Donald Trump has been ridiculed for years. He is practically a caricature onto himself – like the most extreme example of the Ugly American come to life. We have seen President Obama’s takedown of Trump at the White House Correspondents dinner, and Alec Baldwin’s broad version of him on SNL – but since November 8, 2016, many of us haven’t been laughing anymore.
Several shows at this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival were written as a cathartic release for artists who felt frustrated and depressed when Trump surprised us all and won.
Each show has different ways of satirizing the Trump phenomenon, and a few of them, like Too Many Hitlers or: The Decoy Decameron, were written long before the election – but all of them mock the powerful.
While they might differ on underlying themes or tone, the creators of each show say getting laughs is more important than making political statements. These are not grim thought pieces.
Satire uses ridicule and exaggeration to poke fun at our leaders, thus (hopefully) robbing them of some of their power. But when Trump is already so ridiculous and outlandish, won’t even the most cartoonish and exaggerated version of him pale in comparison to the real one? And if anyone is laughing, so what? Ridicule hasn’t exactly stopped him before.
Rick Cipes, who wrote and stars in Zombie Clown Trump: An Apocalyptic Musical, believes that an artist can comment on an already absurd Trump administration by being even more absurd.
“In Zombie Clown Trump, Sean Spicer is now played by a Sesame Street Puppet named Sean Sphincter, Melania Trump is now “Barbania” Trump and played by a Barbie doll, and Trump himself isn’t only a clown, but a zombie clown who has triggered a world wide zombie apocalypse,” he says.
Seeing an excerpt from the show at the Fringe Cabaret, I find the character more menacing than funny, and don’t want to get too close to him. But clowns have always scared the shit out of me, even before Pennywise from It and Trump came along.
Cipes is a former journalist, and years ago he wrote an article called Trump du Soleil predicting that Trump’s fifteen minutes of fame were nearly up – but as he says, seeing as how they aren’t up quite yet…he still believes a combination of different forces, including ridicule and laughter, can help bring the man down.
He felt powerless after the election, but writing the show helped Cipes realize that the world won’t end because of one creepy clown. The song that plays as the audience exits his show echoes includes this thought.
Transition by first-time playwright Ray Richmond approaches Trump differently than Zombie Clown Trump, but it is no less of an attack on him. President Barrack Obama and Donald Trump met in the White House 36 hours after the election and details about what happened during that meeting are still sketchy.
Transition imagines this encounter between two men who are polar opposites; Trump, loud and possessing an oversized ego, versus Obama, erudite and professorial. The media, with a bizarre sense of relief, reported at the time that the meeting had gone well (Obama has given hints in recent interviews that this was not the case.)
That post-meeting sense of relief didn’t last long, not in reality or in this play. “Trump is only influenced by what shiny object is front of him and then 30 minutes later, it’s something else.” Richmond says. “Obama’s optimism that he could influence Trump is lost when he realizes this guy really is a piece of shit, he really is an idiot.”
Richmond, who like Cipes, has a background in journalism, wrote the original script in a two-week frenzy after the election. He says he didn’t want just another takedown of the boorish image of Trump, or some kind of Saturday Night Live spin-off.
“We really wanted him to be taken seriously on some level,” Richmond says, so Harry S. Murphy, who plays Trumps, dialed down his performance since the original run at the Lounge Theatre earlier this year. It was little too over the top before, Richmond says, and what we see now is scarier, even grim, but there are certainly comic flourishes.
“Trump is ignorant, but he’s not stupid. He understands combat, verbal combat, and he understands winning. We think it’s scarier if you take some of what he’s saying and it makes sense and is intelligent,” Richmond says.
Transition does an excellent of building tension – before deflating it with a well-timed joke, only to build it up again. One can only wonder how much this awkward encounter resembles what really happened in that room.
Richmond is not interested in, as he says, being Switzerland – taking some middle ground or balanced approach. For him, this is no time to be in the middle since he considers the election of Trump the scariest thing to happen to this country in years, rivaled only by cataclysmic events like 9/11.
“No, I really don’t believe satire can really begin to change people’s minds and hearts, I wish it could,” he says. “Unfortunately, satire is constructed and almost exclusively supported by intelligent people. Trump’s supporters are best in denial or living in ignorance. They are not people who appreciate satire – they’d just call it leftist crap, they’d say you liberals! They don’t understand cleverness or irony or truth in humor, it’s all lost on them.”
In that, he is like Cipes who when asked if he wants to spark an awakening in people, says says he has no intention of doing that – he wants to preach to the choir, and alleviate their fears with a night of humor.
Trump may not have created the intense divisions in this country, but he certainly knew how to exploit them. Plato said we laugh at other people so we can feel superior to them, and so much of modern satire comes down to pointing at those idiots over there, but not implicating ourselves. The Rising and Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy couldn’t be more different tonally – but their creators are alike in that they turn the lens on themselves as well.
“Jonathan Swift said satire is putting a mirror in front of you and looking at the world, except you’re not in the picture” says Armen Pandola, the creator of The Rising. He laughs, and says “I try to do it and include myself in the picture.”
He does believe it is possible to reach beyond the liberal bubble and doesn’t want to be polemical at all. The Rising is really skewering social media, which the Trump campaign used so successfully against Hillary Clinton, and we are all a part of that world.
We talk about The Rising a few days before a gunman attempts to assassinate several G.O.P. congressmen practicing baseball. The play is about a shadowy revolutionary group that starts randomly killing one politician every day, but government insists they don’t exist and that these reports are fake news. But the bodies keep falling.
“Hey, there’s somebody being killed every minute, some of them are bound to politicians,” says one character. The play is set in 2033, but it could happening five minutes from now, or as it’s poster art says, in a world that is just an explosion away.
The title of course comes from that old Quaker tradition of a community coming together to raise a barn. “The idea of The Rising is that it’s a community of people looking to change and build something, but of course the methods they use are not good. They’re killing people, and I don’t hide the consequences of that” Pandola says.
People are moving further into their own respective camps, and Pandola wants to show this highlight these divisions by making them even more extreme, showing us where we might be headed.
Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy is a parody musical set 400 years in the future. It follows the adventures of Captain Natasha Trump, the great great great great granddaughter of Donald Trump, who has destroyed the planet leaving humans to find a new one.
The show’s co-creators Gillian Bellinger and Landon Kirksey both hail from that strange, alternative universe called Texas. They are also huge science fiction fans, and they use Star Trek as the main inspiration – always in an attempt to be as overtly silly as possible.
“One of the things I love about sci-fi is that it gives us a lens to talk about things that are complicated but gives us the space, pun intended, to do so in a way that is less emotional and close.” says Bellinger. This is exactly what Gene Roddenberry did on the original Star Trek – he created a show where unsettling and even taboo subjects could be discussed, cause, hey who doesn’t like space? Or for that matter, science fiction parody musicals?
Early drafts did attack all those idiots over there, but after staged readings Bellinger and Kirksey got notes saying you need to point a finger at everybody, so they wrote jokes at their own expense.
“We didn’t want to be just lopsided and obviously are political beliefs are very apparent, but it really is the polarization of this thing that is the problem, so where you shine a light on that you become more aware…of…how can I affect change by coming together as opposed to dividing,” says Kirksey.
Another division I find is that many people don’t want to laugh about Trump, or even think about him. When I tell a friend at Fringe Central that I am writing a piece about satire on Trump, he shakes his head and says, “I’m tired of hearing about him.”
Dreams in Overdrive is a solo show that briefly deals with Trump, and it’s creator Job Jacobs echoes this thought when he says, “I’ve seen one other show that included a little of political Trump humor, and I found myself completely turned off. It kind of makes me nervous for my audience. Do we really even want to laugh about Trump? Or would we rather just completely ignore his existence? Since Trump is already so absurd, any attempt at making fun of him also just makes me sick.”
Which brings us to everyone’s favorite punchline, Adolph Hitler. Too Many Hitlers is a farce about one of the most evil men who ever lived.
Nine of Hitler’s decoys – one of which may be the real Fuhrer–are hiding in a bunker in Berlin during the closing days of World War II. The sight of multiple Hitlers on stage is funny, especially when they break into a song and dance number, or do an extended bit of dialogue taken entirely from the titles of Sylvester Stallone movies.
The song Nazi Me is Nazi You is funny too – a fatherly Hitler decoy is explaining to a more junior member that the essence of being a Nazi is what you are not…you’re not old or weak or a cripple or black or jewish or whatever. This is when the laughter starts to sting cause now you’ve been tricked into laughing at something that is inherently not funny.
The humor is obviously very dark, and after testing the show against audience reactions, Steven Benaquist, who performs in and wrote the show, lightened some of it’s aspects. But he stands by the dark humor of the piece, even if some audience member might be put off by the tone.
“The reason why some people don’t like it is late in the show they grow attached to these Hitler decoys and they don’t want to be reminded that they were fucking racists, they hated the jews and I don’t want them to forget it,” Benaquist says. He wants people to laugh, but also remember that the Nazis were and are evil.
If Too Many Hitlers is a farce that wants to remind you of the past, How To love Your Dictator: Olga & Ludmila’s Guide to Fascism imagines a worst case future scenario; Trump is Putin’s puppet and we have been annexed by the Russians.
The scene is set by loud Russian rock music, cold war era propaganda films and a complimentary shot of Vodka. Several people are shot. The audience is thankfully spared.
Kate Rappoport was born in Poland and Andra Moldav in Romania, but both moved to America when they were still children. The show is partly based on conversations about their experiences growing up in Eastern Europe, and how their grandmothers had such a negative outlook on the world. Originally a four-minute short they created with their sketch group Femmebot PhD, they expanded it after the election into a holiday show they called The Last American Christmas.
How to Love Your Dictator takes the outlook of growing up in an oppressive culture where you don’t have freedom of speech, and cannot make fun of political figures. It plays like an episode of Access Hollywood or TMZ, only hosted by two depressive Russian ladies. They offer Americans helpful tips on living under a dictatorship. “Thank you for spending your last free days with us,” they cheerfully tell the audience near the show’s end.
“”I just feel that in American society, satire and being able to express what makes you laugh is so entrenched in our society that it’s funny that I don’t even think about it too much or as some dangerous political statement because I know I have the freedom to do that.” says Rappoport.
“We as Americans are used to laughing at people that are in power, and it’s really cool that we are allowed to do that,” she says. “It’s crazy to think in other countries people can’t laugh at what’s going on cause when they do, it creates incredible changes in society.”
So can we laugh Trump out of office? Of course not, but as Benaquist says, condemning mockery as useless is itself useless. Cipes still believes in the power of laughter because, as he puts it, Trump is a bully and bullies hate to be taunted – it throws them off their game. Authoritarian regimes want to create a culture of fear–but if if you ridicule the powerful, and take down the image of the glorious leader, perhaps you are one step closer to changing things. But first you have to laugh.