Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art
by Sam Wasson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 485 pp.
The last twenty-five years have seen the rise of a Political Comedy Industrial Complex, but unlike Ike's warnings about the Pentagon, I won't tell you it's a bad thing. Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher first aired in 1993, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 1999. The Clinton years, with Baby Boomers in the White House, were ripe for a surge in political comedy. A little over two decades ago, when I started to do political stand-up as a side gig to my day job as a journalist covering the Clinton administration, there was plenty of political humor on TV and in clubs, but a middle-aged guy with a modestly good Clinton impersonation could still get some stage time in New York and D.C.
But the fact that there's much more political comedy now is one of the reasons I don't do it anymore. (That, and it takes a lot of time.) There was the expansion of the comedy industry in the Bush and Obama years, not only on television but with acts as varied as Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis and Funny or Die on the internet to the paper and web versions of the Onion to a book industry that helped lift a former Saturday Night Live bit player named AI Franken into the role of best-selling author and then into a career as a U.S. senator (until the end of 2017, at least).
The age of Trump has only accelerated what a political comedy analyst at Goldman Sachs (how I wish there were such a thing on CNBC) might call double-digit growth in the sector. Jimmy Fallon's largely apolitical Tonight Show is getting crushed by the more overtly political and partisan offerings of Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel. A new genre of what might be called "reported comedy" has grown up around the forty-fifth president in the form of John Oliver's HBO show Last Week Tonight and Samantha Bee's Full Frontal. As has often been noted, young people are more likely than ever to get their news via comedy shows rather than from the New York Times.
Today's Trump-hating audiences have a need for reassurance baked into their comedy, and they consume it as much not to cry as to laugh. No wonder Alec Baldwin's merciless portrayal of Trump has reinvigorated Saturday Night Live. Like New Yorker covers or The Rachel Maddow Show, political comedy like Baldwin's gives hope to the resistance, a comforting vision of the president as evil, yes, but, more importantly, as ignorant and buffoonish...