We’re Laughing At Trump, Not With Him
In crafting his famous “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker” sketch for Saturday Night Live, Chris Farley stumbled—literally—onto a name for his style of comedy. The portly actor, who combined a graceful athleticism with a preternatural ability to crash through things, explained his popularity succinctly: “Everybody laughs when fatty falls down.”
Farley’s lithe but bruising style is just one of the many comedic strategies available to people who want to make us laugh. There are lots and lots of pathways to humor: the relatable anecdote, the classic misdirection, the well-timed callback, the insightful metaphor. Some comedians roar, some whisper—some use props, others mine their own emotions for laughs accompanied by unease.
Attempting to delight his own fans, America’s Comedian-in-Chief Donald Trump has committed to his own style of humor, melding insult comedy with groan-inducing inappropriateness.
It seems to be working for Trump. His rallies are often accompanied by howls of laughter from the #MAGA-heads in attendance. During a recent hour-and-a-half speech in Green Bay, right-wing talk show host Michael Knowles asked whether we’ve ever had a president as funny as Trump:
Have we ever had a funnier president than @realDonaldTrump? Adams and especially Reagan also had great comedic chops, but this guy is on another level.
— Michael Knowles (@michaeljknowles) April 28, 2019
Set aside, for a moment, whether comedic “chops” are in the top ten (or 50) traits the citizenry should want in a president. (My own list would probably go (1) preventing a bomb from being dropped on me; (2) not raising my taxes in the name of a phony trade war, then spending more of my tax money to placate farmers hurt by said trade war; and (3) not obstructing justice. Your mileage may vary.) But Knowles’ point isn’t even right on the merits: Reagan kept notebooks full of witty one-liners scrawled to himself during his times thinking alone in his office. They’re almost all superior to Trump’s flaccid quips.
Trump’s humor is largely dependent on the shock value of him saying things unbecoming of a U.S. president. Or, for that matter, a normal, well-adjusted adult. His sick burns are obvious, often juvenile nicknames he gives to people who are clearly renting space in his head: “Sleepy Joe,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Bernie,” “Pocahontas,” “Lyin’ Ted.” Over the weekend, he dubbed Pete Buttigieg “Alfred E. Neuman,” which does nothing but remind people how very old the president is.
And as for Trump’s non-insult laugh lines, most of them elicit more applause than actual laughter—they’re much closer to the conservative version of clapter. And the lines that aren’t call-outs to his fans are only funny in the sense of being out of place in what’s supposed to be a semi-serious setting. Kind of like when a speaker at an insurance conference can turn into Jerry Seinfeld by making a joke about how he found out his “umbrella” insurance policy only covered being stabbed by an actual umbrella.
Get it? UMBRELLA!
None of Trump’s one-liners display clever turns-of-phrase or sharp insights. Instead, his biggest laugh lines—his insults—are sledgehammers, notable only in an “Oh my God, I can’t believe he said that” sort of way. Such stream-of-consciousness observations take exactly zero talent; 13-year old boys are currently doing better routines at middle schools across the country.
Take, for instance, an aside during his Green Bay speech when Trump discussed the difference between his motto—“Make America Great Again”—and Ronald Reagan’s “Let’s Make America Great Again” slogan. Trump explained to the sea of red hats why he didn’t want to use the word “let’s,” saying, “You don’t want the apostrophe, it’s too complicated.”
Do you hear that sound? It’s not the sound of funny.
Certainly, there’s a role for “I can’t believe he said that” humor—some of the best comedians working today are the ones who break the silence on topical issues. (See: Dave Chappelle on transgenderism, Chris Rock on the value of bullies, etc.)
And insults can be fun, especially when accompanied by lacerating wit. My favorite, for example, is Christopher Hitchens’ takedown of Jerry Falwell: “If you gave Falwell an enema, he’d be buried in a matchbox.”
But the only time Trump is truly funny is when he’s trying to be deadly serious. Watching him try to explain U.S. trade deficits with China is as adorable as viewing a rat on the New York City streets try to drag a piece of pizza up a flight of stairs. It’s funny because we’re not laughing with him; we’re laughing at him.
Chris Farley was once criticized for engaging in dopey humor that appealed to the lowest-common-denominator. But the truth is, his act took immeasurable skill and timing. Watch him work and it’s clear that he’s a technician.
Trump’s show, on the other hand, is only notable because it lacks any sign of talent other than a willingness to be embarrassed in public.
You might call Trump’s style “fatty falls up.”