Comedy in the Era of Trump
Who gets the last laugh?
Sandra Tsing Loh calls Trump "the pussygrabber in chief."
Photo by Reese Erlich
Comedian and solo performer Sandra Tsing Loh says Left Coast theatergoers were in a state of shock after Trump came to power. So at the beginning of her recent Berkeley show, she invited the audience to let out an inner scream against Trump, whom she lovingly refers to as the “pussygrabber in chief.”
Stand-up comedian Maz Jobrani also saw shock in his audiences. But he looks at the bright side. Trump’s gaffs and outrageous Tweets constitute a four-year season pass for comedians.
“Barack Obama was not great for comedy,” he told me, tongue firmly in cheek. “Trump is good for comedy and bad for the world.”
Stand-up comedian and columnist Will Durst predicts Trump will provide “two years of great material, two years of running and hiding, and then eight to 10 years of re-education camps in a Montana gulag.”
“I am burying wire cutters along the Canadian border as we speak,” he told me in a phone interview from an undisclosed location in San Francisco.
These three, and comedians around the country, are taking new aim at the multibillionaire president who inherited his wealth. They plan to make him suffer the zings and arrows of his outrageous fortune.
And the three are wrestling with how to get at least some of the Trump voters back to progressive politics while producing laughs—and avoiding death threats.
It’s not easy.
Sandra Tsing Loh breezed into the Berkeley Rep to perform her latest play, The Mad Woman in the Volvo, an intentional word play on the classic anti-capitalist play The Madwoman of Chaillot. In Chaillot a seemingly dementia-suffering old aristocrat unites the people against the destruction of Paris. In Volvo, Loh depicts her own mid-life crisis with menopause and the blowup of her marriage after an affair. She unites audiences against Trump and in favor of menopausal women everywhere.
California theatergoers were hit hard by the Trump victory, Loh told me, and some stopped coming to shows. She suggests liberals and progressives should get out of their bubbles. “They just post the same messages on Facebook,” she notes. “I long for an intelligent and spirited dialogue” with Trump supporters who were fooled by the demagoguery.
Loh listens to NPR but also to right-wing talk radio just to find out what the other side thinks. “Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are really hard to bear,” she says. “But Glenn Beck is funny, and he hates Trump. You can’t always predict where he’s going.”
Jobrani also tries to connect with Trump supporters, such as older immigrants who oppose the arrival of undocumented workers who might compete for jobs. In one routine, Jobrani describes an argument with an older Armenian cab driver in Los Angeles. “Dude, how can you support Trump?” asks Jobrani. “You’re an immigrant.” The cabbie answers, “Yes, but I’m here.”
Using his Iranian mother as a foil in another routine, Jobrani says mom likes Trump because “he says what’s on his mind.”
“Mom, Trump is awful for immigrants,” he responds in this imaginary colloquy. “He would keep your Muslim relatives from visiting you.”
Mom responds, “I don’t like them anyway. He says what’s on his mind so I don’t have to say what’s on my mind.”
Courtesy of Will Durst
Will Durst may have advice for surviving Trump malaise and favors rebellion.
Durst has been doing political comedy basically forever, and for most of last year, he performed a show about the presidential campaign.
“Americans have spoken, and apparently they want the presidency to be an entry level position,” he says. “There are bright sides to Trump. His presidency will be the Alec Baldwin full employment act.”
Durst had to become a therapist, helping audiences recover from what he calls PTSD, or Post Trump Stress Disorder. “I live in San Francisco, and we’re exploring the five stages of grief: denial, denial, denial, denial, and denial.”
Jobrani lives in Los Angeles, and his audiences also tend toward left of center, but not always. He once played Kansas City. Management had passed out free tickets, so a lot more conservative-minded people showed up.
“I saw a lot of tractor baseball caps and farm types,” says Jobrani. “I was a little intimated. But they laughed at my act. We sometimes stereotype those guys as dumb, but they’re intelligent.”
Laughing at Iranian-American jokes doesn’t necessarily make you a liberal, however. Jobrani notes that with so many TV, radio, and internet media—not to mention fake news—the left and right inhabit very different realities.
“They can laugh at my act and still vote Trump.”
Jobrani plans to continue skewering President Trump in his stand-up tours from Dubuque to Dubai. There will be no rest for the wicked. He also plays a character in a new CBS sitcom called Superior Donuts, in which he plays an Iraqi immigrant.
Durst is preparing a new show for 2017. One idea is to continue his therapist theme with Dr. Durst explaining how to survive Post Trump malaise.
He writes a weekly syndicated humor column and plays small theaters around the country. “They are mostly the small venues that have some down time in between local revivals of My Fair Lady.”
Durst hopes his humor will keep people laughing and plant the seeds for an anti-Trump rebellion. “I like writing a joke that’s mirroring what’s going on and still be funny,” he says. “Everyone has a different slice of the pie. I present the burnt crust.”
Loh also has several irons in the fire, including voicing a character in an animated film, her public radio commentaries, and a new book. She notes that in 1980, when Ronald Reagan became president, Republicans also won majorities in the House and Senate. But they were eventually defeated. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “We’ll all make it through this.”
Loh expects to see may protests against Trump in the months and years ahead. “Art will play a big role in how we resist.”
This report appears in the February edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published Feb. 23, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.