Comedy, Tragedy and the Rise of Trump

Since Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for President of the United States in early May , pundits and commentators have attempted to understand how this once unthinkable scenario came about. In fact, since his strong showing in the Iowa caucus this winter, people have tried finding the culprit for the rise of the reality television personality.

The old saying claims success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. In the case of Trump, however, it seems the failure of the political system has many fathers. During the past months President Obama has been blamed for the rise of Trump, so has the Republican Party, so has income inequality, and racism, and political science. The most usual suspect, however, remains the media. The case has been made that the media, and television especially, gave Trump unlimited airtime to peddle his particular brand of racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and conservatism. Leslie Moonves, executive chairman of CBS, articulated the relationship between media and Trump when he admitted that “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”.

The lavish media attention given Trump includes late-night comedy, the former Apprentice host has appeared on all three network’s late-night shows, and even hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live on NBC. Showbiz politics is nothing new in American politics; celebrity has been a part of presidential elections for decades as historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell has shown. I have previously written on this blog about late-night campaigning and how integral comedy has become to presidential communication. What makes the appearance of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live for example so controversial, however, is that his statements are far outside the political mainstream. Balancing the quest for ratings with the risk of normalizing the rhetoric of Trump, while keeping the comedic integrity, has made for very different late-night appearances.


Donald Trump on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in September 2015.

On CBS, Stephen Colbert hosted Donald Trump on his new show in September. In the interview, Colbert clearly could not resist ridiculing Trump for his outlandish ideas while still pressing him on his more controversial statements. When discussing Trump’s proposal for a wall on the Mexican border, Colbert laughed in his face and ridiculed his assertion that Mexico will pay for it. On Jimmy Kimmel in December, Trump was less challenged but still ridiculed by the host, who read out loud the outlandish doctor’s statement on the health of the Republican frontrunner. When appearing on Jimmy Fallon in early January, however, Donald Trump was more or less given free airtime to spew his talking points. Fallon is certainly far less used to political interviews than Stephen Colbert, who made his name explicitly in political humor. Comparing Fallon to Kimmel, however, it is clear how the Fallon, for the second time hosting the controversial candidate, again failed in his role not only as a comedian but also as a television host. Part of Fallon’s style is breaking, he repeatedly giggles and fawns over his guests, when the guest is Donald Trump that becomes problematic.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - Season 2

Donald Trump on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in September 2015.

The business model for network television has resulted in cable television instead being responsible for the sharpest political comedy in the United States. This is first and foremost thanks to the genius of Jon Stewart, who built an empire of political comedy at Comedy Central for 16 years. Still, when Trump announced his candidacy, Stewart, who was at the end of his impressive run as the host of The Daily Show, admitted “I wanna watch him all the time. And yet I feel so dirty”. Following the example of network television, his successor, Trevor Noah, and Larry Wilmore, who took over Colbert’s old spot following The Daily Show, seemed to echo the sentiment, covering Trump extensively. While many of the pieces and jokes were sharp, the most memorable Trump takedown came from the one late-night host ignoring the circus.

With his weekly show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver has found the ideal home on HBO. His autonomy and impact is well documented, he can freely choose his main topic, and his show has become known for featuring stories both fellow comedians and the news media tend to shun. What has been given less attention is how this freedom gives him the ability to ignore stories lacking value. This trait is key to understand his notorious takedown of Donald Trump in late February. Having ignored the former reality television star leading up to the actual voting, Oliver’s 22-minute methodical critique of Trump was given an air of seriousness, and viewed online by a record-shattering audience of over 50 million.

“I didn’t care [about Trump in the fall] and I didn’t think I’d have to care” Oliver later explained on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In contrast to Oliver, many comedians cheered the arrival of the Trump candidacy, giving him the exactly what he wanted: airtime. Perhaps late-night comedy should be added to the list of whom to blame for the rise of Trump.


For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at

2 responses

  1. Thank goodness for John Oliver.

  2. A minor quibble with your usage. You say “presumptive nominee”. I think you mean presumptuous.

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