'Our Cartoon President' Doesn't Win Popular Vote
When Donald Trump was elected, many people were grasping at straws to find a silver lining in the gold-plated storm clouds that steadily approached. One frequent positive that many people thought of was, “well, at least it will be good for comedy.” But now we’re over a year into the administration and, despite every late-night host and comedian having their own impression of Trump, we have very little to show for it comedically other than Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live. However, one of the finest minds in political satire has come to the American public with his solution, in addition to his show that already airs five nights a week on CBS. I am speaking of course about Stephen Colbert’s new animated series, Our Cartoon President on Showtime.
When the trailer for Cartoon President first came out in December, my reaction quickly shifted from excitement to skepticism. This was at a time when Comedy Central’s dumpster fire The President Show was the only thing engulfing late-night political satire. John Oliver was on vacation and wouldn’t be back for a couple months, and Baldwin had been slowly but surely weening the country off of regular Trump appearances on SNL. So you couldn’t blame the country for getting excited about something new. However, I see Our Cartoon President as being synonymous with the campaign to impeach Trump: you cannot rush it. And if you do go for it, you only get one shot at it.
Granted there is so much to mock in this administration no matter what side you’re on. Whether it’s comments by a recently installed media director about a senior advisor performing fellatio on himself, to Jeff Sessions’ wandering memory, or the idea that an unarmed 71-year-old draft-dodger would confront a school shooter with an AR-15. There is certainly no shortage of material. But that is the problem that many in comedy have faced since last January: how can you make this stuff even more absurd?
This is not to say that the show completely misses the mark of solid satire. The way the writers are able to portray the interpersonal dynamics within the White House is just how I pictured it in my head. Trump diving across the table in the war room to try and grab the Nuclear football, while John Kelly pulls it just out of reach. Much of the show brings to mind an SNL sketch shortly after the publication of Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, where Fred Armisen (playing Wolff) addresses the issues of authenticity and truth in the book. “Look you read it right? And you liked it, you had fun? Then what’s the problem? You got the gist so shut up.” Yes some of the situations are a little too idiotic to be the deft-handed tongue-in-cheek humor I expected from the likes of Colbert, but I still watch it every week just to put the news alerts I’ve gotten all day into a more light-hearted frame. Also the portrayal of Jeff Sessions as a four-foot tall Keebler elf is one of many aces that the writers keep well hidden in their back pocket.
However there are other points in the show that just fall flat and lame. One of these points is without a doubt the portrayal of Eric and Donald Jr., something that should really be a slam dunk in terms of an easy target. With Don Jr. as the spoiled daddy’s-boy on Hannity and Eric as the bumbling, hair-lipped sidekick it should really be a no-brainer in terms of good comedy as these two are already so laughable in real life, but somehow the caricature of the gruesome twosome jumps the shark before the boat has even left the dock. Yet the writers are able to make it up with the depiction of Ivanka as merely an amorphous blob of market research and a vein attempt at likability for the family/brand.
In the realm of political satire, the gold standard for the past 40 years has without a doubt been SNL. From Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford all the way to Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. But what made these clownish caricatures so amusing was that they were just crude caricatures. We knew that Ford didn’t constantly fall down as Chase portrayed him. Ford was an athlete in his youth but we saw him fall once and good writers exaggerated that real foible. Now that we know the president eats McDonald’s in bed for fear of being poisoned, what can be written that’s as outlandish as Sarah Palin thinking there is a talent portion to the vice presidential debate?
For instance, would it surprise you that Donald J. Trump wanted to hire professional look-alikes in order to make his job easier? Or that he destroyed the president’s desk in the oval office in a vain attempt to get rid of everything from the Obama presidency? Or that he physically hugged a flag to show how patriotic he was? Or that he didn’t own a computer until 2007, or that he claimed he was, “the one that really broke the glass ceiling on behalf of women?” Can you tell which ones are plots of Our Cartoon President and which are actual headlines? (The last three are real.)
So, is Trump satire-proof outside of five-minute cold-opens on SNL once a month? Can he only be properly approached in the frank language of stand-up comedy or a monologue? What is our part in this battle to Make America Laugh Again?
For starters, you cannot just put on a gold wig, red tie and a fat suit and expect America to guffaw at whatever lazy cheeseburger joke you tell. Obviously there is enough low-hanging fruit to fill one’s shopping cart, but we need intelligent humor now more than ever. One of the people that has actually accomplished this has been Dave Chappelle. In his recent stand up special Equanimity, Chappelle inevitably reached the topic of the 2016 election. For those that don’t know, Chappelle lives in rural Ohio and in 2016 he voted at his local polling place. The way that Chappelle describes the demographics in line to vote in 2016 is done with a deft hand as he says, “I didn’t see one deplorable face in that group.” He simply states that he was the only black man in the entire line, and then goes on to point out how naive these these poor white folks are because they think Trump will fight for them when in reality he’s going to fight for millionaires like Chappelle. And from there he is able to dissect the entire Trump phenomenon from the ground up, instead of putting forth his best hand motions and saying “yuge” until people stopped laughing.
In a case of incredible irony, the stupidity of the Trump administration and current political environment is calling for more intelligent humor. Writing jokes about this president and his cabinet is not the easy layup that many people (mostly viewers and not the comedians themselves) thought it would be after the election. When presidents were actually well-mannered and kept some semblance of dignity, we tore them down into buffoons. So how do we tear down what is already a smoldering pile of decency-rubble? Not with half-hearted half-court shots like Our Cartoon President.