Before Donald Trump started his war on our democracy, there was his very public war on comedy – or at least those who dared to mock his self-inflated sense of majesty. Now, new coverage shows that Trump wanted to use his power as President in the White House to shut down Saturday Night Live.
I can hear it now: “Live from New York, your show is canceled because she made fun of Donald Trump!” (Cut to audience in stunned silence – with the exception of some Trump fans who applaud wildly.) And after seeing up close how authoritarian comedies and satire crack down, I absolutely believe Trump would have turned off the lights on NBC’s more famous studio 8H forever if you get the chance.
The new report corresponds to a pattern of the pathetic thin-skinned Trump who has spent years publicly beating TV shows and comedians who ridiculed him – from calling for “SNL” to be canceled in the last days of the 2016 campaign to timed in the middle of a 2018 campaign event to beat late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel.
As The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday, Trump apparently not only whined about comedy shows that mock him – in March 2019, he asked his advisors if the federal government could investigate the comedians and their TV shows, hoping they could to silence. The then president was reportedly sparked by a rerun of an “SNL” episode that mocked him. (It says so much about Trump that he publicly claims to hate “SNL” but saw a rerun of the show.)
I can hear it now: “Live from New York, your show is canceled because she made fun of Donald Trump!”
When Trump was told by his advisers that nothing could be done to punish the show – presumably because of that little thing called the First Amendment – “Trump seemed disappointed to hear that there is no actual legal recourse or anything,” the Federal Communications Commission or the Department of Justice “could be used to punish late-night anti-Trump comedies,” the beast reported.
In response to the story, Trump released a “denial” that actually supports the gist of the new coverage. Trump claims he never asked the Justice Department directly to investigate “SNL” – but the article said he asked advisors whether the DOJ or the FCC could investigate. In his statement, Trump again accuses the “SNL” of involvement in possible election crimes and writes that the “one-sided” show “should be viewed as an illegal campaign contribution”.
Here’s the reality: Trump simply asked his advisors to investigate what he was publicly talking about with anger. In February 2019, Trump tweeted that “SNL” should “be investigated” because of his “hit job” with him. He followed weeks later – at the exact time he was allegedly asking his aides about options for possible retaliation – with a tweet that SNL’s continued jokes were so unfair at his expense that he asked, “Should the Federal Electoral Commission and or? FCC is investigating? “
Trump, like all dictators (or a would-be dictator in his case), hates being ridiculed.
Trump, like all dictators (or a would-be dictator in his case), hates being ridiculed. This is the same guy who refused to attend the White House Correspondent’s Dinner as President, given the likelihood that he would have been ridiculed on a national stage. “Strong men” leaders like Trump want and must be feared in order to stay in power. The last thing they want is people laughing at them.
I saw this firsthand when I was a full-time comedian and did a lot of stand-ups in the Middle East (I’m of Arab descent, if the last name wouldn’t tell you). I was told along with other comedians before shows in the area that no jokes were allowed to mock the leader of this country.
My friend and fellow comedian, Bassem Youssef, found out the hard way what happens when you tell jokes about a leader who has the power to punish. In 2013, Youssef – known as “Jon Stewart of the Middle East” – hosted a hugely popular TV comedy show in Egypt, telling jokes at the expense of then Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi. In response, Youssef was investigated and arrested by Morsi’s government. Although no charges were ever brought, the message was sent that jokes about the leader come at a price.
Youssef’s problems got worse when Egypt’s current leader Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi – a person Trump called “my favorite dictator” in 2019 – came to power. After Youssef again delivered comedic material that El-Sissi was critical of, it was made clear to him that he had to leave Egypt for his and his family. Today Youssef and his family live in exile in the USA.
But that’s not just a matter for the Arab world. It’s an authoritarian thing. A 25-year-old Russian comedian fled Russia in January 2020 when he learned that Russian authorities were investigating him over his jokes at the expense of another Trump BFF, President Vladimir Putin.
I worked on the Saturday Night Live production team for eight seasons when there was a deluge of jokes made at the expense of then-Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The shows were then filled with comedy about Clinton’s (numerous) sex scandals and Bush’s weakness: speaking English.
Neither Clinton nor Bush ever publicly whined that the jokes were unfair or called for the show to be punished for being laughed at at their expense. Why? They understood that the comedic ridicule of a president is part of what makes our nation a robust democracy. Political comedy, at best, is about telling the truth to power and bringing the powerful to earth with a well-crafted joke, as opposed to Trump’s idea of comedy, which is typical of the laughing gruesome mockery of a disabled reporter was.
But Trump doesn’t believe in any of that.
Trump is cut from the same cloth as despots, dictators and other anti-democratic people. Does anyone doubt for a moment that Trump could shut down comedy shows or even lock up comedians who mocked them? And should Trump ever return to the presidency, he will undoubtedly use the government apparatus to punish those who question his rule. This clearly includes comedians.