Comedian George Lopez made tabloid headlines today, thanks to a Trump-bashing performance that fell so flat he was booed off the stage. As the story goes, Lopez was performing at a fundraiser, a major donor asked that he tone down the Trump jokes, and Lopez apparently chose instead to offer political sarcasm as “jokes.” Lopez’s fatal error was not realizing that he wasn’t talking to a safe, ideologically-aligned crowd. He put his personal rage ahead of his job and role as a comic.

We’re seeing a lot of that sort of thing lately. Late-night television comedians, including Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver, have staked out their ideological grounds in no uncertain terms with relentless and often vitriolic Trump-bashing. They are enjoying quite a bit of success doing so, while others like Jimmy Fallon, who’ve taken a softer and more measured approach. Without doubt, the latter is the more traditional: making fun of the President is a long-running late-night staple, but it used to be in better humor. Today’s President-bashing is not so much about making eye-opening jokes as it is about a real and visceral hatred.

The historical role of court jester or “Fool” is an important one: In making jokes about the King, the jester exposed truths that other members of the Court dared not speak, lest they draw the King’s wrath. And, in making those jokes, the Fool would keep the King from losing touch with reality.

Can we say that our late-night wags serve the same purpose? How much of what they say is about shining the light of day on the President’s excesses, in a fashion that makes everyone say “Ah?” How much is, instead, merely voicing the bile that Trump-haters already feel, to perpetually stoke their rage and validate their certitude that the country made a giant mistake in electing him?

The words “edgy” and “cutting” are common metaphorical descriptors for the best humor. Modern-day comedians serve a useful social role in making us laugh, sometimes nervously, by making jokes about taboo subjects and by riffing against-the-grain about societal norms. The best comics open our eyes to points of view we might not have considered, and in making us laugh, they by-pass our contrarian reflexes. One of countless examples of this is Chris Rock’s brilliant bit about rich vs wealthy.

Good comedy will offend somebody, and not just in the synthetic, choose-to-be-offended form of offense that is used to drive outrage and divide people today. Most of us have hot-button issues, and when someone jokes in a way that goes against our grain, we tend to bristle. Some translate their personal distaste for blanket truths, and will argue that some topics should never be joked about. Consider, as a rebuttal, this George Carlin bit about rape. While some will declare that rape must not be joked about, the rest of us understand that laughing at a comic’s jokes does not condone the vile action that he’s joking about. The crux is, as Carlin noted, in the exaggeration, and the difference between hack comics and the greats is the difference between the real edge and the false edge of a hunting knife. The former cuts. The latter? It’s typically there for show, and its actual utility is limited.

There’s danger in being edgy. Just as the Fool had to be careful not to go too far, lest he incur the genuine wrath of the king, today’s comics can blow their careers up by going too far or in a bad direction. “Too far,” though, isn’t what we might first think it is. The great comics pushed the boundaries with wild abandon. Pryor and Carlin are the most obvious examples, but many others exist. They achieved wide success and built lasting reputations even as they pushed and pushed and pushed. What boundaries, however, are today’s late night comics pushing? Can anyone honestly claim that bashing Trump is “edgy,” that it’s innovative, or risky, or that it creates peril? Sure, Trump, in typical thin-skinned and ham-fisted style, made sinister hints about “equal time,” but that’s not going to affect the comics in the slightest. If anything, it will simply reinforce their stature in the eyes of their fans, who want the easy Trump-bashing jokes.

The phrase “preaching to the converted” is meant to be cautionary. When you tell people what they already know, when you offer them “insights” they’re already primed to receive, you don’t accomplish anything. Sure, you can make lots of money doing so, and you can pump up your self-esteem, but are you making any difference at all? Are you expanding conversations about difficult topics, the way Pryor, Carlin, Rock, Hicks, Kinison and other greats have? Where’s the risk? Where’s the edge? Moreso, where’s the challenge?

George Lopez either forgot that he was not preaching to the converted, or felt that he could walk in the footsteps of the “emperor-has-no-clothes” comic greats. He either forgot or never quite realized that, to do so, he couldn’t simply say nasty things about Trump and expect to get laughs from those not already with him. In this, he mirrors just about every other Trump-bashing comic out there today. The cleverness that cracks walls and lets light through isn’t there. Instead, there’s condescending snark and barely-contained rage. Of course, if we don’t find all that funny, it’s our fault.

That’s apparently OK with them – they don’t seem much interested in changing hearts and minds. They’ve written off vast swathes of the public in that regard (and, by acting as they have, hardened those swathes to any criticism of the Untethered Orange Id). While it demonstrably works for them economically – Trump’s election has spawned multiple cottage industries to deal with people’s angst and trauma – it doesn’t serve the cultural-political purpose of the Fool. Just as CNN’s abandonment of journalistic standards in favor of perpetual partisanship doesn’t do anything to advance political goals, the late-night comics’ false edginess does nothing to embark those who aren’t already on their bandwagon.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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