Trump that: can standups keep up with a president like this?
In Oh Come On, David Cross matches vulgarity with vulgarity but it’s not the only way to mock a political horror show
Brian LoganMon 1 Oct 2018 07.58 EDT
I’m watching David Cross, but I can’t help thinking about Brett Kavanaugh. No insult intended to Cross, but the hearings were unfolding as he performed this London gig. And of course, the Arrested Development man has skin in the game. His comedy usually includes a strand of political commentary; his wife Amber Tamblyn is a co-founder of the Time’s Up movement. And right now, one year after the dawn of #MeToo, an alleged sexual abuser was about to be nominated to America’s supreme court.
What can comedy do about that? Or at least, what can Cross do? One option is escapism, but that’s not Cross’s bag – this performance, of his touring set Oh Come On, was bound to broach Trump-era politics. And so it came to pass: in the closing 20 minutes he zeroes in on Potus, with a gag-cum-tirade about penitent Trump voters, and an inventory of increasingly baroque scenarios that might lead to the president leaving office. But Cross’s Trump material comes with a caveat. People tell him: “Trump must be great for comedy, right?” But the opposite is true. He’s hard to joke about. The reality is more absurd than any joke. The president’s outrages come too thick and fast to get purchase on: they’ve been superseded before you make it to the punchline.
David Cross performs his Oh Come On show at Brown theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. Photograph: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images
It’s a striking admission of impotence – but it doesn’t stop Cross from dedicating the final third of his show to Trump gags. They’re not about what the president has done. Yes, he addresses Trump’s record in office, reciting a long list of his affronts to what were once considered the norms of American political life. But that’s delivered not as a gag, rather as an aside from one; Cross steps out of the joke to get his indictment across. For the most part, his jokes aren’t about Trump’s actions, but about the despair and rage they inspire in liberals like himself.
Think of it as the Bridget Christie approach: Christie’s unforgettable Brexit show Because You Demanded It joked about the high politics of Brexit, yes, but also about her own fury and frustration in the face of it. With more self-irony, it must be said, than Cross, whose closing set-piece – a fantasy about how to oppose Trump – features the president’s face being beaten to a pulp before Cross defecates in his mouth. “I know that bit isn’t particularly clever,” he admits. Cleverness, he implies, would be somehow beside the point.
Unforgettable … Bridget Christie took on Brexit with self-irony. Photograph: Colin Hutton
The show is a must-see for coprophiliacs, given that its first half comprises a long story about Cross and Tamblyn’s visit to “Couples Colonic”. As Cross himself admits, this tale of a regular Joe’s indignities in a compromising medical/therapeutic situation is standard standup fare. (His compatriot Jim Gaffigan riffed on his colonoscopy at the same venue only a few months ago.) So, too, the cynical attitude Cross adopts towards his new daughter in an earlier section of the show. But if there are few surprises here, Cross is on companionable form, and the jokes (the one about the Wellness Centre’s name; the one about perching his daughter on an oven door) are good.
Whether he’s right that comics v Trump is a losing battle is moot. I sympathise with the impulse – to match vulgarity with vulgarity – but I’m not sure defecating on Trump’s face is quite good enough. Frankie Boyle is up to something similar, but the brutality of his material is matched by its bleak apocalyptic poetry. Onstage and in his breathtaking monologues, New World Order, he’s found the comic register to do justice to our end-of-days moment. Alternatively, you can go high, in Michelle Obama’s formulation, keeping the faith in the cleverness Cross abjures. In the wake of his recent Emmy award, US comic John Mulaney’s celebrated Trump routine (“He’s like a horse loose in a hospital!”) was championed afresh on Twitter, and justifiably so. It gets big laughs from pushing its metaphor ad absurdum without ever outstripping the absurdity of the Trump presidency. With two more years of this horror show and more grim occasions like the Kavanaugh hearings still to negotiate, more power to the comedians wrestling with how to make it even a little bit funny.
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