“Some say satire is dead because reality is weirder than satire. I’m grateful to comedians because sometimes comedy lets them cut deeper into the matter and be more truthful. I’m hoping that comedy can be the vehicle towards the truth . . .” – Novelist Salman Rushdie on The Beat with Ari Melber, MSNBC, Sept. 5, 2019.
Thanks to freedom of speech granted to all Americans under the First Amendment of the Constitution, our country had been gifted with a long and storied history of political satire and topical comedy. From homespun humorists such as Mark Twain and Will Rogers, to social commentators like Lenny Bruce to present day TV talk show hosts like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee, we haven’t lacked for brilliant minds who cleverly attack the flaws and hypocrisies of our political system and its leaders – and make us laugh in the process.
Our Presidents, of course, have been easy and appropriate fodder for satirists and comedians who can go for the jugular. Since its beginning in 1975, Saturday Night Livehas lampooned every Commander-in-Chief in ways that have made their foibles more memorable than their policies. But even at their most biting, SNL’s funny men lambasted our leaders with love, which even the Presidents appreciated to the point where they could laugh at themselves.
Then came Donald Trump. Since a month before the 2016 election, Alec Baldwin’s mocking impersonation of Trump on SNL captured Trump’s personality and his policies in a way that has made millions of anti-Trumpers laugh and cry at the same time. Political comedy today dredges up the hoary but true cliché, “It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.”
This is the dilemma being faced by the 35 different comedians (over 15 shows) that make up the various casts of Laughing Liberally: Make America Laugh Again, now running through September 21 (Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm) at the Theatre at St. Clement’s Church (423 West 46thStreet). How do professional comics conjure up jokes—and in turn how can audiences laugh at them—when the object of the humor is, well, Donald Trump and today’s GOP.
But in just about two hours on opening night last Tuesday, five standups gave it their best shot to varying degrees of success in front of an audience liberally filled with liberals who seemed desperate for some sort of comic relief.
John Fugelsang (the only one who’ll appear in all 15 shows) welcomed the audience by announcing these shows would be “bringing blasphemy to a church,” and that there would be “no hackneyed jokes about Donald Trump’s hair or fake tan or hideous anus-like lips.”
When Fugelsang asked if there were any Trump supporters in the crowd, two raised their hands (one of them sitting next to me who grunted for most of the show) and the comic offered a pledge that “If any jokes—or facts [laughs]—are offensive to you, please go to the nearest bar and run up a big tab. Bring your checks back to me and I promise I’ll get Mexico to pay for it.”
Up first was Natalia Reagan, a scientist, comedy writer, and correspondent on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk on National Geographic TV, who is also a primatologist that studies monkeys and apes. Reagan’s set was more educational than hysterical and centered on whether Trump can be compared to non-human primates such as gibbons, bonobos, or orangutans. Bill Maher was already treading that ground as far back as 2013, so much so that Trump threatened to sue him and when Maher again pushed the orangutan comparison during the 2016 campaign and after the election, the Right Wing wanted Maher fired from HBO.
Billed as a “Special Guest,” veteran comedian, actor and activist Jimmy Tingle is so politically engaged he ran for Lt. Governor of Massachusetts in the 2018 Democratic Primary (finishing 2nd with 41% of the vote). But if Tingle were President, he’d offer an interesting idea about dealing with crime and criminals: “All the candidates talk about ending crime. But you need to communicate with the criminal. Under a Tingle administration, I would have ex-convicts in my Cabinet and I would get them from the Cabinets of previous administrations.”
Tingle also offered some sage advice about how the Democrats can defeat Trump in 2020: “How did Donald Trump win? Messaging. Short, simple messages. Three words: ‘Build the Wall,’ ‘Drain the Swamp,’ ‘Lock Her Up,’ ‘Make American Great.’ Democrats have our own three words—‘Feed the Hungry,’ ‘House the Homeless,’ ‘Heal the Sick.’ ‘Welcome the Stranger.’ And I would also add ‘Fix the Trains.’ If JFK could inspire a generation to go to the moon, we should be able to get 1 train to work on weekends or the 7 train make it to Queens.” The natives in the audience ate this up.
Rhonda Hansome, who once appeared on SNL and has won a Backstage Bistro Award as “Outstanding Comedian,” riffed for most of her set about being a “strong black woman.” Her funniest line: “I’m feminist, but not a radical feminist. You know the difference, right? A feminist is not afraid to use the men’s room. A radical feminist is not afraid to use the urinal.”
Long-time comedy TV and radio comedy writer and performer Frank Conniff related about how he recently had quadruple bypass surgery and he managed to get a Trump immigration policy joke out of it. “Friends who visited me in the hospital and would say, ‘Frank, you’ve got so much color back in your skin.’ In fact, I got so much color, Donald Trump tried to deport me.” To the delight of the local crowd, the droll Conniff didn’t spare New York Mayor Bill de Blasio: “My doctors discussed putting in stents, but my heart was so far gone it would have been pointless—kind of like Bill de Blasio’s Presidential campaign. Is the Mayor here tonight? Oh no, he wouldn’t be here—we’re in New York.” Mic drop!
As the show’s headliner, John Fugelsang’s set ran for about 50 minutes and he pretty much nailed it. Fugelsang, is host of Sirius XM Insight channel’s Tell Me Everything, and is a frequent cable TV news guest, especially on MSNBC. Fugelsang opened his comedy set last Tuesday night with the observation that, “Our outrage circuits are completely burnt out in this country,” before he took down Texas Senator Ted Cruz (“the Abraham Lincoln of Sarah Palins”), former Attorney General Jeff Sessions (“the racist perjurer every liberal was hoping wouldn’t get fired”), almost everyone in the Trump cabinet, and of course, you know who. Among Fugelsang’s other observations were:
“Every time Trump talks about God, an angel coughs up blood.”
“How many people here tonight voted for Trump? Wow, only two people clapped. Well, thank you for explaining the Electoral College.”
“Misogynists say we can’t have a woman President because they’d be insane for five days a month. Are you kidding? At this point I’d kill for a President who is only insane five days a month.” There were more, but you get the idea.
Who might that NOT insane President be in 2021? “Elizabeth Warren, Mother of Dragons,” offered Fugelsang, “She a MILVF—Mother I’d Like to Vote For.”
Stephen Hanks is a veteran magazine editor and writer who has long been involved in politics as a campaign volunteer and speaker. In 2018, he produced five cabaret variety shows in New York to raise funds for Democratic candidates running for Congress in the midterm elections. His political opinion blog “2020 Vision” can be found on Facebook.
Laughing Liberally: Make America Laugh Again
with John Fugelsang and Friends
Featuring: John Fugelsang, Natalia Reagan, Rhonda Hansome, Frank Conniff, and Special Guest Jimmy Tingle
Theatre at St. Clement’s Church
423 West 46thStreet (between 8th and 9th Avenues)
Photo of John Fugelsang: Xanthe Elbrick