Barbara Gray is rarely at a loss for material. The L.A. comedian’s stand-up set is laced with relatable jokes about dating, drinking, sex and body image, all aimed at the person she likes to make fun of most: herself. So when fans started insisting to her that another person — the reality star turned president-elect Donald Trump — would be a boon to her comedy, she was more than a little alarmed.
“Stop telling comics, ‘Oh you have four years of material to work with now,’” she tweeted shortly after the election. “Bitch I wanna talk about MYSELF.” It’s a sentiment that she’s since repeated onstage, adding in a dash of her characteristically self-deprecating humor. “I’m a selfish coward or whatever,” she told me by phone recently, describing herself as an uninformed “wuss” when it comes to participating in political causes and activist-oriented protests.
“I kind of pride myself on being a comedian for everyone. I don’t want to be polarizing. I do want to make everyone laugh,” said Gray, who co-hosts the podcast Lady to Lady and has appeared on the Hulu stand-up series Coming to the Stage. In the past, she said, she’d sneer and roll her eyes at political comics. “I’d be like, ‘No one wants to hear about this,’” she said. “But it feels like now you have to [discuss politics] because I just don’t know any other way.”
The election of Trump, who has threatened civil rights and expressed dictatorlike leanings, has shaken something inside her. Gray no longer feels she can ignore politics — not in her personal life and definitely not onstage. Like many comedians, she’s been forced to reconsider her role in Trump’s America, a place where the proposed policies of a buffoonish orange caricature, no matter how outrageous they seem, are almost too scary to joke about. Meanwhile, some comedians are finding it difficult to write and perform at a time when few audiences are willing to laugh at the seemingly mundane. People in the business of comedy are asking themselves whether their professions are even relevant anymore.
“There is this feeling of, 'Is it OK to even laugh? Is it OK to have fun? Is it OK to have a good time?'" said Baron Vaughn, an L.A.-based stand-up comedian and actor who has appeared on TV shows including Grace and Frankie, Fairly Legal and Law & Order. “A lot of people sort of feel like if we’re not talking about or doing something that’s ‘important’ at every single moment, then we’re wasting time. But what does that even mean? Just being stressed out in a state of constant anxiety at all times and if you’re not there, does that mean you don’t care?”
Keith Lowell Jensen, a Sacramento-based stand-up, can relate to that feeling of constant anxiety. He said he was so paralyzed by fear and depression in the days after the election that he made excuses not to perform. It was odd, then, when he heard the suggestion from online commenters that he ought to be cheering for a Trump victory, at least for the sake of his profession.
“The idea that it has somehow made our jobs easier is hilarious to me,” he told me. “And sure, it’s fun to lampoon and satirize things in public life that are absurd, but not something that’s cripplingly depressing. It’s like if someone says, ‘Good thing cancer’s still around — you’ve got all that great cancer material!’”
For Kate Willett, an L.A. comedian who has appeared on Vice’s Flophouse and Comedy Central’s This Is Not Happening, Trump’s election isn’t just bad for comedy — it’s also bad for her health. “Saying that comedians would be happy that Trump’s president, I don’t think that’s an accurate thing because we’re contractors,” she said. “We rely on Obamacare for our health insurance, and most of us are not super high-income.”
Her other fear about a Trump presidency is equally practical. On the heels of Trump threatening to revoke citizenship for Americans who burn flags and slamming Alec Baldwin for his impersonation on SNL, Willett for the first time has thought about whether her comedy could put her at risk, if, for example, First Amendment rights were to be restricted. “Is this going to get me in political or legal trouble someday?” she says she’s wondered. “It’s definitely crossed my mind, and I think it’s on the minds of lots of people I know.”
For now, Willett sees Trump’s election as an opportunity to keep audiences engaged in politics by reminding them that many of these issues are inherently personal — much in the same way that she captivated “bros in Indiana” enough to hear about feminist issues by telling a funny story about her birth control.
Stand-up Brandie Posey, who co-hosts the Lady to Lady podcast with Gray, says whether others realize it or not, being a woman with a microphone and an opinion on a stage is an inherently political act. As such, she’s always approached her comedy as if she’s on a mission to make the audience understand her perspective in a way they might not otherwise.
“I know I’ve performed for a lot of people that wouldn’t agree with me if we were to talk on a Facebook comment thread, but if I can tell a story or a series of jokes, they might not necessarily agree with me but they’re willing to hear my point of view because I’m being self-deprecating about it,” she said. “You can get someone who doesn’t agree with you to do a complete 180 as long as you’re genuine and not condescending when you’re talking about it.”
To be sure, Trump as a candidate offered plenty of comedic gifts back when many comics assumed he didn’t have a chance at the presidency: He wears ill-fitting suits and rocks a hairstyle that’s about as thin and confusing as any of his political proposals; he speaks about himself in the third person and embarks on unwieldy, exclamation mark–laden Twitter outbursts in the middle of the night; and his three marriages and five children offer more family drama, deceit and scandal than a Bravo reality show.
“There is some truth to it that he’s going to give us a lot of fodder, but I think it’s always going to have a tinge of panic and dismay,” Jensen admitted. “I don’t imagine that it’s now suddenly surprisingly going to go smoothly and then will be easier to joke about. I imagine horrible things are going to happen, and with each one it’s gong to be another tragedy.”
Megan Koester, an L.A. stand-up and comedy writer, joked during the campaign cycle about Trump’s small hands and penchant for groping women. The bit — “Donald Trump grabbed my pussy once. Atlantic City, ’87. His fingers were too short to reach my clit” — was recorded as part of Burn This Election, an anthology comedy album Posey organized as a fundraiser for Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). But now, she said, easy jokes about Trump’s appearance are no longer viable. Comedians must do better.
“The man's basically already a caricature anyway; merely aping his mannerisms can be considered ‘funny’ in and of itself,” Koester said via email. “True comedy, I think, will have to come out of the horror that lies beneath his idiotic exterior — the policies that will harm people, the dangerous culture of hatred and xenophobia he creates. If it can be done satirically and intelligently, it'll be great.”
Not only are comedians rethinking their material (and sometimes even their purpose) postelection, but audiences too are likely reconsidering their faith in comedians, who have so often been praised as liberal truth-tellers over the last eight years.
“It discredits us as comedians. You have John Oliver and you have every other comedian and pundit saying, ‘no way’” to the possibility of a Trump presidency, Jensen said. “So we’re not credible sources for what’s possible anymore.”
Stand-up comic Kat Yeary doesn’t see that as a bad thing — at least not if it means popping the liberal bubble and diversifying the comedy landscape. “Any kind of right-wing voice in media has really disappeared in terms of entertainment media, like comedy,” she said, adding that dissenting voices have been all but drowned out during the course of the Obama administration.
Yeary was born and raised in southern Idaho, a part of the country she dubs “Trump’s America,” where as a kid, she said, white supremacy was widespread and it wasn’t uncommon to see Nazi flags waving from nearby homes. She’s been performing stand-up around L.A. for the last four years but said she’s only once shared the stage with a self-proclaimed Republican. “Literally one,” she said. “If anyone was [a Republican] they weren’t willing to say it, and that might be different [now].”
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Comedians who say they don’t want to talk about politics because they’d rather talk about themselves now have “the perfect opportunity to look at your own life and be like, ‘How the fuck did I get here?’” Yeary said, seizing Trump’s election as a harsh wake-up call for those who believed it wasn’t possible because they hadn’t been listening to the other half of the country. “The idea of democracy or any political system is that it is personal, and what comedy does is find a way to bring that out, ideally,” she said.
Miles Stenehjem, an L.A.-based stand-up who performs as Miles K and formerly co-hosted the weekly comedy show Babe Island, doesn’t disagree. “The challenge, at the moment, is to look critically at our own stances and understand why our ideas are no longer resonating with as large a portion of the population,” he said via email. “If comedians are unwilling to challenge the sacred cows of liberal audiences, then we are doomed to be the cheerleaders of our dwindling relevance.”
For Vaughn, a comic who has never shied away from boundary-pushing political material, touring different cities and calibrating which jokes work with which audiences has shown him just how divided the country really is. He said some audiences have even walked out during his set when he tackled topics such as police violence against black lives.
“Everyone’s on the spectrum of scared to angry, and some people don’t want to hear a perspective that they disagree with,” Vaughn said. “We’re still searching for ways to talk about it, because being at comedy shows [in L.A. and other liberal cities] after the election, everyone feels like they just got dumped at a funeral,” he said. “And then the other half of people in the country are just like, ‘I’m single and alive!’ We’re in that weird balance.”