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Trump Can Be Comedy Gold, But Not All Comedians Are Mining

Jul 29, 2017
Originally published on July 29, 2017 5:20 pm

Comedians have vastly different styles and sensibilities. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Montreal's annual Just For Laughs comedy festival, where one minute you're riding a speedboat of brainy one-liners from Jerry Seinfeld; the next, you're floating along with the intoxicating tales of Ron Funches.

Comedians are just as varied in their decisions of whether to talk politics on stage.

For professional jokesters, President Trump is either gold to mine or a grenade to avoid. Sometimes he's both. With impersonations by Alec Baldwin, Kate McKinnon and Melissa McCarthy, Saturday Night Live has turned the Trump administration into bona fide comedy canon. The Late Show's Stephen Colbert delights in poking fun at the powerful, like the time he asked Andy Serkis to read Mr. Trump's tweets in the voice of Gollum from The Lord of The Rings movies. More brazenly, Viceland's Desus and Mero lacerate White House staffers as they watch them in video interviews or speeches.

The philosophy at comedy video website Funny Or Die: tackle it head on. "I think comedy is at its best when it's addressing power and powerful institutions," says CEO Mike Farah. "Right now we have an individual who is representing an institution in ways that lots of people disagree with. And if we can use comedy to attack that power, and to make funny and smart observations about the world and the hypocrisy we're living in ... I think it's our responsibility."

Among Funny Or Die's Trump-related material, comedians Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson do a spoof called Jared & Ivanka.

Other comedians aren't sure they want to plumb the depths of the current administration. Dave Chappelle told The New York Times he thought it was hard for comedians to find an "angle that sounds fresh." More recently, as a guest on the NPR podcast What's Good with Stretch and Bobbito, Chappelle marveled at Mr. Trump's impact.

"I can't remember anybody permeating the American psyche this completely," he said. "Everyone's always talking about this guy, speculating about this guy. He's a noisy, noisy president."

Former SNL cast member Sasheer Zamata confronts social issues in her stand-up, but her point of departure is usually personal. Stories about working at Disney World or being in an interracial couple are both specific to her but indirectly confront some harsh truths about current events. While she doesn't consider herself a political comedian, she couldn't avoid Donald Trump when she filmed her comedy special Pizza Mind in New Orleans last December. "I only have one joke in there. He gets enough press," says Zamata pointedly.

Laid-back Ron Funches avoids material that's heavily political altogether.

"That's not comedy. That's a rally," he says. Funches prefers to keep his material "sharp" but "positive." He says he has more fun telling jokes about things he likes. "Video games. Pot. Butts."

Still, Funches does have an idea for a new show. As a serious fan of WWE, he says he wants to do "a wrestling cartoon where one of the wrestlers is also the president of the United States," Funches says with a sly smile. "I don't know if it's an allegory for anything going on in the United States. But it could be."

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