring out the very worst in his detractors: the mainstream media loathes him and he in turn famously berates them as “the enemy” of the American people. The comedy community makes a feast of trump jokes and, as some comedians have noted, the Trump jokes are literally writing themselves. To say the least, these jokes can be pretty tough stuff and are clearly intended to hurt mightily.

It is worth stating at this point that despite Trump’s departure from power, the current moment can still be fairly regarded as the Trump era, thanks to the continuing impact of the phenomenon of Trumpism in our cultural life.

The controversy of the Trump era recalls another president in America’s modern history: Richard Nixon. Aside from his frosty, adversarial relationship with the media, Nixon, in fact, created a so-called “enemies list” of people to be hunted down by the government; predictably, the list included not a few members of the media. Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein calls the Nixon’s presidency a “criminal presidency.” Ultimately, Nixon was forced to resign the presidency in disgrace. Yet, it seems rather noteworthy that the comedy community of Nixon’s time did not go after him with anything resembling the venom and virulence with which Trump is assailed by comedians of his era. Question is, what accounts for the different reactions of the comedy community to the two uniquely controversial presidents?

America in the Nixon Era

As comedy legend Dick Cavett noted, the comedian [in that era] simply set out to think about an event and try to find some humor in it. A classic example can be seen in one of Cavett’s jokes about Watergate. In it, he cracked that the White House “plumbers” in trying to do their job of plugging leaks instead opened a Watergate. Speaking of his experience with Watergate, Cavett said, “I set out to do an entertaining talk show, never dreaming that I’ll get up to my neck in a national scandal.”

Cavett’s comments aptly capture the way comedy was done in the period before the contemporary era. Back then, comedy saw itself in a different role in society: it stayed in its own lane where the whole act was about making people laugh with whatever subjects would do the trick, whether the subjects were drawn from the political arena or elsewhere. Thus, comedians did not directly venture into the politics of the day to take sides in the political controversies of the moment. (Despite its apparent ideological bent, even the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which many would consider the outlier in that era, hewed closely to the goal of provoking laughter albeit at Nixon’s expense. The show neither wore its politics on its sleeves nor betrayed a burning desire to help the political opposition.)

Perhaps there was a good reason that comedians opted for that approach: their audiences, somehow, seemed to want it that way. Consider, for instance, the Watergate scandal, the biggest disaster of the Nixon presidency. According to a 1973 article in The New York Times (“Watergate Comics Find the Joke Is on Them,” by Roy Reed, September 8, 1973), most comedy audiences across the country, with the exception of a few isolated spots like New York, did not find Watergate jokes all that funny. “Watergate just isn’t a laughing matter for most of the nation’s standup comedians,” began the article, which went on to note that, “even scarcer than anti-Nixon Watergate jokes at the clubs are pro-Nixon jokes. Indeed, an informal nightclub survey didn’t turn up one of them.” From all indications, it was indeed a different time in the culture: “When they subpoenaed the President, that’s not comedy,” said Ken Barry, a comedian from that time.

Enter Trump and the Muckrakers

In today’s divisive political climate, it is difficult to imagine a comedian expressing the sort of sentiment expressed above by the comedian in the Times article. The simple reason is that we now live in the era of “muckraking comedy”, an overtly political and weaponized comedy that is news-based but lacks the commitment to objectivity that news professionals feel obliged to practice. The essence of this genre of comedy, which has been growing for the past two decades, consists of holding a viewpoint and using the vehicle of comedy to advance that viewpoint. As comedian Bill Maher rightly observed about today’s comedy audiences, “they’re there more to clap for the opinion they already believe in than to laugh. That’s what changed,” he said, adding, “It became more important to cheer for your team than to actually have a laugh.”

To be sure, the old laughter-based comedy of Cavett’s generation of comedians still exists today. However, in contemporary pop culture and the political climate that surrounds it, such comedy, clearly, has taken a back seat to the far dominant and more appealing genre of muckraking comedy, which is what reels in the all-important ratings. Given Trump’s outsized impact on the news cycle and the intense loathing of the man by those on the left, any left-leaning comedian of any significance today can only ignore anti-Trump muckraking at his or her own career peril. For instance, during Trump’s time in power, NBC’s Jimmy Fallon was forced to confront this new reality in his late-night competition with CBS’s Stephen Colbert: thanks to anti-Trump muckraking, Colbert the new-kid-on-the block in late-night comedy did seize the late-night ratings crown from Fallon, for at least three consecutive seasons through 2018-2019, when Colbert snagged a hefty 3.82 million nightly viewers compared to 2.44 million for Fallon and 2.04 million for Kimmel, according to Nielsen data.

Fallon’s troubles began in September 2016 when he famously mussed Trump’s hair during the latter’s appearance on his show, a gesture interpreted by angry audiences as him “normalizing” Trump. Over the three – year period since then, Fallon’s audience numbers have plunged whereas Colbert’s have spiked. Needless to say, Fallon has since learned his lesson and dutifully joined the anti-Trump muckraking party as a matter of sheer self-preservation. Samantha Bee is another leading comedian of the muckraking era who has reaped the benefits of anti-Trump advocacy. Acknowledging the role of outrage in her comedy, Bee noted in an interview with Canadian TV journalist Rosemary Barton that in her comedy world she found that “people care about the world” and aren’t so interested in jokes about celebrity antics anymore.

Under the prevailing circumstances, hardly any left-leaning muckraking comedian today particularly cares to either hide the political undertones of their act or the fact that they’d be glad to take down the Trump presidency if they could. And sometimes, it can get downright personal, to boot. Case in point: Bill Maher’s New Rules segment about Trump’s supposed narcissism (See Real Time with Bill Maher episode of September 21, 2018). In the six-minute span of the segment, Maher lamented how narcissism has rendered the president a stupid person who considers himself infallible and is therefore unteachable and can never be corrected. He likened Trump’s brain to a cell phone with a full mailbox where one can call but cannot leave a message.

Though more noticeable on the political left, muckraking comedy, by its nature, is a phenomenon that also exists on the right of the political spectrum. Thus, the muckraking comedy era isn’t all anti-Trump. To the contrary, the former president does indeed have some powerful muckrakers in his corner. Fox’s Gutfeld! a classic muckraking show, which according to Nielsen data is the current late-night ratings king, is a case in point.

In a nutshell, Greg Gutfeld, the show’s eponymous host, is the political right’s answer to what happens on the political left, complete with both his unabashed defense of Trump and the (correspondingly) brutal sarcasm he heaps on Joe Biden’s person and presidency. He joined the late-night fray this past April.

Making sense of what may not seem to add up

If the foregoing makes anything clear, it is that comedy’s reaction to the Nixon and Trump presidencies is a tale of two eras in comedy, which at bottom reflect a change in cultural attitudes. This cultural shift, coinciding with the transition from traditional to muckraking comedy, explains why Nixon and Trump, both right leaning and uber-controversial politicians could have been treated so dramatically differently. Whereas the audiences of one era preferred that comedians not take partisan political positions, the audiences of the other era rather wanted to be entertained with jokes that espouse an ideological point of view and would reward comedians who play the part. In this scenario, one can see that Nixon avoided the assaults of muckraking comedy simply by having existed in an era when the phenomenon did not yet exist. Trump’s presidency, however, was quite literally born into the era of muckraking comedy and he simply couldn’t avoid its harsh spotlight if he tried.

Therefore, to those who wonder about the disparate treatment of two personalities-of-a kind by the comedy community, one simple observation should suffice: Were Nixon were in power today, it’s a safe bet that he’d probably be treated with as much hostility as Trump is facing. Not least because Nixon remains the only person ever to resign the presidency, thanks to the worst political scandal of modern America.

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!

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