Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM’s 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 first published in May 2017, are his. For more on humor, watch CNN’s “The History of Comedy” Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Dean Obeidallah: In the age of Trump, comedians, not Democrats, are leading the opposition movement
Comedians have the power to reach wide audiences and speak truth in a way politicians cannot, he says
In the age of Donald Trump, it’s not the Democrats leading the opposition – it’s the comedians.
Sure, Congressional Democrats are voting and speaking out against Trump’s proposals on issues like health care, but few of them can garner national headlines or get a video to go viral.
Comedians, on the other hand, are now the ones with a “bully pulpit” to raise issues in ways that dominate our social media feeds and impact the larger political conversation. We saw an example with Jimmy Kimmel’s emotional plea to preserve coverage for pre-existing conditions in the Trump-championed health care bill. Kimmel touched a nerve, as the video of his tearful plea was widely shared.
While the GOP plan ultimately did pass the House in a form that experts agree could weaken coverage for pre-existing conditions, Kimmel’s clip had an impact on the discussion. His late-night plea made more people aware of the issue and in turn placed additional pressure on some politicians.
We saw evidence of this from US Senator Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), who expressed his reservations to Trump’s health care plan on CNN by directly invoking Kimmel’s heartfelt plea, “Would a child born with congenital heart disease be able to get everything she or he would need in the first year of life? I want it to pass the Jimmy Kimmel test.”
Then there’s Stephen Colbert, the late-night leader of the comedic resistance to Trump. Colbert has seen his ratings skyrocket as he has taken on Trump night after night. And his joke about Trump and Putin that outraged some on the right – ironically, the anti-politically correct crowd want comedians to be politically correct when mocking Trump – had two positive effects.
The joke reminded Americans of the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russian intelligence to influence our 2016 presidential election. And it reinforced Colbert’s profile as a fearless comedian who will not hold back when going after a president he feels is failing to lead.
Kimmel and Colbert followed other comedians who made headlines for taking direct aim at the current President. “The Daily Show’s” Hassan Minhaj performed at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where he used comedy to remind Americans about Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, calling Trump, “the orange man behind the Muslim ban.”
And Samantha Bee in her TBS prime-time special used comedy to remind us of Trump’s history of sexism as well as his issues with telling the truth, joking that reporters need to be commended for fact-checking Trump “as if he some day may get embarrassed.”
And, of course, “Saturday Night Live” has been nothing short of fantastic in its comedic takedowns of Trump and his administration. Alec Baldwin’s Trump has so unnerved Trump that just a week before being sworn in as the 45th President, he was tweeting about his outrage over Baldwin’s portrayal.
“SNL’s” role in the comedy resistance has seen it rewarded with its highest ratings in decades.
Add to that Seth Meyers, John Oliver and Trevor Noah, who have all contributed mightily to the comedic resistance to Trump. The role these comedians are playing cannot be overstated.
Their jokes also play a vital role in not normalizing Trump. Comedy often reminds us that Trump trafficked in bigotry, sexism and xenophobia to win the White House. Democrats are now focused on combating Trump’s policies and don’t spend as much time reminding the public of Trump’s prejudicial currency. But comedians can and do.
Comedians, often called court jesters or fools in literature, have a long history of using humor to speak uncomfortable truths. In Shakespeare’s plays, the fool was able to address social and political realities in ways that the lead characters rarely could – using humor as his shield. And even before Shakespeare, Dutch writer Erasmus wrote that the fool “can speak truth and even open insults and be heard with positive pleasure; indeed, the words which would cost a wise man his life are surprisingly enjoyable when uttered by a clown.”
So here’s to the fools! May you fearlessly continue to use your wit and humor to resist Trump. And to Trump supporters offended by their jokes, it’s time you dainty snowflakes put on your “big boy pants” because these comedians are just getting warmed up.
For more on humor, watch CNN’s “The History of Comedy” Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.