The 2016 presidential election has been somewhat of a challenge for satirical shows like Saturday Night Live — it is nearly impossible to make the antics of this event more ridiculous than they already are. How do you caricature Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who is already so much of a caricature? But humor has still managed to play a critical role in politics this year with varying results. Of course, humor and satire can be useful tools for coping, criticizing and mobilizing. Actress and comedienne Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression is often cited as an important factor in delegitimizing Palin’s vice presidential bid. More recently, shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee have used humor to critically engage with issues that have plagued the presidential race, from Benghazi to Trump’s wall. The power that comedy has to shape our discourse and debate, however, also gives it the ability to normalize and even perpetuate everything it may seek to critique.
Humor has played a huge part in the normalization of Trump’s dangerous and unacceptable rhetoric — the most recent example of which is Jimmy Fallon’s Trump interview. Jimmy Fallon is not a journalist. However, this particular segment created a scandal on par with Matt Lauer’s own botched moderation. One image in particular began to make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook — in the photo, Fallon looks gleeful as he musses Trump’s signature hairstyle. It was not only social media users who took offense to the interview. During her talk show, Samantha Bee took Fallon and NBC to task for ignoring how dangerous Trump is. Even Hillary Clinton got in on the joke, handing Fallon a bag of softballs during her interview with him Monday.
While the problem with Fallon’s interview extends far beyond the hair tousling, the image in which Fallon and Trump appear so buddy-buddy is a perfect encapsulation of the media’s complicity in Trump’s racist, xenophobic and sexist rhetoric. Regardless of how funny we may think Trump’s hair is, we must recognize that his candidacy is no laughing matter. Showing Trump’s “softer” side by asking about his childhood home is not only bad television, it’s a dangerous precedent. From his “Muslim ban” to his labeling Mexicans as “rapists and criminals,” Trump represents the worst of American discourse. It is not enough to hide the normalization of this kind of rhetoric under the guise of comedy. Jimmy Fallon may not have to live up to journalistic standards, but interviewing someone who once refused to disavow support from Ku Klux Klan members is simply irresponsible.
The 2016 election has been exhausting and seemingly endless, and it only makes sense that people want to seek refuge in humor. However, that humor should not be consumed uncritically. Even the most well-intentioned satire can exacerbate exactly what it seeks to critique. The naked statues of Trump that were installed in cities across America, for example, sank to Trump’s level of bullying by resorting to body-shaming as a mode of political discourse. Comedy has a unique ability to be both accessible and effective in radically challenging our conceptions of the world. It can render deeply held ideologies visible and, therefore, help us to critically analyze them. But pretending that Trump is funny because of his appearance only exacerbates the problem, and allowing Trump’s divisive and toxic rhetoric to go unchallenged only serves to make that behavior seem acceptable. So while Jimmy Fallon chortles with Trump, many of us are simply too scared to laugh.
Lena Melillo is a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and law and gender studies. Her column, “Pop Politics,” runs every Thursday.