Two full weeks into 2021 and you might have come across or just read a headline for an op-ed that is truthfully surveying where comedy is right now, where it has been over the past year, and where it might go post-Jan. 20th. Part of that self-examination has to do with the latest round of sobering bits of late night monologues that are attempting to search for a tone that reflects a certain bit of the zeitgeist (and boy howdy, what a crazy “time ghost” it has been thrashing about the collective unconscious).
And yes, this is our very own self-examining two cents on what tone comedy will take going forward.
Unlike 9/11 or any number of mass shootings where late night hosts would take on a solemn and respectful tone or even the night of Trump’s election win in 2016 where a certain sense of fear presided over jokes in some of the most ill-at-ease gallows humor that has ever been produced, this current moment is notably different. The world, no matter what side you’re on, is angry. That fury is mirrored back on Colbert and Seth Meyers in a different kind of sobering way. Dealing with the attack on the Capitol is the culmination of years of indoctrinating, dividing, and fomenting bigoted marginalized folks and the bleak roast-y feel of comedy right now is an accompanying plea for this nightmare to be over. That plea stretches from the rich wooden desks of late night all the way to the least followed comedians on Twitter.
To be clear, no one in comedy asked for Trump or even asked for a Trump like figure. Through 2015-2016, many simpletons thought that a Trump presidency would be “comedy gold”, but nearly any comedian knew what was coming and was already tired of making Trump jokes going into 2016. Yet, comedy persisted via taking shots at Trump because that demonic twerp pervaded everyone’s world every single day and you felt cursed into talking about him. A lot of it felt ineffectual, mostly because it’s incredibly hard to comedically exaggerate Trump (points to Trump vs. Bernie, The President Show, and James Austin Johnson in this department though). It’s only fitting that the most insane moments of Trump’s presidency come at the very end and leave even less breathing room for humor that isn’t insults paired with quick, explicit asides.
Supposedly, Jan. 20th will usher in a Biden/Harris administration that will have to deal with bringing some sense of “normalcy” to the country (for whatever that means in 2021) and dealing with many democrats/progressives/leftists that are anxious that they won’t be doing enough to fix the many systemic problems prevailing in the U.S. and worldwide.
Does that mean that we get an Obama era sense of humor?
It is going to take awhile to come down from how enraged we all are. Even though the need to laugh feels self-evident and so desperately needed, it’s too soon for comedy, whether it be in regards to comedians or audiences, to humorously process what we’re very much in the thick of. Also, the art form of comedy, one of the only art forms that is dependent on its response, is largely handicapped while the COVID-19 pandemic from being as sharp as it can be from being relegated to having to be online and appropriately adapt.
For now, we can only feel the fatigue in comedy at every level and prognosticate that it’ll have to be very new and different coming out the other end of Trump and the pandemic. If folks will want some time away from jokes about now and about reality and any of the tired tropes of comedy before Mar. 2020 (i.e. exploring binary stereotypes, complaining about the past not being the present, etc.), then we all better be ready for a bunch of folks really getting experimental (even more so than they already have because of COVID protocol) and going “out there” or being more truthful than ever before.
It’s uncertain (as is everything right now) what that might be, what comedy might sound/feel like for the rest of 2021, but comedy will be trying very, very hard to figure that out because laughter will be necessary in getting to 2022 and healing in whatever year we can actually do that.