I am not about to make any predictions as to the results of Tuesday's election — if there will even be a Tuesday result — but I can say with some assurance that if the incumbent loses, we will be entering a different era of Web-based comedy.
This long moment has created at least one bona fide star in Sarah Cooper, who famously embodies President Donald Trump to the soundtrack of his own voice, and who has made a Netflix special, subbed for Jimmy Kimmel and appeared at the Democratic National Convention. But plenty of others have made a mark in the world of sociopolitical miniature comedy and seen their stars rise in the Trump era.
The president is always the biggest target in town, of course, and because Trump is so far out of the norm — every norm you can think of, really — he, and the culture that has grown up around him, is a more tempting target than usual: the broad side of a barn that begs to be hit. You can count on a hand or two the comical pratfalls and supposed faux pas of past presidents — choking on a pretzel, wearing a tan suit — but in this administration, nearly every day brings something amazing, the satire that writes itself.
The forces shaping this do not all emanate from the White House, to be sure. Social media, which has coalesced around short-form expression, has made comical comment all the easier, if not inevitable, not the least because that is where the president himself may be found. TikTok, a favored platform for this kind of performance, launched in China in 2016 and elsewhere in 2017, the year Trump took office. And there is the added effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made social media even more of a distraction. Indeed, we might have come to the point where what we used to call real life is a distraction from social media.
Trump blocked comedian Sarah Cooper on Twitter. Now she calls him her 'head writer'
For some of us, these clips and posts have been a relief, islands of amusing calm in a roiling sea of insanity. Like a jug of wine shared around a beatnik campfire, they bind us and define us. (Maybe the most important thing you can know about a person is what they find funny.) Recognizing your tribe, you feel seen — through your screen — in turn.
Bite-sized, the best beg to be replayed, like a video of a goat/cat/elephant/baby dressed as Eugene Levy you let repeat 20 times and then urge upon your significant other. Like all comedy, these clips are not just about the "subject matter"; they are about comedy itself, the physics of tension and release, the pie that hits you from the side when you are expecting it in your face. (And they are short: It behooves an internet comedian not to go on too long, at least until she's able to post 10-minute highlights from her TV special.)
That they are about Trump, or whomever, is only part of the point, and not necessarily the greater part. They are satisfying not because they "own" the conservatives, if you will, but because they are funny; the pleasure is in the performance. When U.K. comedian Sooz Kempner delivers Trump speeches in the person of Liza Minnelli, it's less a political statement than a theatrical concept, like an old-school impressionist's "What if John Wayne taught drivers ed? It might go something like this."
Still, the idea speaks to the madness of the moment. Like Cooper, Kempner takes Trump at his verbatim word — that is, takes his words — and applies a twist. She has a channel on Twitch, has made regular appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and often performs with Richard Thomas (composer of "Jerry Springer: The Opera"), but I never would have known of her if not for her brilliant series of pond-crossing Trump as Liza/Liza as Trump videos, in which she applies Minnelli's wide-eyed, careering excitability to his wayward ramblings. "I got incredible care at Walter Reed. Incredible dok-tahs! And this medicine in pa-tic-u-lah, one medicine it was unbelievable! (Sings:) You're goin' to get the same medicine. You're going to get it free! (Jazz hands:) No charge!"
Something more than mockery is going on here. There is also a kind of sympathy that comes with getting inside a character; targets are not simply insulted, as Trump and his court jesters are wont to do, but inhabited. There is something surprisingly complex about Brent Terhune's Redneck You All Love to Hate character, with his catchphrase "I don't thank so!," who goes on about "Dumbocrats" and the "lamestream media and Warshington Compost" and "Karmela Harris" and has been mistaken for real from the right and the left.