This essay analyzes how the presidency of Donald Trump presented a challenge to satirists. It argues that the ironic complexities of the Trump figure itself created an unusual situation for satire, one which required it to adapt and change in novel ways. Because Trump was both absurd and terrifying, because he was both parody and credible threat, he created a unique situation for satirists, one where many of the common tools they carry in their comedic toolkit didn’t work. Satirical irony of Trump was not a matter of irony everywhere or ironic post-truthiness; when Trump satire was at its best, it worked in two competing, yet intertwined, representational directions because it was at once a return to sincerely using irony to reveal the truth while also using irony to reveal that reality had become grotesquely and ironically absurd. This essay explores two key examples of this new satirical aesthetic, Sarah Cooper’s interpretations of Trump and Jimmy Kimmel’s use of satire to defend democracy.
In June 2021, the story broke that Donald Trump had asked advisers and lawyers to investigate whether the Department of Justice could probe sources of satirical late-night comedy, like Saturday Night Live, that made fun of him.1 The fact that Trump would melt down, usually on Twitter, after he saw satire critical of him had been surprising enough. Typically, it is autocrats, not democratically elected leaders, who display such thin skin. In fact, one common trait of many US presidents has been the capacity to launch self-deprecating jokes—a move that often undercuts any similar jokes lobbed at them.2 Ronald Reagan made jokes about his age. Jimmy Carter quipped after leaving the White House, “My esteem in this country has gone up substantially. It is very nice now when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.”3 But Trump displayed none of that good-natured self-mocking.
In fact, quite the opposite. Seth Meyers once reflected on working with Trump as a guest host of Saturday Night Live and wondered if Trump even had the capacity to process comedy.4 Whether or not Trump could “get” a joke, one thing is clear: he didn’t like being the butt of one. Throughout his 2016 campaign and after, Trump made a habit of complaining about jokes he felt were critical of him, regularly taking to Twitter to grouse after seeing a joke on late-night comedy.
One SNL skit from December 2018 parodied It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946).5 In it, everyone has a better life if Trump isn’t in office; unsurprisingly, he wasn’t amused. His Twitter response to the skit revealed, though, that Trump wanted to go further than just complain about jokes; he wanted to shut them down:
A REAL scandal is the one-sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live. It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal? Only defame & belittle! Collusion?6
His anxieties led to debates over how conservatives could defend themselves against liberal bias in late-night comedy.7 But the critical point is that Trump did more than complain; he actually looked into whether he could find avenues to restrict political comedy targeting him.8
The story of Trump’s relationship to satire is not just filled with similarly surprising anecdotes; rather, the complexities of the Trump figure itself created an unusual situation for satire, one that required it to adapt and change in novel ways. Because Trump was both absurd and terrifying, because he was both parody and credible threat, he created a unique situation for satirists, one where many of the common tools they carry in their comedic toolkit didn’t work.
If satirists’ invective is their hammer, how were they to use it on a figure who was already a bombastic bully? If another of their skills is parody, what to make of someone who already was parodic? After Trump was elected, New Yorker satirical columnist Andy Borowitz explained: “We’re living in an age that defies satire.”9 Think, for example, of Trump’s suggestion that drinking bleach might offer protection from the coronavirus. Such a claim was deeply tragicomic: Trump—the deranged buffoon—threatens the health of the nation. The dramatic irony is also situational. The audience watching Trump handle the crisis knows that the ending won’t go well but also knows that they are stuck in the same play. It’s ironic, but not funny.
Trump defied satire. Yet, the effect was not the end of irony but, rather, a reinvention of satire’s primary mode of representational defiance. In fact, the most significant Trump effect on satire was to produce ironic irony. If satire is always an ironic representation, then under Trump it became an ironic representation of an ironic representation. Recall that irony has three dominant modes: (1) situational irony, where what is expected to happen doesn’t happen or where reality doesn’t make sense, as, for example, when the least-qualified person wins an election; (2) dramatic irony, where the audience knows more about the situation than the characters, as takes place famously at the end of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; (3) rhetorical irony, or what I prefer to call creative irony, since it may not only be expressed rhetorically, where an artist or comedian or everyday person represents something in one way but actually means something else. Most satire belongs to the third mode. But Trump complicated irony because he embodied all three types at the same time.
In Trump, the United States had elected an actual reality-TV president (situational irony) who was also a parody of one (creative irony) and, by being elected, acquired an immense amount of power he was entirely ill-equipped to handle (dramatic irony). If the power of satire tends to lie in the gap between figurative representation and intended meaning, Trump’s own bizarre, uncanny embodied reality presented figurative representation with an ironic dilemma: how to make the bizarre real while also revealing how bizarre reality had become?
The catch, however, is that this ironic house of mirrors upended traditional representational layers of irony, even those associated with postmodern irony or post-irony. Under Trump, for example, Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreal America seems far more realistic than Trumpland. Similarly, one can only imagine how David Foster Wallace would have handled Trump, since Trump destabilized the ironically mundane aesthetics that often worked with a figure like George W. Bush.
In these ways, Trump presented a unique challenge to irony, one requiring a wholly new satirical aesthetic. Satirical irony of Trump was not a matter of irony everywhere or ironic post-truthiness. Rather, when Trump satire was at its best, it worked in two competing, yet intertwined, representational directions: a return to sincerely using irony to reveal the truth while also using irony to reveal that reality had become grotesquely and ironically absurd. Although there were multiple types of satirical aesthetics aimed at Trump, the most effective was this new satirical form that was at once an exaggeration of an exaggeration and also an earnest use of irony to deflate the lies, bigotry, and bias that defined the Trump presidency.
Two key examples of this new satirical aesthetic stand out: Sarah Cooper’s reinterpretations of Trump, and Jimmy Kimmel’s use of satire to defend democracy. But in fact, this new satirical aesthetic had multiple instantiations during the Trump presidency, and there is reason to speculate that it is a satirical mode that has yet to run its course.
It’s Hard to Make a Joke Out of a Joke
The situational irony of having the least-qualified person win the 2016 election created a complex reality for critical irony. Because reality during the Trump era was already so deeply ironic, it became increasingly hard to find the right angle to expose the folly, farce, and fears brought on by the Trump presidency. Many late-night political comedians found themselves teetering between vulgar epithets and incredibly creative ironic commentary. Think of the clever interventions of Samantha Bee (alongside her C-word meltdown, which sadly served to detract from the point she had wanted to make).10
Stephen Colbert’s own C-word scandal had the same effect of distracting from a sharp satirical take.11 Bee had wanted to draw attention to the callous realities of the Trump administration’s immigration policy. Colbert had wanted to defend his CBS colleague from yet another Trump attack on the news media. Yet, in a further example of the ironies of the Trump era, their satirical interventions were lost on audiences outraged over vulgar language.
One of the particularly challenging components of the Trump presidency for comedians was the way in which he already seemed like an impersonation. Trump’s performative style, braggadocio, and basic lack of understanding of the workings of US government all combined to throw challenges to the comedians impersonating him. Trump’s persona required comedians to go beyond simply emulating his speech patterns and physical habits. This was why Jimmy Fallon’s impersonation of Trump fell flat. Fallon did the standard move of offering an exaggerated physical rendition of Trump, but that was boring since it captured neither Trump’s bluster, nor his dangerous ineptitude, nor his bigoted, sexist, selfish nature.
It’s not just that Fallon’s Trump fell flat; it was also that the aesthetic space within which he, as a white, hetero, male, celebrity, presented his version of Trump on a late-night network comedy show was ill-equipped to offer the sort of creative dissonance necessary for representational impact. Even though Alec Baldwin’s version of Trump on SNL was a powerful satirical intervention, largely due to the fact that Trump was so regularly bothered by it that it offered a spectacle of his insecurities, some of the best Trump mockery came from outside of the professional-celebrity class. The musical parodies of Trump posted by Randy Rainbow on YouTube, for instance, regularly attacked Trump’s character in a tone that was both disturbed and admonishing. Having an openly gay performer mockingly chide Trump through show tunes on such a popular site offered the novel representational aesthetics required to expose the dangerous, delusional realities of Trump. Even more important, having a lesser-known performer like Rainbow skewer a powerful figure like Trump was inherently ironic in ways that celebrity impersonations like those of Baldwin or Fallon could never be.
Sarah Cooper’s impersonations of Trump enjoyed a similar innovative creative space within which to make fun of Trump in a critically productive way. Cooper, though, used an even more creative platform than YouTube, since her work first appeared via TikTok, the platform for user postings of short videos. TikTok was known as a space that bypassed traditional celebrity venues, offering creators of all types a chance to be seen.
Cooper’s TikTok videos stood out as remarkable for their understated yet complex renditions of Trump. Cooper simply lip-synced Trump. Viewers would hear his voice yet see her saying his words. Occasionally she appeared in split screen, as one image of her mouthed Trump’s words and another reacted to them—a tactic that offered a complex layering, with Cooper both embodying and observing her own embodiment of Trump. Yet, even when the image was singular, just Cooper mouthing Trump’s words, her facial expressions offered layers of meaning. Typically, she seemed to be both reacting to his words and offering her interpretation of his inner thoughts. Her performance was doubly layered, signaling both astonishment and concern as Trump’s observer while simultaneously displaying the same bullying, narcissistic stupidity that Trump did.
The fact that Cooper did this performance as a female, Jamaican-American comedian cleverly passing judgement on a callous moron added an incisive layer to her impersonations that was aesthetically innovative. Cooper literally represented (almost) everything Trump hated—as a female immigrant of color—which added even greater representational force to her work. As she described it, she wasn’t trying to do an impersonation or an impression; she was “interpreting” Trump for the “emotionally blind.” Her reembodiment of Trump with actual sound bites of him talking had a deliberate communicative purpose. The idea was to create sufficient representational space to make it easier to truly see Trump. By only reprising his words, devoid of his precise choreographed physicality, Cooper aimed to make it easier to return representational gravitas to the Trump spectacle. Removing his physicality by disembodying his voice was an effort to make him more real. As she described it in an interview with Stephen Colbert, if you couldn’t see Trump’s BS when you watched him speaking, then watching her say it would work to expose his BS.12
It wasn’t just that Cooper disconnected Trump physically from his words; it was also that she embodied him as a woman. Prior to Trump, it was uncommon to see female comedians, especially women of color, impersonate (white) male politicians, particularly presidents. In fact, male comedians often embody women, but the reverse is rare.13
This lack of reciprocity explains, in part, why Kate McKinnon’s Jeff Sessions and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impersonations were such powerful elements of Trump-era SNL. For in yet another novel development for satire during the Trump years, suddenly there was a wave of female comedians effectively impersonating powerful men—a shift that was brought on, at least in part, by the mainstreamed celebration of toxic masculinity that defined Trumpism. But there was more to the novelty of Cooper’s impersonation. Typically, the impersonator gains representational power from their own gravitas as a performer, supplementing the aura of the celebrity with their own creative aura. This, of course, was at least part of the reason why Baldwin’s Trump drew such attention and why McCarthy’s Sean Spicer was so epic.
Cooper, however, was relatively unknown when she started lip-syncing to Trump, even reportedly considering quitting comedy before her Trump impersonations went viral.14 With Cooper, it was exactly her capacity to so effectively upend Trump’s celebrity as an unknown entity that then translated into her own celebrity. Cooper’s impersonation was especially noteworthy for how it inverted the traditional power dynamics of impersonations. And for the uncanny way that she embodied a fearful, blustery, incoherent Trump alongside her rendition of a concerned citizen.
Lip-syncing could seem like a simple gag, yet with Cooper it became high art—a fact that Cooper proved when she took her work to Netflix for a special called Everything’s Fine. In a brilliant display of how a different platform could offer her work new possibilities, she shot a scene with Helen Mirren in which the two re-created the 2005 audio of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush. Mirren portrays Bush and Cooper does Trump. Having the two women reenact a deeply misogynistic scene is yet another example of the representational potential offered by the disembodied reembodiment of toxic males by women. It has to be noted, as well, that Mirren’s own stature as a graceful, yet strong, female celebrity added considerable irony to her crass rendition of Bush. The dynamics between the two women as they stripped down the misogynistic performativity of “locker room” masculinity drives home the ironic aesthetic of Trump-era satire: they show how truly disturbing and strangely bizarre these men are, rendering them visible and absurd at the same time.
That Cooper started her satire of Trump on TikTok is noteworthy. Trump was the first president to personally manage his own social-media image, largely through Twitter and to a lesser extent Facebook. He also regularly knew how to navigate and control his representation on cable television—most specifically, on Fox News. What’s interesting, as highlighted in Trump’s meltdown’s over SNL, is that Trump tended to take the position that he was being discriminated against by the media, either by liberal-leaning negative representations of him or by exclusion.
His stance on how media was mean to him makes his reaction to TikTok even more interesting. While Trump tended to argue that he was being censored and treated unfairly in spaces like Twitter, with TikTok, he simply wanted it banned. The front-facing argument by the Trump team was that TikTok represented a Chinese threat to national security. For those familiar with Trump’s efforts to control his media image, that argument fell flat. Rather, what seemed more likely was that Trump wanted to ban TikTok because the platform represented a social-media platform totally out of his control. TikTok had been used, for example, to successfully ruin a major Trump rally that had been scheduled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June 2020. TikTokers, along with other online users, coordinated a campaign to register for tickets to the event and never show up.
While TikTok has a complicated connection to political activism, and while there is significant evidence that its content is controlled, there seems little doubt that the platform was an effective space for anti-Trump advocacy. The reality that TikTok was a space that offered average people, both in the United States and abroad, a space not just to mock the president but also to truly affect his image made the TikTok interventions of Cooper even more significant as a satirical innovation.
Cooper’s satirical art was defined by the way that she ironically exaggerated an exaggeration in order to reveal the absurd truth. Before both Cooper and Kimmel, though, Jon Stewart had established this new critical form of satire when he hosted The Daily Show (TDS) (Comedy Central, 1996–2015). It is important to examine how the comedy of Stewart began the trend whereby satire defends democracy that Jimmy Kimmel would later take up.
Jon Stewart: The Satirist as Defender of Democracy
Scholars of satire know that it is usually defined primarily by both irony and critique. Northrop Frye famously referred to the “militant irony” of satire, quipping that “in satire, irony is militant.”15 While there is a great debate over whether the satirist hopes to eviscerate the target or merely poke good-natured yet sharp-witted barbs its way, it is generally agreed that the satirist aims to critique folly, foibles, vices, and other abuses of power. No matter whether the goal of satire is social reform or cynical nihilism, the satirist tends to want to upend a flawed status quo. The point is that satire tends to be profoundly critical, at times overtly negative, which is why it is so often associated with cynicism.
The satire of Jon Stewart started to trend away from these practices in interesting ways. As Matthew E. Popkin explains, over the course of his tenure as host of TDS, Stewart increasingly used satire as a mechanism to demand accountability from both the media and politicians.16 In fact, one of the key shifts in Jon Stewart–style satire was the way that it moved from traditional entertainment comedy into a kind of fifth estate, functioning in the interest of the public good.17 What further happened with Stewart was that his use of satire for the public good transformed into more than a critical prod meant to push those in power to act ethically, over time actually taking on its own positive qualities, with Stewart himself increasingly modeling civic action and engagement. This transformation of the satirist from cynical critic to critical citizen was a significant change in the aesthetic purpose of satire.
While it was not unique to Stewart to use satirical wit to demand more from politicians, his genuine commitment to democratic institutions and principles was uncommon. Stewart would frequently insist he was simply a comedian, but it was clear back in 2004, when he had already become a public influencer, that he was playing a dual role, one that exceeded the traditional boundaries of the satirical court jester. Perhaps one of the best examples of Stewart’s complicated persona was his appearance in 2004 on CNN’s Crossfire, cohosted by Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. Frustrated by Stewart’s critical interventions on the show, Carlson kept asking him to just “be funny,” but Stewart couldn’t resist the chance to ask Carlson and Begala to take their roles in news media seriously, asking why they were doing such a lousy job. “You’re doing theater when you should be doing debate,” said Stewart. “What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery…. You’re on CNN. The show leading into me is puppets making crank phone calls. What is wrong with you?”18 Stewart’s sincere critique struck a chord. CNN canceled the show.
These shifts meant that suddenly cable, particularly entertainment on Comedy Central, was operating under Stewart as a key part of the public sphere; it signals a shift whereby traditional news outlets started to be displaced by satire news, both in attracting viewers and in informing them in politically effective ways. Thus, the Crossfire exchange was significant not only for the story of its cancellation; it also reveals that, in 2004, satire was already playing a different role in US public culture. Previously, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin had made careers out of critiquing and shaming their audiences. For them, satire was about provocation and using irony to expose hypocrisy and folly. In contrast, Stewart offered a new version of political satire that was more interested in serving the public than in pointing out the nation’s flaws.
One of the key staples of Stewart’s satire was his use of sound bites from the news. As they would play, his WTF expression was often all that was needed to provide an ironic commentary on the vapid and sensationalist ways that news was being reported. In contrast to the hyped-up reality of most televised news, Stewart would then dive into an issue, either by including reporting by his team or through his interviews. The ironic juxtaposition of sound bites, openly empty of substance, and satirical interventions, not only informative but critically savvy, helped to create a news aesthetic for satire that was extremely effective—so much so that it was literally replicated across the globe.
In 2004, the same year that Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly ranted about how scary it was that Stewart’s “stoned slacker” audience could vote, the Pew Research Center released a study that showed that 21 percent of people under thirty said they regularly learned about the campaign and the candidates from comedy shows like TDS, a substantial increase from 9 percent in 2000.19 Overall, more than half of those polled in 2004 suggested they got at least some of their political information from comedy. If O’Reilly was right to worry, he was wrong about what to worry about: TDS viewers weren’t stoned slackers, but they were increasingly pivoting to shows like TDS for their political reporting. Julia R. Fox, Glory Koloen, and Volkan Sahin found that in 2004 the “amount of substantive information in ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’ and the broadcast network newscasts was the same.”20 Their research showed that the primary difference was that TDS mixed substance with entertainment whereas the news combined substance with hype. The comedians blended reporting with ironic comedy; the journalists coupled it with fear.
What the traditional news media didn’t notice, as it created a fear-based mode designed to keep viewers glued to their shows, was that fear and hype were also the mode of much political discourse. If at one time Walter Cronkite was the calm voice of reason who could deflate the paranoid delusions of Richard Nixon, no such representational gap was in play in mainstream news outlets reporting on politics in the 2000s. Sowing political divisions, focusing on personalities over policy, and using faulty logic to exacerbate debates rather than foster dialogue were the norm for both politicians and the news media covering them. If viewers, especially younger viewers, found the repetitive spectacle problematic, then satire news, which was supposed to be spectacle, could get more serious; in effect, they started to trust it more.
Over the years, Stewart would take on the mantle of a trusted journalist—a role he constantly dismissed, preferring, instead, to keep hounding the actual journalists to do their job. Despite his protests, though, the public increasingly viewed him as a news-media figure. In a Pew Research study from 2007, Stewart was tied with Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper, and Brian Williams for “Most Admired News Figures.”21 It was striking that Stewart—a comedian—was even included on the list of “news figures.” Then, in 2009 when Walter Cronkite died, Stewart was voted by Time magazine as “America’s most trusted newscaster.”22 The result wasn’t even close: Stewart carried 44 percent of the vote, with NBC’s Brian Williams (29 percent), ABC’s Charles Gibson (19 percent), and CBS’s Katie Couric (7 percent) trailing behind.
Stewart also crossed over into direct political action, thereby solidifying the role of the sincere satirist committed to the public good. In one example, Stewart testified before Congress in support of legislation to ensure health care for 9/11 first responders.
It was over the course of his time as host of TDS that Stewart’s irony shifted. He maintained his “Can you believe these guys?” mode when he satirized politicians and the media, but he also increasingly pivoted to a sincere tone, absent of any satirical wit. These moments were almost entirely aimed at encouraging his audience to be active and ethically committed citizens, to resist the logical flaws of most political discourse, and to refuse to be pushed into divisive categories like “red” versus “blue” which, he reminded them, were manufactured by the news media at the service of hype over information. In those moments of sincerity, Stewart’s irony, to the extent that it existed at all, was aimed at how ironic it was that a democracy had allowed itself to be so undemocratically defined by self-aggrandizing power elites. In these instances, Stewart’s own role as a champion of democracy replaced critically creative irony with situational irony, which was necessary for a comedian now more committed to the public good than either politicians or news media. The comedian was more interested in serving the public than in cracking an ironic joke.
When Stewart retired as host of The Daily Show in 2015, he opened the door to a far wider menu of satire news and satirical interventions into politics, both on video and in print.23 By then, the daily appetite for that delivery of information had been heightened, and comedians like Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj, Trevor Noah, Amber Ruffin, and others offered the public a wide range of information packaged in satire, with each comedian crafting their own unique take on the form. What they all had in common, though, was that, like Stewart, they combined satirical commentary with an earnest commitment to democratic institutions and the public good—a mantle that would become even more pressing when Trump was elected.
Satire Defends the Nation from Trump
Shortly after Trump was elected, Michael Moore appeared at a rally in New York and encouraged the audience to “form an army of comedy” to challenge the soon-to-be-inaugurated Trump administration.24 What’s funny about his comment in hindsight is the fact that when Moore suggested the power of an army of comedy, the notion didn’t really seem that strange. During Moore’s own career he had witnessed the growing power of satire in shaping public opinion, encouraging civic engagement, and helping to defend the mind from the cognitive exhaustion of repression.
Political satire holds a powerful role in influencing the public, especially during moments of crisis, catastrophe, and repression. Yet, as in the case of comedy like that of Sarah Cooper, Trump-era satire had to develop unique strategies due to the complexities of making jokes about a joke, impersonating an impersonation, and parodying a parody. In Cooper’s work, satire was both an exaggeration of an exaggeration and an effort to reveal the real.
Another strain of satire displayed similar aesthetic qualities, but with an added caveat inspired by the “good citizen” satire of Stewart. Under Trump, a number of satirists took up the unusual position of defending democratic institutions, acting as “conservators” rather than conservatives. In reaction to Trump’s political allies, who seemed hell-bent on literally dismantling every civic agency that they were asked to lead—the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, to name a few—satirists found themselves defending civic institutions. No longer did they want to simply criticize bureaucratic institutions or point out the flaws in the system itself; they literally wanted to protect them.
While these trends were already visible during the early post-9/11 years, the Trump administration’s combination of incompetence, hubris, and flagrant disrespect for democratic institutions took these practices to a whole new level. Think, for example, of how Hasan Minhaj lectured Trump on the meaning of the First Amendment during his White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner speech in 2017. Or how Seth Meyers schooled Trump on how to be a president in the wake of the Charlottesville alt-right, neo-Nazi rally that left activist Heather Heyer dead. In fact, examples abound of satirists stepping up to champion the very institutions that Trump and his team seemed to want to destroy. But, perhaps the most surprising—and consequently, poignant—example of this shift was the way that Trump’s election affected the comedy of Jimmy Kimmel.
Jimmy Kimmel Teaches Trump How to Be a Man
If there was one way to prove that the presidency of Donald Trump changed comedy in the United States, it would be in the transformation of Jimmy Kimmel from a frat-boy jokester into a seriously ironic comedian. It’s true that Kimmel still offered a heaping dose of bro humor that is a far cry from critically provocative satire. (He was, of course, once a cohost of The Man Show [Comedy Central, 1999–2004], where one of his most famous bits was a long-standing feud with Matt Damon and another, with a series of stars, was entitled “I’m Fucking Ben Affleck.”) But after the Trump election, Kimmel’s comedy acquired a new sincerity—one that, while likely spurred on by his own family experiences, was certainly a response to the ways that the Trump team threatened to destroy a range of civic institutions.
In January 2003, Kimmel left his post at The Man Show to launch his new show for ABC, Jimmy Kimmel Live! When his show first premiered, Kimmel’s comedy largely was dude jokes, influenced, at least in part, by his admiration of the work of Howard Stern. He also relied heavily on pop-culture commentary and viral gimmicks (like his “Mean Tweets” segments and telling kids you ate their Halloween candy). His humor tended toward observational comedy, black comedy, and insult comedy, often delivered deadpan. Kimmel had built up a specific fan base that enjoyed that type of humor—a fact that would make his Trump-era transformation even more significant.
The shift became highly visible after the birth of his son, Billy, in April 2017. Billy had been born with a rare heart defect that required emergency surgery. When Kimmel returned afterward, he was a changed man, and he was prepared to let his audience see it. That night, as he showed himself to be vulnerable and sensitive and capable of connecting a highly personal event to a larger political landscape, marked a sea change for Kimmel. Over the course of the thirteen-minute segment he cried, made a few standard self-deprecating jokes, but then deliberately shifted into a different gear. He purposefully linked Billy’s health challenges with the Trump administration’s efforts to cut the National Institutes of Health. The experience made him deeply aware of the struggles facing many families who didn’t have his privilege but also needed major medical care for their children. And he became highly aware of the fact that medical research is a public good that requires investment and commitment from political leaders.
Up until that moment Kimmel had avoided political comedy. With David Letterman as one of his biggest influences, Kimmel had not wanted to reveal his political views. But then Trump won the presidency and, as Kimmel said, “This sounds romantic, but I’ve never felt this way about a president before.”25 Later, when Kimmel chastised Trump for not supporting gun-control legislation after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, he stated, “If you don’t think we need to do something about it, you’re obviously mentally ill.”26
Since Kimmel’s turn toward the political he has championed health-care reform, gun control, and a revised immigration policy. But Kimmel’s most significant Trump intervention took place when he went after Trump’s right-wing toxic masculinity, outsize male ego, and dangerous megalomania. Given Kimmel’s own macho bravado, his critique of the right-wing male ego is an especially powerful and much-needed addition to the menu of satirical Trump-era takedowns. In January 2018, Kimmel went after one of Trump’s particularly batshit weeks, which included, among other things, referring to Haiti and African nations as “shithole” countries.27 Given Kimmel’s own history of making jokes that traded in locker-room humor, frat-boy jokes, and a bro sensibility, it was deeply ironic to have a comedian like Kimmel suddenly become a model for masculine leadership.
Further, Kimmel’s Trump jokes often circulated on Twitter—a platform that Trump himself used to increase his political presence. In fact, it was on Twitter that you could really see how serious Kimmel was about taking ironic jabs at Trump. On February 26, 2017, Kimmel tweeted “Hey @realDonaldTrump u up?”28 Even better, each time Kimmel mocked Trump, a host of average Twitter users piled on in the comments section to offer their own satirical jabs, some of which were even funnier and more pointed than the original Kimmel joke. On Twitter, Kimmel opened up a public sphere of ironic mocking that continuously put Trump’s hollow yet toxic masculinity fully on display.
Kimmel became an especially important part of the satirical humor lineup for comedy in the Trump era. The power of his ironic and impassioned interventions came from the very fact that comedy in the service of the public good had not previously been one of his interests. In contrast to the radical work of Cooper, the innovative element in Kimmel’s satire mode comes from the irony of his doing these sorts of interventions in the first place. The irony of Kimmel’s sincerity, as a comedian with his own history of shallow jokes, positioned him as a productive foil who could expose the shallow, yet dangerous, reality of Trump. Kimmel acquired the representational force needed to expose Trump’s own destructive tendencies.
Another Trump Irony: Even Out of Office, He Gets More Attention Than the Actual President
While it’s true that most of the trends outlined here began well before Donald Trump was elected to office, there is little question that his run in the White House both accelerated and exacerbated a satirical aesthetic committed to exposing equally the real and the absurd in the service of the common good. For some, such shifts cause concern—whether that politics requires seriousness or that satire is a dangerous distraction that leads to cynical apathy. Yet, as seen in the Trump years, one of the best ways to counter situational ironies is with creative irony. When a corrupt, self-serving, bigoted narcissist tells a nation that he will make it “great,” it may be satirical irony that does the best job of exposing the truth behind the lies.
Since the election of Joe Biden, many have speculated that ironic comedy will wane, and there is evidence that professional comedians have backed off of Biden jokes. The catch, though, as with Cooper and TikTok, is that public satire is no longer controlled by professionals and no longer dominated by shows like SNL: up to and since the 2020 election, there has in fact been significant satire of Biden, who already had a long history of being spoofed, notably with jokes about his affinity for “muscle cars.” Biden’s own complex image as a creepy, gropey “uncle” who is also a strong, benevolent leader offers plenty of creative ironic space for satire.
Thus far, though, the continued presence of Trump and Trumpism has largely eclipsed any real development of a new Biden satire aesthetic. That displacement has produced another irony: a former president is getting more attention than the one in office. This is another Trump-era shift, one that is entirely new in the nation’s comedic history and another sign that satire—aimed at making the bizarre real and exposing how real the bizarre has become—has a new normal that may just be here to stay.
Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley, “Trump Wanted His Justice Department to Stop ‘SNL’ from Teasing Him,” Daily Beast, June 22, 2021, www.thedailybeast.com/trump-wanted-his-justice-department-to-stop-snl-from-teasing-him.
Frank T. McAndrew, “Politicians Don’t Seem to Laugh at Themselves As Much Anymore,” The Conversation, August 21, 2019, https://theconversation.com/politicians-dont-seem-to-laugh-at-themselves-as-much-anymore-122103. This study shows that making self-deprecating jokes elevates the audience’s opinion of a politician. In contrast, jokes that mock a politician can negatively influence the audience’s view. Jody C. Baumgartner, Jonathan S. Morris, and Jeffrey Michael Coleman, “Did the ‘Road to the White House Run Through’ Letterman?: Chris Christie, Letterman, and Other-Disparaging versus Self-Deprecating Humor,” Journal of Political Marketing 17, no. 3 (2018): 282–300, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15377857.2015.1074137.
Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard, “The Best Joke George W. Bush Ever Told in Office,” Time, January 9, 2018, https://time.com/5094914/president-jokes/.
Edward-Isaac Dovere. Meyers, “Trump Wanted Me To Apologize On-Air for Making Fun of Him,” Politico, May 8, 2018, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/05/08/seth-meyers-trump-whcd-jokes-apologize-218323/.
Brian Flood, “‘SNL’ Is Tougher on Trump Than Past Presidents, but NBC Won’t Let Up Anytime Soon, Experts Say,” Fox News, December 7, 2018, www.foxnews.com/entertainment/snl-is-tougher-on-trump-than-past-presidents-but-nbc-wont-let-up-anytime-soon-critics-say.
Kyle Balluck, “Trump: ‘Unfair’ Coverage Should Be Tested In Courts,” The Hill, December 16, 2018, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/421574-trump-unfair-coverage-should-be-tested-in-courts.
Christian Schneider, “Conservatives Should Not Surrender in Entertainment Wars,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 14, 2018, www.jsonline.com/story/opinion/columnists/christian-schneider/2018/06/14/conservatives-should-not-surrender-comedy-war/701802002/.
Jon Skolnik, “Trump Tried to Get Justice Department to Stop ‘SNL’ and ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’ from Mocking Him: rpt,” Salon, June 22, 2021, www.salon.com/2021/06/22/trump-tried-to-get-justice-department-to-stop-snl-and-jimmy-kimmel-live-from-mocking-him-rpt/.
Francesca Giuliani-Hoffman, “Andy Borowitz: ‘We’re Living in an Age That Defies Satire,’” CNN Money, June 12, 2017, https://money.cnn.com/2017/06/12/media/andy-borowitz-interview-reliable-sources-podcast/index.html.
See Arwa Mahdawi, “Samantha Bee Proves There’s Still One Word You Cannot Say in America,” The Guardian, June 2, 2018, www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jun/01/samantha-bee-ivanka-trump-c-word-america. While Bee took a lot of flak for the comment, I would suggest that there was not nearly enough attention to her brilliant use of the word feckless.
See German Lopez, “Stephen Colbert Tried to Insult Donald Trump. He Made a Homophobic Comment Instead,” Vox, May 2, 2017, www.vox.com/identities/2017/5/2/15515066/stephen-colbert-trump-putin-homophobia-late-show.
Stephen Colbert, “Sarah Cooper’s Viral Trump Lip Sync Videos Act as an Interpreter for the Emotionally Blind,” October 28, 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKr8i23RwiU.
For a fun take on this point, see Nick Delmacy, “Why Do So Many Men Imitate Women for Comedy but Not the Other Way Around?” Cypher Avenue, 2014, https://cypheravenue.com/why-do-so-many-men-imitate-women-for-comedy-but-not-the-other-way-around/.
Andrea Marks, “‘I Have to Pinch Myself’: Sarah Cooper’s Rapid Rise from Trump TikToker to Netflix Star,” Rolling Stone, October 27, 2020, www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-features/sarah-cooper-interview-everythings-fine-1081258/.
Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), 222.
Mathew E. Popkin, “The Role and Impact of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Taking Satire Seriously on a ‘Daily Show’ Basis,” Inquiries 4, no. 9 (2012), www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/693/the-role-and-impact-of-the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-taking-satire-seriously-on-a-daily-show-basis.
For a more in-depth consideration of this shift, see Sophia A. McClennen and Remy M. Maisel, Is Satire Saving Our Nation?: Mockery and American Politics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
THR Staff, “Watch Jon Stewart Call Tucker Carlson a ‘Dick’ in Epic 2004 ‘Crossfire’ Takedown,” Hollywood Reporter, January 5, 2017, www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/jon-stewart-takes-down-tucker-carlson-crossfire-video-961127/.
“Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political News Universe: Perceptions of Partisan Bias Seen as Growing, Especially by Democrats,” Pew Research Center, January 11, 2004, www.pewresearch.org/internet/2004/01/11/cable-and-internet-loom-large-in-fragmented-political-news-universe/.
Julia R. Fox, Glory Koloen, and Volkan Sahin, “No Joke: A Comparison of Substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Broadcast Nework Presidential Election Campaign,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 51, no. 2 (2007): 213–27, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08838150701304621/.
“Today’s Journalists Less Prominent,” Pew Research Center, March 8, 2007, www.pewresearch.org/politics/2007/03/08/todays-journalists-less-prominent/.
Megan Garber, “Shocker of the Day: Stewart (Still) Most Trusted Newscaster in America,” Columbia Journalism Review, July 23, 2009, https://archives.cjr.org/the_kicker/shocker_of_the_day_stewart_sti.php.
Stewart returned to television in the Fall of 2021 with the Apple+ series The Problem With Jon Stewart, which he describes as like The Daily Show, but “less entertaining, but also… more complete.” Lacey Rose, “Jon Stewart Isn’t Laughing,” The Hollywood Reporter, September 15, 2021.
Aja Romano, “Michael Moore: Fight Donald Trump with “an Army of Comedy,” Vox, January 20, 2017, www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/20/14331072/michael-moore-alec-baldwin-we-stand-united-rally-comedy.
Geoff Edgers, “Late Show of Emotion,” Washington Post, March 1, 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/style/wp/2018/03/01/feature/jimmy-kimmel-might-be-americas-conscience-but-hell-still-do-anything-for-a-laugh/?utm_term=.ba973e8c34ce.
“Jimmy Kimmel Runs Through Donald Trump’s Particularly Batshit Week,” Digg.com, http://digg.com/video/kimmel-trump-racist-comments.
Jimmy Kimmel @jimmykimmel, February 26, 2017. https://twitter.com/jimmykimmel/status/836060793783267328.