It’s tempting—isn’t it always?—to blame everything, including this descent into humorlessness, on Trump. It’s not quite right to say, as is often said, that Trump has no sense of humor. You could say he has a sense of what a sense of humor is, even if his own preference is for a pigtail-yanking, pull-my-finger kind of humor, full of ridicule, mugging, sarcasm, and broad-brush caricature. His campaign rallies are like overlong stand-up routines without any jokes, just as late-night comedians’ stand-up routines are coming to resemble campaign rallies, also without the jokes.
Trump’s audiences, no less than Colbert’s, are primed to laugh whenever the signal is given. Trump’s jokiness is outward-directed, always. You notice you never hear the president laugh; his own amusement with the world, his own desire to amuse, doesn’t emerge from a place deep enough for laughter, and it is always aimed away from himself. Real comedy is beyond him. Who knew it would be beyond comedians?
It’s much more likely that Trump is a symptom, or at least a correlate, rather than a cause of whatever has drained the funny from traditional joke telling. The explanation may be as simple as this: We have witnessed the death of an art form. Stand-up joke telling has died in the same way that some of us of a certain age have watched the Broadway musical die, and as our lucky grandparents before us watched the operetta die. (I would have paid to see that.) Jokes that nearly everyone understands as jokes require shared assumptions, even a broad reservoir of lightheartedness and goodwill, and we no longer share those in our fractured republic. Humor has been privatized.
Read: Seth Meyers questions Kellyanne Conway (and the politics of late-night)
While feeling terrible for the Times interns, we should reserve some sympathy for the comedians and their writers. They must be miserable. Colbert, the Jimmies Kimmel and Fallon, Corden, and the others have shown genuine comedic gifts in earlier phases of their career. Surely they don’t pay top dollar to hire subpar writers to furnish them with non-jokes and pull their slack marionette strings. It can’t be fun, much less funny, feeding line after line to a studio audience only to elicit what Seth Meyers—in an earlier, funnier phase of his career—called “clapter.” Meyers coined the term to describe a reaction that’s 2 percent laughter and 98 percent applause, a way for an audience to let the joke teller and one another know that they’re all on the same team. Still, the videos on the Times’ “Best of Late Night” page show the studio audiences clapting to the point of seizure, five nights a week. I can’t imagine how they keep it up. Maybe they get a popper of amyl nitrate with their Late Show tote bags.
Which brings us back to Ron Chernow. We can be sure there won’t be any poppers in the swag bags Saturday night. He is an amiable fellow, as agreeable in person and at the podium as he is on the page. After the Wolf disaster last year, the correspondents’ association decided to ditch the stand-up routine altogether and go highbrow. In his talk, Chernow says, he will make the case for the First Amendment, and no one could make it with greater knowledge or eloquence.
But he’s also hinting that he may leaven the gloom with a little humor of his own. One shudders at the thought. Don’t do it! Comedy is a business best left to the professionals, and as we’ve seen, even they don’t want to try it anymore.