Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
As we enter the final weekend before November 8 and a conclusion to this deeply exhausting election cycle, this week’s question comes from Senior Editor Marah Eakin:
What’s the best piece of pop culture you’ve seen, read, or heard this election cycle?
Originally aired 10.21.2016
Watching lies become the truth in this year’s election. And a few people who try to bridge the gap between the way the two sides see the facts.
© 1995-2016 This American Life
I’ve been telling everyone I can to listen to This American Life’s recent episode, “Seriously?,” which takes a tough look at why it’s seemingly okay to just straight-up lie in politics now. It’s an interesting topic, and Ira Glass and company dive into it with both fairness and compassion. All of the segments are great, and Glass talks to people like CNN’s Jake Tapper and Planet Money’s Jacob Goldstein, but my personal favorite bit is act one, “Lies Become The Truth,” in which Glass interviews his Uncle Lenny. Lenny is a retired plastic surgeon and is clearly a smart dude, but he’s also a Trump supporter who just won’t believe anything positive about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or any sort of left-leaning icon. Obama went to law school, you say? Bullshit, says Lenny, despite ample evidence to the contrary. It’s an interesting if frustrating chat, and something that becomes a bit more academic once Glass brings in Alex Nowrasteh, a conservative activist who points out that, as TAL’s site puts it, “the central issue in Donald Trump’s candidacy is based on something that isn’t true.” If you listen to nothing else this campaign season, make it this 11-minute blip of This American Life, if not the whole episode. It’ll tell you a whole lot about where our country is now, and give you some insight into where we’re going to end up in years to come if this doesn’t change—and soon.
I’ve lost count of how many times I watched the first installment of Triumph’s Election Special 2016. Every time I had friends and family over, I sat them down to watch the famous canine insult comic unleash an 85-minute tour de force of acid zingers, over-the-top pranks, and inspired setups—like the segment where Triumph teaches an admirably game Mike Huckabee how to poop on opponents the Trump way. As Triumph observes, jokingly but accurately, in the Huckabee debate-prep piece, 2016 was the year that Triumph’s field of insult comedy became the central focus of American electoral politics. Which is a disgrace, sure, but if Rome is going to burn, you couldn’t pick a better fiddler than Robert Smigel and his foul-mouthed doggie hand puppet.
Nothing has given me more tiny drips of pleasure amid the incessant pain than watching Full Frontal With Samantha Bee sharpen itself so quickly against the abrasive whetstone of this election. Granted, this whole slog has been so inherently absurd, everyone from your local newspaper to your local Twitter egg has had no problem firing off Daily Show-style wisecracks about it (including the actual Daily Show, who, despite its faded reputation, still turns out the intermittent gem). But against a campaign mired in sexism and actual sexual assault—not to mention Anthony Goddamn Weiner—Bee’s ascendancy feels especially poignant and personally invested. And in addition to just being funny, she’s proved to be passionate and fearless in places where so many others are content to be merely silly. Whether it’s infiltrating the Republican National Convention, illuminating precisely what a dumb-ass Gary Johnson is, tearing into the “alt-right,” or interviewing the paid Russian trolls Trump has denied even exist, she’s been TV’s most trenchant satirist in an unfathomably stupid year.
I’d like to add a hearty “ditto” to Sean. Watching Sam Bee has been a cathartic exercise this fall. No one else has so eloquently captured the anger and anxiety the election has provoked. But since a ditto is a no-go, I’d like to give a shout out to SNL’s “A Day Off” sketch. This election has been a rough one for SNL, to say the least, and the show could never quite recover comedically from the fact that it helped boost Trump’s campaign by having him host last year. I haven’t been completely won over by the Baldwin Trump, perhaps because I just can’t laugh at this guy anymore, and while I love Kate McKinnon, her Clinton impression as of late has felt uninspired to me. That said, her Kellyanne Conway is gold, and is brought to full, glorious, exasperated life in “A Day Off.” I don’t think the sketch will stand the test of time as I assume Conway won’t stay a household name, but it captures the absurdity of the Trump campaign’s lies as told through a cheery, non-orange vessel.
Nothing has delighted me more this election cycle than a supremely goofy YouTube video by Sunpoint Productions called “Eagles With Donald Trump.” Of all the Trump-based satire, and dear lord is there a lot of it, this one stands out for me. Less than a minute long, it juxtaposes footage of Trump making an impassioned plea on behalf of eagles, which are supposedly being killed by windmills in huge numbers, with footage of Trump cringing and cowering while an actual eagle attacks him during an ill-planned photo shoot. It’s so beautifully karmic that it seems too good to be true. And yet, both halves—the speech and the eagle attack—are real. Trump calls eagles “one of the most beautiful, one of the most treasured birds” mere seconds after one tries to tear him apart. It’s a perfect comedic moment.
Technically, Hamilton went up on Off-Broadway in early 2015, and that’s when I first saw it because I am a hip tastemaker [whose friends had the foresight to get tickets early]. But after it made the move to Broadway proper, and after the election cycle kicked off a solid year before the actual election, I revisited it. I know plenty have written about this, but sweet lord, did it resonate. Perhaps the most immediate grabber is this line in “Yorktown”: “Immigrants… they get the job done.” In the ascendance of fearmongering Donald J. Trump, it’s gone from a brief moment of triumph to a major applause line that rebukes a presidential candidate’s hate-filled platform. But the whole show, a celebration and investigation of the messiness of building a nation, stands against a candidate who often seems genuinely flummoxed by, ignorant of, or hostile toward the basic principles of this particular country. As Hamilton became a Broadway phenomenon, it gained fans from both sides of the aisle (including, reportedly, Dick Cheney). Yet I can’t imagine New Yorker Trump even sitting still for it, let alone comprehending it. I’m taking my mom to see it in December, and whether it’s in the shadow of post-election relief or terror, we’ll need it.
Back in March, when people were first trying to make sense of the Republican candidate’s growing appeal, a dirty poet from Lawrence, Kansas, attended a Trump rally and primary night watch party for the New Republic. There is lot of excellent criticism from writers and comedians picking up where The Daily Show left off, as well as empathetic pieces trying to figure out who those nutty Trump supporters are. What makes Patricia Lockwood’s fly-on-the-wall article different from the rest is her witty, visceral, occasionally grotesque language. She says that Ted Cruz looks like he was “grown from fetal pig tissue in a cowboy boot”; she describes one of Melania’s outfits as “Sensual Band-Aid,” and compares Ivanka and Melania, flanking Donald at a watch party, to the twin sphinxes in The NeverEnding Story. If that’s not enough for you, she also turned up her Twitter output when the article published:
It might not be a substitute for his TV and film work, but if the videos from Save The Day are all we’re going to get from Joss Whedon, it’s hard to complain too much, since they’re variously funny and poignant but consistently effective. The one I’ve gotten the most enjoyment from is probably “Important,” which brought together “just a shit-ton of famous people”—plus the occasional unpolished un-famous person—to remind everyone how important it is to register and vote. Plus, there’s a bonus benefit for voters that involves Mark Ruffalo, but if you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t spoil it for you.
I’m not sure anything will usurp my fondness for the way The Onion portrayed Joe Biden the past eight years, but ClickHole‘s spooky take on Donald Trump will make for a good substitute as Biden leaves office. As portrayed by ClickHole, Trump is constantly surrounded by sinister forces, such as the ancient, blind hag who stole his voice, the moaning children’s faces growing on his back, the vines that strangle his reflection, and even a future version of himself that has returned with a dire warning. This election season has had no shortage of labored Trump jokes, but ClickHole found the perfect angle to capture the darkness that hangs over him and this whole election.
Well, if we’re going to praise our officemates, Kyle, this is definitely the time to do it. So I’ll say that The Onion has done a remarkable job of finding humor in this seemingly endless time of dour nail-biting. Remember those carefree times when Americans were telling ourselves that there’s no way Donald Trump would get nominated? Or when The Onion gave us hope that Trump supporters might not even make it to Election Day? They’ve even managed to make me laugh at the second-worst potential scenario of the year. The Hillary jokes came fast and furious, too, and hopefully there will be many more of those over the next four to eight years.
I’ve generally been terrified and angry about the election rather than amused. However, I’m eternally delighted by Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live. After establishing her take on the character last season (particularly in the episode where Clinton herself is a bartender), McKinnon has come into her own this year, especially during SNL’s debate cold opens. Perhaps having Alec Baldwin’s dead-on Donald Trump as a foil helps, but McKinnon toes the line between sly confidence and “get-a-load-of-this-guy” eye-rolling that sums up everything we only wish HRC could express. And McKinnon-as-Clinton’s barely contained glee at Trump’s gaffes—which peaked with her being caught dancing to Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” during a recent sketch—soothes the real-life horror just a bit.
Every Thursday night I get together with my friends for role-playing games. I’ll pretend to be a post-apocalypse dog-headed sniper, hiding among the rubble of fallen civilization and firing shots off at the cannibal road tribes that plague our small, peaceful settlement. It’s absurd stuff, and yet somehow less so than the fantasy held by the groups of men roaming southern Arizona who Shane Bauer writes about in his incredible piece for Mother Jones, “Undercover With The Border Militia.” It’s a harrowing read. Bauer inserts himself into a camp of heavily armed men who take to patrolling the border in hopes of finding illegal immigrants they can apprehend at gunpoint. These militias include many Iraq vets who struggle to find purpose or economic opportunity back home, but understanding the very real struggles these mostly white men (and they are all, with one exception, men) face doesn’t erase the sexism, racism, baseless paranoia, misplaced aggression, and fascist sympathies that lead them to the desert to act the Rangers Of Gondor. It’s frightening, and potentially lethal, role-playing.
Laura M. Browning
As I drove from a red state to a blue one recently, I caught up on a bunch of lefty podcasts to try to clear my head of all the Trump/Pence signs I’d just driven through. The best of those is Says Who?, hosted by Dan Sinker (a.k.a. @mayoremanual) and YA author Maureen Johnson. They repeatedly remind listeners that “it’s not a podcast—it’s a coping strategy,” and there are running gags about stress-eating pie to make it alive until next Tuesday. Because Dan and Maureen are sitting in their respective corners rocking back and forth, just like the rest of the sane world, their podcast includes a mix of scripted humor (with Peter Sagal and Amber Benson showing up as ghosts) and long-form interviews with political experts like Ana Marie Cox and Jamelle Bouie. Most of the interviewees are in the thick of election season, and if they can (mostly) stay calm, so can we. (That said, I haven’t yet listened to the most recent episode, and I hope it’s just whale calls and ocean waves, because I don’t know if I can handle anything else right now.)
“Meet a Trump voter” human-interest stories lapsed into self-satire long ago—here’s a genuine satire of this type of reporting that’s only four hours old as of this writing—but the whole racket should’ve closed up shop after The New Yorker published George Saunders’ “Trump Days.” It’s not just that Saunders writes circles around every other attempt to qualify and quantify the base that’s thrown its support behind a candidate who, in lieu of asking Kevin McCallister where his parents are, instead helped the little rascal check into the Plaza Hotel. It’s that Saunders—drawing on his experience in short fiction and journalism—fleshes these people out so efficiently and so empathetically, it’s easy to forget that they’re the same type of person who might, say, go out in a public in a T-shirt that says “FUCK YOUR FEELINGS.” You get the picture: It’s easy to caricature the people who have shoved American democracy to the edge of an infinitely narrowing Looney Tunes cliff, but Saunders resists that impulse. It’s not the most assuring snapshot of the United States ever taken, but hey: If things go the wrong way on November 8, he’ll have a great prequel for a future dystopian novel.
When I was at the Republican national convention in July to research my 7 Days In Ohio ebook, I met a gentleman named Vic Berger, one of the many demented comic geniuses whose career Tim Heidecker has given a big boost. The election is surreal enough, but Berger twists and contorts and edits and re-edits video (primarily for Super Deluxe) until it’s even more bizarre and dadaistic than the actual election. Berger hones in on the weird in-between moments to re-imagine debates and speeches into crazed psychodramas filled with unspoken longing and free-flowing craziness. He’s a true artist of the comedy of awkwardness and discomfort, as evidenced by this reel of some of his most inspired Trump Vines.
Credit British comic actor Peter Serafinowicz for digging into Donald Trump’s oratorical style and discovering that all the would-be alpha male bullying bluster and egotistic hyperbole is, at heart, the catty, vain sniping of a woefully insecure, barely literate, puffed-up drama queen. (The web videos really bring home how much of Trump’s speeches consist of petty rebuttals to any implication of his personal failings, no matter how insignificant.) “Sassy Trump” sees Serafinowicz dubbing over the actual Trump’s speeches with exactly the same boastful broken syntax, repetitions, and inept appeals to the “regular people” at his rallies, turning the whole spectacle into deflating camp, simply by tweaking Trump’s inflection by a hair (so to speak).
Throughout the election cycle, I’ve read so many great articles about Hillary Clinton supporters, Donald Trump supporters, and everyone in between, often sharing them online after some careful consideration. The one thing, however, that I instantly posted to my social media pages without hesitation was Libby Vander Ploeg’s Victory Shimmy. The illustrated animation arrived after Clinton and Trump’s first presidential TV debate, when Clinton geared up with this gleeful move to shut down Trump. The pure joy that registered in Clinton as she said, “Okay,” and then shimmied into her talking points was a reassuring moment in an especially taxing election. That shimmy was a special sign that Clinton could do this, and do so with some pizzazz. Vander Ploeg harnessed the upbeat move with a bright and inviting piece of artwork that asked you to “Shimmy if you’re with her,” and shimmy I did.
If there’s a bright side to this whole awful, humanity-draining mess, it’s that we got some new Jon Ronson writing out of it. Ronson—the author of The Men Who Stare At Goats, The Psychopath Test, and the must-read online empathy manual So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed—digs into his own relationship with conspiracy theorist extraordinaire Alex Jones in his short e-book The Elephant In The Room, as well as Jones’ connection to the Trump campaign in the form of long-time adviser Roger Stone. But despite the fact that Ronson disagrees with his subject on pretty much every conceivable point—from right-wing indifference to Trump’s numerous falsehoods, to Jones’ hideous assertion that the young victims of the Sandy Hook shootings were actually just actors—he maintains a sense of human warmth for the radio-host-turned-influencer as a man (while also lobbing a few pointed criticisms of the more hysterical, knee-jerk responses on the left). That infusion of humanity is a much-needed relief, especially as the calls for blood from both sides of the political discourse are getting louder and louder as the election approaches.
I feel like a real dummy for this answer, but I absolutely loved that Overwatch-themed anti-Trump campaign from the Cards Against Humanity PAC. That probably has a lot to do with just how deeply addicted I am to Overwatch, but I was so, so tickled by the fact that people were forced to look at this billboard plastered with an incredibly specific video game reference. Nothing about this election made sense, but I can’t even imagine how confounding it must have been for the 99-percent of people who drove past this giant drawing of Trump screaming at a computer and had no idea what it meant. Beyond that novelty, there was some real truth to the comparisons the campaign was drawing between the GOP nominee and the selfish assholes that drag your team down in a cooperative game like this. Despite their obvious fuck ups, they can’t bring themselves to admit when they’re wrong. They just blame everyone and everything else. Also, these drawings of Trump’s puffy body stuffed into the outlandish outfits of various Overwatch characters were wonderful.
I really like Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, but it doesn’t quite hit the same highs as The Colbert Report did. That series was absolutely brilliant satire, and even though that’s not really The Late Show‘s goal, I do miss the punch that the Report had. So I was very excited to see Colbert resurrect the “Stephen Colbert” character in honor of the Republican National Convention over the summer. When he rode into The Late Show on a chariot carried by shirtless Uncle Sams, wielding both Captain America’s shield and Sting from The Lord Of The Rings—both mementos from the old show’s set—it was like seeing Michael Jordan in a Bulls jersey sticking his tongue out for a crazy dunk again. I’m sure regularly covering this awful election as the character would’ve killed the real Colbert, but it was still amazing to see him put on that persona one last time. (He did do it a second time on the Late Show, but that was a legally distinct “Stephen Colbert” character that had nothing to do with any TV shows owned by Viacom.)
Similar to Sam, I’m a big fan of watching Colbert do a character. But for my money, nothing beats his spot-on impression of Stanley Tucci’s over-the-top Caesar Flickerman from the Hunger Games movies in his “Hungry For Power Games” spoofs. Watching him pay tribute to the Republican candidates as they dropped out one by one during the primary season was superb, and then having him crash the conventions was even better. It’s the kind of humor the late-night host excels at: smuggling in pointed cultural commentary in the guise of court jester.
I get why so many of the responses to this election have centered on the insanity of Donald Trump, but I’m more interested in the inspiring, historic nature of Hillary Clinton’s campaign (flaws and all). And while I was definitely inspired by watching her roast Trump in a hot pink ball gown at the Al Smith dinner, my favorite part of this election was the Democratic National Convention. Specifically, this behind-the-scenes DNC footage that manages to humanize just about everyone. There’s Bill Clinton chilling with Meryl Streep, Elizabeth Warren telling Sarah Silverman, “Tough women have to get it done, right?”, Obama rocking out to Eminem, and Clinton herself showing off the warmer side she sometimes struggles to convey to the public. Michelle Obama’s speech, Shonda Rhimes’ profile, and that iconic Obama/Clinton hug were all great, but catching a candid glimpse of Clinton gushing, “She looks so pretty!” during her daughter’s speech makes me more excited than ever to say I’m with her.
Of all the songs written in response to Donald Trump’s campaign the one I’ve listened to most is “I Killed Donald Trump” by Liquids. Like all Liquids songs, it’s lo-fi, jittery, and just catchy enough to be memorable without undermining its acerbic qualities. Whenever I hear someone say “Donald Trump” my brain immediately inserts “I killed” before hearing whatever the rest of the sentence is. It may not be the most nuanced way of making it through the election, but it’s certainly been effective.