The last twenty-five years have seen the rise of a Political Comedy Industrial Complex, but unlike Ike’s warnings about the Pentagon, I won’t tell you it’s a bad thing. Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher first aired in 1993, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 1999. The Clinton years, with Baby Boomers in the White House, were ripe for a surge in political comedy. A little over two decades ago, when I started to do political stand-up as a side gig to my day job as a journalist covering the Clinton administration, there was plenty of political humor on TV and in clubs, but a middle-aged guy with a modestly good Clinton impersonation could still get some stage time in New York and D.C.
But the fact that there’s much more political comedy now is one of the reasons I don’t do it anymore. (That, and it takes a lot of time.) There was the expansion of the comedy industry in the Bush and Obama years, not only on television but with acts as varied as Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis and Funny or Die on the internet to the paper and web versions of the Onion to a book industry that helped lift a former Saturday Night Live bit player named Al Franken into the role of best-selling author and then into a career as a U.S. senator (until the end of 2017, at least).
The age of Trump has only accelerated what a political comedy analyst at Goldman Sachs (how I wish there were such a thing on CNBC) might call double-digit growth in the sector. Jimmy Fallon’s largely apolitical Tonight Show is getting crushed by the more overtly political and partisan offerings of Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel. A new genre of what might be called “reported comedy” has grown up around the forty-fifth president in the form of John Oliver’s HBO show Last Week Tonight and Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal. As has often been noted, young people are more likely than ever to get their news via comedy shows rather than from the New York Times.
Today’s Trump-hating audiences have a need for reassurance baked into their comedy, and they consume it as much not to cry as to laugh. No wonder Alec Baldwin’s merciless portrayal of Trump has reinvigorated Saturday Night Live. Like New Yorker covers or The Rachel Maddow Show, political comedy like Baldwin’s gives hope to the resistance, a comforting vision of the president as evil, yes, but, more importantly, as ignorant and buffoonish. On all of these shows, the audience laughter is as important as the comedian’s words, a reminder that you out there with your Hope and Change posters and Obama nostagia are not alone. Others are laughing too.
Much of the best of this new political comedy, and of modern comedy in general, comes from performers with roots in improv. Colbert, whose transition from the brilliant Colbert Report to host of the Late Show was initially rocky but is now red hot since he dialed up the political quotient, began his career at Chicago’s Improv Olympics. Tina Fey, whose wolfing down of sheet cake on Saturday Night Live to cope with the Charlottesville killing stands as the comedy bit to beat of the Trump era, cut her teeth at Chicago’s famed Second City. Samantha Bee came out of Toronto’s improv-sketch comedy scene.
All of this makes Sam Wasson’s Improv Nation an interesting book right now. Wasson, a Los Angeles–based author who has penned several books on Hollywood, traces the history of improvisational sketch comedy from its post–World War II roots to today’s late-night stars. It’s not an account of political humor per se. His is a breezy, enthusiast’s rendering of sketch comedy pioneers—beginning with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who emerged at the end of the Eisenhower years and became national sensations almost overnight, as their naturalistic, sophisticated characters appealed to a more cosmopolitan country aching for something more than “Take my wife . . . please” gags.
Wasson follows the proliferation of ensemble theater groups from the Compass Players, which included Nichols and May, to its successor, Second City in Chicago (and later Toronto), to L.A.’s Groundlings and Saturday Night Live’s Not Ready for Prime Time Players, whose New York fame was sometimes political but more often of the John Belushi “Samurai Delicatessen” variety. This is not a history of a related but distinct genre, stand-up comedy, the lone comic at the microphone. Rather, it’s about the ensembles who created and refined comedy based on improvised scenes. It’s the story of a collaborative art, not solo practitioners. And it is amazing how many of the comedians we’ve come to adore from film and television in recent decades spent time in improv troupes: Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Bill Murray, John Candy, Christopher Guest, Gilda Radner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus—the list goes on and on.
Wasson’s larger point is that improvisation is, to use that hackneyed phrase, a uniquely American art form, a form of expression that could only have arisen in a country that enshrined free speech in its Constitution and valued bold, persistent experimentation, to use FDR’s famous phrase. “How We Made a Great American Art” is the book’s subtitle, although he allows that the sixteenth-century commedia dell’arte had elements of improv.
Wasson seems to have spent a particularly large amount of time with the late Mike Nichols and makes a good case that the famed director’s years at the Compass Players in Chicago informed his later work on Broadway and in Hollywood. “Just go to the people and they’ll tell you what they want,” implored Viola Spolin, the Compass matriarch who developed improv techniques as a way of helping poor children express their feelings at the settlement house where she worked and who later, with her son, Paul Sills, built Second City.
Wasson shows how Nichols took the techniques of improvisation—among them, asking the audience for the first line and the last line of a story—and employed it in the tightly scripted world of making Hollywood films. For instance, when directing the The Graduate in 1967, Nichols encouraged costars Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft to ad-lib lines during a bedroom scene. A discussion with Hoffman about his real-life brother’s sometimes nervous response to girls led to one of the film’s funnier sight gags: Hoffman nervously and stiffly placing his hand on Mrs. Robinson’s breast while she tries get a stain out of the sweater she had just taken off.
The improv sensibility, with its high-wire sense of danger born of live television and theater, and its willingness to offend, built postwar comedy. But, as Wasson notes, so too did the parallel track of stand-ups like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and other iconic comedians of the 1950s and ’60s.
AAfter finishing this good-natured, oral history–style read, I couldn’t help but think of what threatens this florishing moment in comedy. One is the boorish-to-criminal behavior of comedians unearthed in the post–Harvey Weinstein era. After Al Franken’s groping and Louis C.K.’s masturbating, it’s difficult to imagine laughing at anything either of them says ever again, and hard not to wonder which other comedians are next to be outed as harassers.
The greater looming threat to comedy is political correctness. When comedians as innocuous as Jerry Seinfeld don’t want to perform on college campuses for fear of offending, when Chris Rock avoids playing universities because, as he says, “You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive,” when Bill Maher has a campus invite rescinded from Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech movement, we’ve got a problem. The closing of the campus mind, of course, predates Trump, but his grotesque presence has made it worse. In an age when the president cruelly and with no apparent reason other than spite proposes to kick transgendered members of the Armed Forces out of the military, it makes it that much harder to even think about any humor involving transpersons even if it’s good-natured. South Park’s portrayal of Caitlyn Jenner’s arrests for reckless driving would never play before a Trump-era college audience.
But probably the biggest challenge to today’s political comedians is Trump himself. There are lots of able Trump impersonators belting out his mantras like “Believe me” and “You’ll get tired of winning.” But these portrayals are already becoming tired, familiar like jokes about Bill Clinton being horny or John Boehner being orange. Moreover, Trump isn’t the fool portrayed by Alec Baldwin, but a dangerously clever man. We need a humor that stares down the very real possibility that he could be with us for seven more years. I’m thinking of Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film about Hitler, The Great Dictator. I’m not equating Trump with the Nazi mastermind; I’m just raising how an ingenious comedian can deal with a horrifying political leader. The film was a splendid satire of Nazis, at times funny and at times deeply moving. Chaplin at once belittles Hitler, mocks his ideology, and takes the threat seriously. We don’t have that kind of Trump humor yet, but maybe there’s an improv group out there that will find it.