Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton on “Saturday Night Live.”
Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton on “Saturday Night Live.” PHOTOGRAPH BY WILL HEATH / NBC / NBCU PHOTO BANK VIA GETTY
The “Saturday Night Live” parody of the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, with Alec Baldwin as Trump and Kate McKinnon as Clinton, was the funniest thing that existed in America up until that time. Evidently, Baldwin’s whole career had led up to his channelling of Trump. The pursed, prurient lips, the porcine eyes, the projection of complete and utter shameless, self-serving fraudulence, the brilliant stroke of pronouncing “China” to conjure “vagina”— this was a Trump to be improved upon only by Trump himself. As for McKinnon, who has been preparing her Hillary for decades, her Hillary impersonation now approaches perfection. The sneakiness, the avidity, the robotic look that undoes careful pre-debate coaching all mesh together like driven gears in her mobile face. Against Baldwin’s Trump, she never dropped a step, Fonteyn to his Nureyev.
On the following week’s show, their parody of the second Trump-Clinton encounter, the “town hall” debate, involved more characters—Alex Moffat as Anderson Cooper, Cecily Strong as Martha Raddatz, and Bobby Moynihan as Ken Bone. It was as funny, or funnier. You could watch it on YouTube and laugh straight through, as when someone is tickling you and won’t stop. Trump has made more ridiculous statements since that show aired, so no doubt there will be sketches in the future that are funnier still.
Certain timeless laws apply to comedy—“Put the funniest word in the sentence at the end,” for example. But in the modern era, in the world of political comedy, strange laws never seen before seem to be kicking in. The law that the efficiency of microchips increases exponentially every few years may now apply to political comedy, which gets exponentially funnier with every election cycle. People old enough to be grandparents will remember Vaughn Meader and his imitation of J.F.K., with the Boston accent and the jokes about Jackie redecorating the White House. That generation certainly remembers Rich Little and his Nixon impersonation, with his arms flung high in the air and his buttoned suit jacket riding up. When Johnny Carson made gentle jokes about Ronald Reagan, whose hair was said to be “prematurely orange,” Nancy Reagan objected and asked him to stop, and Johnny did.
How affectionate and analog that all seems now. The first exponential leap in political comedy came with Sarah Palin’s run for the Vice-Presidency. In the previous history of our politics, comedy had never received such a gift; certain comedians and pundits should be tithing to her to this day. Not only did she speak fluent, poetic Moron—“Drill, baby, drill!”—she seemed able to generate endless one-off Moron sentences with every exhaled breath. And by her era, coincidentally, comedy itself had started to burgeon in all directions, with hundreds of new comics rising up, and whole TV channels devoted only to comedy, and comedy tours aimed only at specific demographics, and political-comedy shows in which “current events,” that tired subject from back when high schools still taught civics, suddenly became the basis for lively reframings of the real and now hilarious news.
If Palin was a Klondike comedy gold rush, ever more massive metaphors are needed for what is happening today. The increase in essential laugh resources that arrived with the Trump candidacy is still too in-progress and all-enfolding to be described. As a target and inspiration, Trump is Palin squared, and Palin cubed, and whatever follows Palin cubed.
Another law of comedy holds that some of the best jokes eventually will come true. John (Bluto) Blutarsky, the wild man of “Animal House,” one of the top-grossing comedies of all time, is described in the movie’s epilogue as going on to become a U.S. senator. Later, the extremely funny Al Franken brought reality to that punch line. Mel Brooks, whose “The 2000 Year Old Man” belonged to the Belle Époque of comedy albums of the fifties and sixties, now actually is about two thousand years old. Last month, when President Obama gave Brooks the National Medal of Arts to honor his life’s work, Brooks bowed his head to receive the ribbon, then stooped over and pretended to pull down the President’s pants.
The noble George Washington had a dignity of bearing and an austerity of mien that sometimes paralyzed those in his presence. No one ever pretended to pull down Washington’s pants—or, indeed, the pants of any other American President at any public event in the entire two hundred and forty years of the Republic. With this gesture, Brooks melded comedy and American history.
Brooks has also lived long enough to see “Springtime for Hitler,” his greatest creation, morph into real life. Vladimir Putin is not Hitler by any stretch, but somehow he understands how to be both a real tyrant and a parody tyrant simultaneously. His quip about the suspicious death of the former Russian secret-service officer Alexander Litvinenko (“Mr. Litvinenko is, unfortunately, not Lazarus”), is a witticism worthy of Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil. And anyone who wants to see a skin-crawling laugh riot that could have sprung from the mind of Brooks by way of the Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms should check out Putin singing Chubby Checker’s classic “Blueberry Hill” online. (“I found my threel . . . On Ba-loo-berry heel . . .”)
In 1964, the funniest moment in American political comedy up to that time could be found in the movie “Dr. Strangelove,” a parody thriller about nuclear war. A deranged Air Force officer, Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, has triggered a massive bomber attack on Russia with orders sent from his base, in Alaska. His subordinate, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, played by Peter Sellers, is trying to persuade him to reveal the recall code. Engaging Ripper in conversation, Mandrake listens to his theory about a plot to poison our “precious bodily fluids.” Quietly desperate, Sellers asks, “Jack, listen, tell me, ah . . . when did you first become, well, develop this . . . theory?” Ripper replies, “I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love.” Sellers looks at him quickly out of the corner of his eye. The look is perhaps the funniest half-second in all of Sellers’s career.
Now this joke, too, has come horribly close to the realm of the real. A person who acts like a lunatic is a candidate for the office that would hand him the nuclear button and codes. “When did you first come up with this . . . uh . . . theory, Jack?” The rest of the world must be looking at us with Peter Sellers eyes.
Ian Frazier is a staff writer at The New Yorker.