Just hours after Joe Biden was declared president-elect of the United States, and as massive celebrations gripped cities around the country, Dave Chappelle took the Saturday Night Live stage to puncture the jubilant mood. He started his monologue with a story about his great-grandfather, who’d been born into slavery in South Carolina. “I thought about him all day today, because I wish I could see him now. I wish he could see me,” Chappelle mused, almost wistfully, before landing the punch line: “Yeah, if he could see me now, he’d probably be like, ‘This nigga got bought and sold more than I have.’” What sounded like a moving anecdote about the American Dream morphed into a critique of both the entertainment industry and the naive notion of linear racial progress.
The set had its rocky points, but in his best moments Chappelle offered biting commentary on the intractability of American racism, no matter who’s in power. He confronted a certain kind of viewer—those who are ready to kick up their feet after a wearying election cycle, who offer virtue-signaling praise of Black voters, and for whom the last four years have seemed like an aberration. His monologue was refreshing in part because so much political comedy in the era of Donald Trump, especially on late-night shows like SNL, has felt derivative and ineffectual, more interested in buffoonery than satire. Chappelle’s longer view of American history shares DNA with some of the most creative and incisive comedy being made elsewhere: on TikTok.
With their outlandish scenarios and lo-fi production, young Black creators on the video-sharing app are rejecting the conventions of slick, studio-sanctioned political comedy—and often ascending to virality in the process. Their primary vehicles of humor aren’t impersonation and caricature; instead, their offbeat sketches employ precise timing and physical comedy in concise vignettes. They prioritize storytelling over slapstick, layering their narrative-driven videos with references to pop culture. Though they might not intend to do so, these creators draw from a long tradition of Black American humor that serves as a kind of artistic resistance to the nation’s evolving racist horrors.
This mode of comedy, whether taking aim at a bellicose first lady or Trump-supporting Black rappers, extends back to the transatlantic slave trade. In her new book, Laughing to Keep From Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century, the Santa Clara University professor Danielle Fuentes Morgan explores those roots, tying antebellum humor to contemporary satire. Fuentes Morgan writes that laughter has historically been more than palliative for Black people in America. Since the 16th century, Fuentes Morgan argues, Black people have used comedy to both draw attention to American injustices and build shared joy that helps them survive those circumstances. Many 21st-century productions in particular can be read as satire “either because of their wry engagement with the ridiculousness of racial assumptions … or because of their inadvertent reliance on racial assumptions to an extent that renders the portrayals in the work itself absurd.”
Young people on TikTok don’t need to supplement their short videos with lengthy explanations of the sociopolitical ideas they’re poking at, nor do they justify their own antics by fitting them into an established format. In the TikToks that most resonantly capture the uncanny blend of relief and terror many Americans are feeling after the election, there are no pithy one-liners about the week’s political news, no perfunctory reminders that democracy always prevails, no perfect imitations of polite pantsuits. Instead, these videos critique American society as it exists, and imagine alternate realities that invert current power dynamics. TikTokers depict essential workers, a group that has been disproportionately harmed by Trump’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic (including in his own home), mocking him openly. Cleaning crews politely beg him to take his crying outside, and movers perform elaborate choreography while tossing his belongings out of the Oval Office. Another TikTok paints a vision of a country that has legally excised symbols of Trumpism, set to the tune of a Twista and Faith Evans hit that’s literally called “Hope.”
Though driven most obviously by situational humor, these TikToks pull in other mediums to create complex story lines within minute-long snippets. Thoughtfully curating music is also one of many ways that their creators gesture toward shared experiences or cultural touchstones that register more meaningfully with Black viewers. More often, these videos pull in film or TV references, giving visuals to a shared language in part by utilizing dialogue from cult classics. That specificity is one of their artistic strengths, and also makes them harder to replicate without knowledge of the works informing them. Intentionally or otherwise, that protects them from being co-opted on an app where non-Black users frequently go viral by decontextualizing Black cultural markers. (Such viral videos often riff on dances or music made by Black artists, and the media often covers “Gen Z slang” without indicating that most of these terms are rooted in African American Vernacular English, or AAVE.)
Of course, some TikToks play on comedic tropes that are familiar to wider audiences: In one video uploaded last Friday, for example, a young man assumes the role of Melania Trump and delivers a dramatic monologue to her off-camera husband. “Gettin’ mad at me ’cause you lost! All I asked you is where we goin’, that’s all!” he yells, face scrunched up into a withering pout as he swings the arm that isn’t holding on to a suitcase. “And you got a attitude—that’s why we in the predicament we in now!” The speech draws on conventional gendered humor about directionally challenged husbands. But the real key to the video is how it plays on the meaning of the word lost in a way that requires knowledge of AAVE to immediately grasp: This Melania isn’t just angry with her husband for having been defeated by Joe Biden; she’s also calling him “lost” in the more habitual, characteristic sense. He may know where he is—the White House, at least for now—but, as a person, he’s utterly adrift.
That exit soliloquy is one of many post-election offerings from young people on TikTok that satirize the president’s reaction to the election better than almost anything produced by mainstream comedy outlets such as Saturday Night Live. Applying such a quotidian lens to the marriage of the current president conveys his incompetence more effectively than sketches that cast him as a blubbering fool. Alec Baldwin’s years-long SNL portrayal of Trump as a “garrulous blowhard,” as my colleague David Sims described it, is hardly edgy. Similarly, the comedian Sarah Cooper’s viral imitations of the president simply repurpose his own speech. No matter how subversive it might be to see Cooper, a 42-year-old Jamaican American woman, lip-sync his ludicrous statements, ultimately the joke hinges on Trump himself being entertaining. But the best TikToks from young Black creators aren’t responding to Trump by treating him as an interesting political figure. (Gen Zers, as has been widely reported, have been disproportionately endangered by and disenchanted with his presidency.) Instead, these videos defuse the president with understated comedy that portrays him as the thing he’s most scared of being: an un-extraordinary loser.
The “Melania” TikTok featuring a “lost” Trump (which has spawned several re-creations) undercuts the president in part by suggesting that even his irritability is prosaic. His wife may seem like she’s rooting for his downfall, but how different does that really make him from the sitcom husbands of yore? The lens is even sharper when applied to real-life men. Renderings of Trump as a former tenant, ex-boyfriend, or ex-employee desperately looking for excuses to prolong his stay aren’t just amusing because they lighten the lingering psychic toll affecting those who’ve been targeted under his administration. These depictions also implicitly paint the president as the same kind of lazy, deadbeat, ineffectual male figure that he has stereotyped Black and Latino men as being throughout his entire public career.
In dramatizing Trump’s theatrics, these videos fall into a broader tradition of Black satire that simultaneously points to the relentlessness of America’s moral failings and carves out space to laugh at them. These TikToks both identify and reimagine the fear inspired by American racism—or, in this case, the prospect of an openly racist president refusing to concede an election his opponent has won (and the fact that other members of the government aren’t challenging him). These creators may not even intend to be drawing direct parallels between the president’s rhetoric and the prospect of his eviction from the White House.
Their videos nonetheless add what Fuentes Morgan calls “an absurdist or identifiably preposterous element to the aspect of society being examined or criticized.” In this, they share qualities with the Chappelle’s Show sketches that endeared American viewers to the comic in the early 2000s. It’s not a coincidence that the immense popularity of those sketches also contributed to Chappelle’s departure from the comedy landscape. “I can’t even tell something true unless it has a punch line behind it,” he lamented in his monologue last weekend. He was alluding to an unfair expectation imposed on many Black comics in the national spotlight: explaining race in America to largely white audiences while also making them laugh.
Thankfully, the youth of TikTok aren’t beholden to the whims of network, or even cable, TV. They don’t need to sell out concert halls or book Netflix specials. Unburdened by such corporate mandates, they operate with more freedom than even comedy titans such as Chappelle. They don’t need to worry about 9 million viewers; they can say something true and insightful without necessarily following it with an obvious punch line. They can reach their core audience right where we are: glued to our phones, still waiting to exhale.