Laughter has power. Laughter can be uplifting or utterly crushing. Earning a laugh for a well-crafted joke can brighten your day, but being laughed at for a mistake can be discouraging. Some people take laughter aimed at them better than others, and President Donald Trump isn’t one of these people.
In the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live, Melissa McCarthy portrayed Sean Spicer, the current White House press secretary. The skit, which characterized Spicer as overly aggressive and out of control, bothered the president, who allegedly “doesn’t like his people to look weak,” according to a top Trump donor. The episode of SNL also saw Alec Baldwin reprise his role as Trump, while Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was depicted as the grim reaper.
SNL has hammered the Trump administration over the past few months and has earned higher ratings along the way, despite the president’s remarks about the show being “the worst of NBC.” But does laughing at the president really matter? Does yielding an annoyed response on Twitter mean anything at all? Perhaps.
Trump watches a lot of cable news and a lot of television in general. Few would protest against the statement “Trump has a big ego.” The man cares a lot about what is said of him and is attracted to images of grandeur. Before he was elected president, he focused his attention on building the biggest buildings. He wrote letters in gold sharpie. He hung around with supermodels. His image has been carefully crafted over the decades. To him, the Trump brand matters quite a bit. When that brand is in danger, the alarms go off in the Trump brain.
The irony of Trump’s aversion to weakness, either of himself or of “his people,” is that this aversion itself is a weakness. Making fun of Trump makes him weaker, makes him more vulnerable. Perhaps in this way, SNL is the perfect weapon against the strongest man in the world.
Comedy has the ability to cut through the fog of political discourse and reach disinterested and even dispirited people. The comedic interpretation, which exaggerates and contorts the images of figures like Trump, reveals new and bolder ways of looking at events. Although Spicer did not shoot a news reporter with a water gun or confront another reporter with a podium (actions that McCarthy did while playing Spicer), these actions establish a new narrative. The audience knows this is comedy, and the show is not trying to claim the absurd behavior actually happened. But as a form of rhetoric, comedy enables SNL to reach out to viewers and say: “Look, this is how we see the world.”
SNL has the platform to reach out to audiences in ways that other individuals cannot. The media will cover SNL’s shows, and the underlying feelings of the comedy skit permeate throughout society. One perspective of Trump, a man of men with the power to change things, can be dismantled through the use of comedy. By displaying the president as an ineffective and silly individual in comedy skits, SNL can shape the way people think.
All of this comes with one caveat, and the question again arises: Does laughing at the president really matter? And by extension does comedy, especially in the form of shows like SNL, matter? Comedy allows individuals to control the narrative, but comedy may also dissuade action. People like to view things that give them emotional validation. They feel as though watching a show represents their endorsement of a message. This relates to virtue signaling, whereby someone adopts a moral stance to enhance their social standing. When people watch shows that give them the feeling of action, they will not go out to actually protest injustice.
The realm of ideas may be changed when SNL televises its skits and makes the president look like a fool. But what truly matters is that individuals act when they feel threatened, that they stand up for what they see as right. Shows like SNL make people laugh, and if that is their objective, they are achieving it. If they want to make fun of the president and ensure that he sees it, this is the president they want in office. But on the level of inspiring action, there is room for debate and room for uncertainty.