Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @deanofcomedy. The opinions expressed in this commentary, which has been updated since it was originally published in March 2017, are his. For more on humor, watch CNN’s “The History of Comedy” Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Whatever your thoughts about President Donald Trump’s impact on America, no one can deny that he’s truly made one sector of America great again: Political comedy.
Just look at the yuge “Trump bump” various late-night comedy shows have seen in ratings because of their comedic takedowns of the Trump administration. Nowhere has that been more evident than with “Saturday Night Live” and Stephen Colbert’s “The Late Show,” where both have had spikes in ratings to levels no one could have predicted a year ago.
Say what you want about the President, but Trump is making America laugh again.
To be honest, under President Obama there was a dropoff in the quantity and even, arguably, the quality of political comedy. After all, Obama followed President George W. Bush, who some consider to be the greatest gift to comedy since the whoopee cushion. President Bush not only inspired jokes and “SNL” sketches, he launched a boutique industry at his expense – including comedic books, toilet paper and a daily calendar of Bushisms.
Now it looks like the golden age of political comedy is back with President Trump. But there is one tremendous difference between the newest occupant of the White House and former late-night target George W. Bush.
While the 43rd president was viewed as a bumbling guy who struggled with everyday things like eating pretzels and speaking English, Trump is someone people genuinely fear. The leader and his policies have caused deep concern in several communities, including among women, Muslims, Latinos, the LGBT and the disabled.
That fear is likely one reason so many feel they need to laugh at Trump. It’s a cathartic relief from the stress he’s causing so many people – including myself!
That could also explain why “SNL” is seeing its best ratings in over 20 years. But “SNL” has also stepped up its comedy. Impressively, the show isn’t just serving up funny material about Trump – they’re often covering political issues the mainstream media has failed to cover, or were distracted from covering in detail.
For example, the show featured a sketch about Ivanka Trump where they comically made the point via a hilarious commercial parody that she is “complicit” with her father’s sexism and bigotry. That’s an issue the mainstream media has avoided.
And the week before, while the big media brands chased Trump’s baseless tweets that Obama had wiretapped his offices, “SNL” stayed focused on the real issues. They opened the show with a sketch about Attorney General Jeff Sessions lying under oath while testifying before the US Senate. Later on in the episode, the show comically raised the conflict of interests posed by Eric and Donald Trump opening up new Trump hotels in Dubai and Canada, an issue that the media all but ignored.
But “SNL” is not alone in seeing a Trump bump. Bill Maher saw his highest ever ratings for a season premiere on the very day Trump was sworn in as the 45th president. And Samantha Bee, who has been crushing Trump comically, saw her season premiere in February attract a whooping increase of 175% in total audience (yes, 175%!) when compared to her 2016 season opener.
The most stunning impact of Trump, though, comes in terms of Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon – but in far different ways. In 2016, Fallon decimated Colbert in the ratings. As the entertainment industry publication The Wrap wrote that September, Colbert’s “The Late Show” “proved to be virtually no threat whatsoever to Jimmy Fallon” in terms of ratings during its first year on CBS.
To give you a sense of where the two shows stood pre-election, Fallon attracted on average 3.1 million viewers per show in late October 2016, while Colbert’s show drew 2.5 million.
Flash forward to early March and Colbert had bested Fallon for five weeks in a row. Why? Simple: Colbert has gone after Trump relentlessly since the election. One of Colbert’s best shows came after Trump’s recent speech to Congress. Colbert first played a clip of Trump claiming that he “inherited a mess” coming into office, and then slammed Trump: “No, you inherited a fortune — we elected a mess.”
In the case of Fallon, who I worked with at “SNL” and who is truly one of the most talented and nicest people you will meet, his comedy has been far less politically biting. In fact, some have held it against Fallon that when Trump was on his show in September, he didn’t challenge him on political issues.
The American public is fickle. Who knows how long this Trump bump will last? But given what we have seen for the first 50-plus days of the Trump administration, it doesn’t look like Trump, his tweets and controversies, or the biting comedy they inspire will be slowing down anytime soon.
CNN’s original series “The History of Comedy” airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT.