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Why comedians don't know how to handle Trump, either

Shifts in culture

Comedians have ramped up attacks against Donald Trump. But he may have invented the first satire-proof campaign.

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    'Saturday Night Live' cast member Cecily Strong, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in New York in November. Trump hosted the show on Nov. 7, but last week's episode was far less friendly to the GOP front-runner.
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Late night comedians and Republican Party bigwigs rarely find anything upon which to agree, especially when it comes to presidential politics.

But ever since the Manhattan real estate mogul Donald Trump took command of the Republican race, both have ramped up their respective satire and super PACs to stop the reality TV star.

Mr. Trump has been teased and mocked throughout his very public life, of course. He was even roasted on Comedy Central back in 2011.

But over the past week, the humor has taken a much more biting political edge, reaching a crescendo as comedic superstars lampoon the Republican front-runner – even as GOP establishment stalwarts also set aside their gravitas to unleash torrents of insults and criticism rarely, if ever, heard during a presidential race.

While comedians have been using their art to comment on politics at least since Lenny Bruce walked on a stage, news satire has reached an apex in our age under John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and the now-retired Jon Stewart. Famously, a Brookings Institute poll in 2014 found that more Americans trusted Mr. Stewart’s fake news program, “The Daily Show,” than MSNBC.

Despite this and the fact that Trump might seem like a juicy comedic target, media watchers say his campaign has a pre-satirized quality that so far has meant that efforts – by either political opponents or comedians – to skewer even his most outrageous statements have yet to make inroads with his base.

“There is no precedent to Trump, really,” says Paul Levinson, a professor of media studies and pop culture critic at Fordham University in New York. “No one has been this consistently vicious, uncaring of who he insults, both on a personal level and a political level. So it’s therefore not surprising that what Trump is doing, in addition to everything else, is engendering a new kind of comedic criticism, because the old kind was too mild.”

And like the coarsening political landscape, comedy lampooning The Donald has often descended into stylized name calling, sometimes without the subtlety of the best kinds of satire.

Stand up TV star Louis C.K. called Trump "insane bigot" and a "bully” in an e-mail to fans, and played the Hitler card in a way less ironic than eye-ball-bulging serious.

“Saturday Night Live,” which has ribbed Trump’s foibles often over the years, even while he was host of the show in November, produced a spoof of a feel-good political ad labeled “Voters for Trump.”  Images of everyday “working Americans” echoed the candidate’s campaign themes in ways typical to the sentimental genre; but supporters then unveiled themselves as Nazis and white supremacists.

On the “Jimmy Kimmel Show,” Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane spoofed their own Tony-awarding winning musical “The Producers” to lampoon the GOP front-runner, playing two huckster political consultants trying to back a loser to scam political donors.

“Wait,” says Max Bialystock, played by Mr. Lane. “This candidate. He’s got to be the worst candidate in history. A real train wreck … a Grade A, world class, gold-plated nincompoop. But where would we ever find a buffoon like that?” The scene, of course, cuts to a clip of Trump on TV.

Last week, former Republican nominee Mitt Romney called Mr. Trump “a fraud” and “a phony” after the billionaire’s widespread success on Tuesday, saying the “con man” would drive the country to the point of collapse. Previous nominee and Trump target, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, also joined the growing jeremiads from other GOP officials to label the leading candidate “dangerous” to national security.

But more people apparently listened to John Oliver, star of HBO’s comic news show “Last Week Tonight” than Mr. Romney. Mr. Oliver delivered a 21-minute rant against the GOP leader last Sunday, taking apart Trump’s vaunted business acumen and explaining that the family’s original last name was “Drumpf” before being changed by his German forebears.

“Donald Drumpf” became the second most-searched-for-candidate name on Google, ahead of Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. The only candidate with more searches after Oliver’s #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain campaign, retweeted by millions, was “Donald Trump.”

Humor, even the kind with dark and serious undertones, has always tried to find catharsis in the joyful sense of laughter – a kind of ironic medicine for the weary, suggests Professor Levinson. Tina Fey’s famous impersonation of former vice presidential candidate and TV reality show star Sarah Palin was hilarious, he says, but also had a serious and witty edge to it.  

Media experts say one reason comedians are finding it difficult to satirize Trump successfully is the fact that the candidate himself is running a campaign that borrows liberally from the techniques of stand-up itself.  

“Mr. Trump is now a serious candidate – often a self-serious, angry one – with a serious chance,” wrote James Poniewozik, TV critic for The New York Times, in February. “But stylistically, he works in the mode and rhythms of a stand-up. He riffs. He goads. He works blue. When he gave a victory speech in New Hampshire, feinted at congratulating his opponents, then pivoted – “Now that I’ve got that over with … ” – he sounded like a sketch comic doing an imitation of himself.”

Which is one reason why criticisms of the candidate, comedic and political both, haven’t yet seemed to faze the Trump juggernaut. Yet, at least.

“I always find myself laughing out loud,” says Levinson. “On the one hand, partly out of how dangerous and absurd this is – though it really is funny to watch Trump. It’s a schtick, it’s a routine, and in a way, it’s not much of leap to say that Trump is the prime comedian in all of this.”

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