Donald Trump

Who's Laughing Now?

Late night hosts face challenges in satirizing a polarizing president-elect who fancies himself a comedian and critic.

Near the end of Stephen Colbert's live election night special, when the writing was on the virtual wall, he got serious about comedy.

"You cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time," the CBS "Late Show" host declared. "The Devil cannot stand mockery."

Colbert's stark words, part FDR, part preacher, came as he spoke about healing divisions following a punishing presidential race. Yet his message could also be interpreted as a call to fellow comedians to use humor as a check on power and a salve for despair.

Still, all the comic barbs hurled at Donald Trump during the seemingly endless campaign didn't keep him from getting elected. The former reality TV star, who often sounded like an insult comic on the campaign trail, appears to feed on negative attention as much as positive.

Trump will be treading uncharted territory after he’s sworn in Jan. 20 as the first president never to have served previously in public office or in the military. The humor landscape, meanwhile, is already morphing, starting with Colbert’s comedic call to arms. 

Many eyes will focus on how Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah and other political humor-practicing late night hosts respond to the challenge, in the short term and beyond. Ditto for “Saturday Night Live.” Will Alec Baldwin keep his Trump imitation going for four more years?

Trump is not a passive player in the comedy game, fancying himself both a performer and critic. He hosted “SNL” last year and tweeted last month his disapproval of Baldwin’s portrayal – ominously framing the actor’s impression as part of the media “rigging” the election against him.

It’s possible, though, that self-styled showman Trump will try to go the route of President Obama, who made more entertainment TV appearances than any other sitting commander-in-chief, hitting just about all the major late night comedy programs.

Whether or not he becomes a semi-regular in-person late night presence, Trump, by sheer force of bluster, likely will provide plenty of fodder for comedians. But a surfeit of material could signal scary times.

Fear, as Colbert underscored, is a potentially paralyzing force that humor can help dispel. But laughter presumes you get the joke.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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