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!

BRITAIN’S FRANKIE BOYLE: The Meaning of ‘Defamation’ Across the Atlantic

frankie_boyle_photo5Between the way the world thinks of him and the way he doesn’t want anyone to think of him, the whole stuff about reputation seems to loom pretty large in British comedian Frankie Boyle’s world. From all indications, the brash, irreverent comic doesn’t seem to sweat what anyone calls him as long as no one calls him a “racist.” In Boyle’s worldview, for anyone to call him that amounts to something of a declaration of war. And he could hit the hapless aggressor pretty hard in the wallet and set the aggressor back by many thousands of pounds or dollars. At least, in Britain! Just ask the Daily Mirror, one of Britain’s major tabloids, which took a big hit last fall for apparently ‘messing with the wrong marine,’ as the Americans would say. But first, here’s what happened:

On July 19, 2011, the newspaper published an article in which it speculated about Boyle’s chances of returning to his comedy show on Britain’s Channel 4 television station: “Racist comedian Frankie Boyle could soon be returning to TV despite upsetting thousands of viewers with his sick jokes,” began the article, which also claimed that Boyle was “forced to quit” the BBC panel show Mock the Week owing to his brand of comedy. Feeling deeply wounded by the article, Boyle sued the paper for defamation in a London court; he claimed that the article was defamatory and that it brought him into “odium and contempt”─ stock phrases in many a defamation lawsuit. (By the way, to commit “defamation” against a person simply means to say things about that person which tend to damage or otherwise lower that person’s reputation in the community. If those offending words appear in written form, the harm that results is called a “libel,” as in Boyle’s situation.) Boyle claimed in court that just because he plays characters who express racist views doesn’t mean that he himself is a racist. “These are phrases that a racist would use”, Boyle said. “There is no way they are an endorsement of racist terminology. It is the absolute opposite of that.” In support of Boyle’s position, his lawyer stated that it would be ‘political correctness gone mad’ if Boyle were labeled racist for using racial language in his jokes.

For its part, the paper showed no remorse over the publication and instead stuck to its guns, claiming that Boyle was a ‘racist comedian’ who exploited negative stereotypes of black people for ‘cheap laughs.’ In a further slap at Boyle (who writes a column for a rival newspaper The Sun) the Mirror told the jury that if they should find that Boyle had in fact been ‘defamed’, they should merely award him the sum of 45p (forty-five pence), the price of a copy of the Daily Mirror. Ouch! Well, in the end, the jury came back and Boyle got the last laugh as the jury found that the paper had indeed defamed him. As a result, the court awarded Boyle a total sum of more than ₤54,000 (about US$ 80,000-plus) in damages plus court costs against the Daily Mirror.

Yet, as one might expect, considering the close ties between the pop cultures of the Britain and America, not a few folks, especially in the comedy and media worlds, have wondered if Boyle could have won his case so brilliantly if he had brought the defamation lawsuit in America instead. Well, for starters, if Boyle were merely a regular guy who either just drives a cab or works at the post office, his case probably would have gone the same way on both sides of the pond. For example, if Pete defames Joe who is a private person (think an average Joe) and then Pete can’t prove that what he said of Joe was true, then the defense fails and Pete becomes liable to Joe for defamation. But where the situation involves a ‘public figure’ (think a celebrity) then the matter is handled in a different way in each country. And this is where Boyle, who is undoubtedly a ‘public figure,’ would have faced a totally different ball game if the lawsuit would have been brought in the U.S.

It used to be that defamation cases were handled the same way on both sides of the pond until the 1960s when America decided that ‘public officials’ and ‘public figures’ would have to jump more hoops and work much harder than previously before they can win any defamation lawsuit that they choose to bring against anyone, whether a private person or a media organization. This meant that it is no longer just enough that something said about a public official or public figure was not true; a greater amount of fault on the part of the person who made the statement was now required. In short, a public official or public figure who files a defamation suit could still lose the case even if the statement made against him is later shown to be false. Tough stuff!

This new rule is called the ‘actual malice’ test, and two things are required in order for someone to fail the test and thereby become liable for defamation when sued by a public official or a public figure: first, the person must have intentionally made or published the false statement with the knowledge that the statement was false; or second, that the person chose to make or publish the false statement when the circumstances were clearly such that he should have known that the statement he was making or publishing was false. (In this second scenario, you might include situations like someone, for instance, deliberately looking away from another person who is trying to show him that the statement was false; or situations where someone simply chooses to believe some crazy ‘Mickey Mouse’ kind of talk that ‘pigs can fly.’ Instances that come under this second scenario are often regarded as ‘willful blindness.’)

At the time the new rule of ‘actual malice’ was adopted, it was said that the First Amendment which commits America to the principle of ‘uninhibited, robust and wide-open debate’ on matters of public interest or public issues needed the new approach in order to provide greater protection for ‘free speech.’ In the 1964 case where this new rule was established, the New York Times had published an ad put forward by an interest group; the said ad detailed the alleged mistreatment of civil rights activists by the Alabama authorities. It turned out that some of the facts stated in the ad were inaccurate, for example, like how many folks had been arrested; exactly where the police had been positioned on the campus; what particular song the protesters had been singing and more. When the public official in charge of the police sued the New York Times for defamation, America’s High Court said it didn’t matter that these statements of fact were in fact false. The court stated that under the First Amendment, no defamation was in fact committed as long as both the Times and those who paid for the ad didn’t knowingly or intentionally publish the false statements nor did they publish them under circumstances where they clearly should have known that the statements were false.

So, as it happens, Americans are willing to put up with some ‘false’ stuff in order to protect the right to free speech and to preserve their highly prized culture of spirited debate on public affairs.

But exactly why, in Britain, did Boyle win his case against the Daily Mirror? Well, it’s fair to say that the jury simply didn’t buy the defense’s story: they didn’t think it was true that Boyle was a ‘racist’ or that he was ‘forced to quit’ the Mock the Week show because of his racist views. The defense’s style itself could be described as something of a ‘kitchen sink’ strategy that allowed the defense to hedge its bets by playing the kind of hand that both an English lawyer and an American lawyer might choose to play in defending a case like this one. Essentially, the defense claimed that the offending statement was either ‘true’ or was an ‘honest comment on a matter of public interest.’ Interesting tactic: first, to show that the statement was true, the defense trotted out some of Boyle’s quite offensive remarks on the Channel 4 comedy show Tramadol Nights, including the Madeleine McCann crack as well as his Twitter quips about Paralympic athletes. Then the defense came up with the public interest commentary that many an American defamation lawyer would recognize. Pretty smart hedge!

Yet, in hindsight, Boyle’s opponents did not seem to have done themselves any favors with the whole Mock the Week business. It seems like the overall atmosphere at the jury trial tilted against them when they fought for but lost that branch of their case. For example, a witness with firsthand knowledge of the situation actually showed up at the trial to testify that Boyle was not in fact canned from Mock the Week. Even worse for the defense, the witness stated that the show’s producers had hoped that Boyle would make a return appearance on the show in the future. Apparently, the Daily Mirror might have looked better just sticking with general claim of ‘racism’ against Boyle and no more.

But seriously, how would Boyle have fared in an American court? Short answer: Not as well as he did in Britain! Not even close. For starters, America, unlike Britain, is First Amendment territory. So, predictably, the ‘public figure’ business would have been front and center of this kind of case in an American court and with that (you guessed it!) comes the ‘actual malice’ standard as well. All of this would have created massive complications for Boyle and thereby jeopardized his odds of winning. Incidentally, in the British case, the Daily Mirror won a small victory when it got the court to reject Boyle’s claim of ‘malicious falsehood’ in the Mock the Week imbroglio. In an American court, a ruling that there is no malice would be a huge factor that could only weigh down a public figure’s odds of winning a defamation lawsuit against a newspaper which is defending itself on grounds of public interest.

In the end, considering the potential impact of these big issues on everyday life in any society, the Boyle-Daily Mirror case is one of those situations that remind any observer that, ‘special relationship’ aside, Britain and America are still different places after all. As far as comedy goes, America, thanks to the First Amendment, is the best place on earth not only for anyone to be a comedian but also for anyone in the mood to mess with comedians. In our case here, it means that a dude like Boyle, who would say anything about anyone but cannot stand for certain things to be said about him, obviously is living on the right side of the Atlantic ── outside America, that is. For the Daily Mirror, well, living outside America apparently seems like a different ball of wax.

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    Author’s Note:

:*** As promised, my new book “Comedy Under Attack…” which covers political correctness and all the big issues in comedy today is now available on amazon.com and in stores. As a service to comedy, please post your comments about the book on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter and other places, so that together we can drive this ‘hot debate’ even deeper into the public square…