On February 28, 2016, three years ago now, HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver aired a segment that was especially prescient about the Trump era, and the many ways how mainstream comedy would try, and fail, to react to it.
The 22-minute segment, which aired when Trump was still running in the Republican primaries that year, led up to the revelation that then-candidate Trump’s family, generations ago, had gone by the last name “Drumpf.”
After nearly 19 minutes of demonstrating the power and mythology of Trump’s last name, and stating that “the very name ‘Trump’ is the cornerstone of his brand,” Oliver cited a biographer who had discovered that a Trump ancestor, in the 17th century, had changed the name to “Trump” from “Drumpf.”
“If you are thinking of voting for Donald Trump, the charismatic guy promising to make America great again,” Oliver said, “stop and take a moment to imagine how you would feel if you had just met a guy named Donald Drumpf.”
Therefore, Oliver announced that the show was filing to trademark the name “Drumpf,” would sell “Make America Drumpf Again” hats, and was even launching a browser extension that would allow web users to substitute “Drumpf” for “Trump.”
Huge Hit but, What Else?
The segment was an instant hit. The hashtag #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain trended on Twitter. They sold 35,000 of the hats, and thousands of people downloaded the browser extension. The “Make America Drumpf Again” bit has now been viewed more than 35 million times on the show’s official YouTube channel.
But what the segment didn’t do, almost certainly, was persuade anyone not to vote for Donald Trump, or do anything to prevent his election later that year. It was an impotent gesture, one that wasn’t all that funny in 2016 and hasn’t been much improved by time. Especially not when Trump opponents, as way too many do — continue to call him “Drumpf” to this day.
“Drumpf” was a harbinger of comedy touchstones such as Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression on Saturday Night Live, Andy Borowitz’s columns about the administration, those giant Trump-shaped blimps at protests, and every “covfefe” or “hamburders” joke ever told.
Oliver’s segment never made a whole lot of sense from the very start, mostly because of all of the things about Donald Trump that are worthy of mockery, the surname used by his centuries-ago ancestors is pretty far down the list. And while ridicule sometimes gets under Trump’s skin, there’s no indication that the Drumpf bit ever did. Trump never tweeted about it, and there was no reporting at the time, or since, indicating that it ever bothered him.
Low Hanging Fruit
It’s all part of a tendency by liberal comedy, and general opposition, in the Trump era to go for low-hanging fruit, weak-tea jokes, and other totally impotent gestures that don’t move the needle in the slightest. The Drumpf bit is akin to backing Michael Bloomberg for president, on the notion that it would really tick off Trump to know that Bloomberg is richer than he is.
“Drumpf” was a harbinger of comedy touchstones such as Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression on Saturday Night Live, Andy Borowitz’s columns about the administration, those giant Trump-shaped blimps at protests, and every “covfefe” or “hamburders” joke ever told. It’s that effort, earlier this week, by pranksters to make it possible to place calls to Republican lawmakers in Russian. It’s political comedy that puts smugness, self-satisfaction, and preaching to the converted before either humor or effectiveness.
A lot of observers hoped, going in, that the Trump presidency would be good for comedy. And occasionally, it has been. But more often than not, events have either been too horrifying to laugh at, or so evidently absurd that supplementary jokes can’t improve upon them.
Comedian Patton Oswalt said it best, in his 2017 comedy special, when he compared the president’s daily behavior to “an insane man on the sidewalk, just shitting on the sidewalk and yelling about Hitler.” How can a comedian possibly tell a joke that improves upon that sight itself, if the audience for the joke is watching the insane man too?
Major comedians and comedic institutions seem to be at a total loss as to how to handle Trump. So we get week after week witless Saturday Night Live cold opens, all based on the mistaken notion that sticking A-list actors into the costumes of Trump Administration or Mueller probe figures is somehow inherently hilarious and doesn’t require additional jokes.
…the Drumpf bit, for all the t-shirts sold and browser extensions downloaded, was an occasion of Last Week Tonight missing the mark-while also providing a preview of a lot of failed comedy to come.
Baldwin’s Trump impression ran out of gas sometime before Election Day in 2016, while Anthony Atamanuik’s is the closest thing to a definitive Trump impression we’ve gotten.Even Our Cartoon President, the animated, Stephen Colbert-produced Showtime series that often does hilarious stuff with marginal characters, hasn’t quite gotten a handle on its Trump character, through two seasons.
Last Week Tonight has done a lot of great work over the years, and Oliver’s show in particular has found a special skill at looking at under-examined issues and even finding ways to make them funny. This is something Seth Meyers has also mastered with his “A Closer Look” segments.
But the Drumpf bit, for all the t-shirts sold and browser extensions downloaded, was an occasion of Last Week Tonight missing the mark-while also providing a preview of a lot of failed comedy to come.