Sooner or later even President Trump’s most ardent detractors are going to have to admit that he is capable of being funny. Intentionally funny. Worse, they’re going to have to admit that he’s funny for precisely the reason that Hillary Clinton isn’t: because he’s able to laugh at himself.
Did you see him at CPAC? He bought the house down. Halfway through his speech he seemed to drift off into a kind of reverie. Leaning on the lectern, he saw himself on the monitors. “What a nice picture. Look at that. I’d love to watch that guy speak,” he said, pointing up at the screen. And then, using his hands, turning his back on the audience as if looking in a mirror, he started pretending to work out how the man on the monitor must do his amazing hair. It was funny in the same way watching the Fonz do his hair and his eyebrows is funny. It wasn’t scripted. It wasn’t a gag that had been rehearsed and focus-grouped to death to ensure it would play well with the right demographics. Instead it was a man spontaneously sending himself up in the way most men will from time to time, if they’re relaxed enough. “I try like hell to hide that bald spot, folks. I work hard”, he said, and the audience hooted.
Once you start noticing that Trump is often intentionally funny you can’t stop. It feels like a very in joke. His turn of phrase – part wise-guy hustler, part (surprisingly) New York Jewish old-timer – is ingeniously comedic. Last year, index finger raised, he referred to the task of having to eradicate Isis as “by the way, number one tricky.” He provoked a storm of confected outrage when he said Hillary got “schlonged” in her 2008 primary run (no one would have batted an eyelid if he’d gone instead with the much less funny-sounding “screwed”).
The famous tweeted description of himself as a “very stable genius”, and “like, really smart” was also intentionally funny and all the funnier for the humourless outrage it generated.
His repeated slapstick about “winning so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning, you’re going to come to me and go ‘please, please we can’t win anymore, we beg you, we don’t want to win anymore’”, is also funny, mainly because – as Trump intends – it’s so unlikely coming from a politician.
Trump’s humour, I think, is archetypally mercantile – the laughter of business. It’s the comedy of a man who understands the exquisite pleasure of stiffing and the equally dreadful agonies of being stiffed. His gags are the gags of the guy on the make – a character from a Philip Roth novel, or a Martin Scorsese movie – a man who understands that in life you pay for everything. He’s aware, in other words, that in suffering there is comedy and that life is an inherently funny business.
By contrast, Trump’s predecessor in the White House wasn’t very funny – or at least not nearly as funny as everybody seemed to think. President Obama’s comedy was the comedy of the Boden catalogue – more about being seen to be creasing with laughter, knees bent, high-fiving Joe Biden while showing off a perfect smile – than it was about being genuinely hilarious. Obama’s gags, for example the ones he seemed so much to enjoy delivering at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, were all very clearly written by someone else. Pretty much without exception they were preppy and WASPY – the humour of the elite – right down to the famous and cringey mic drop, complete with fingers over lips pose. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with the leader of the free world making scripted jokes, but it’s just that Obama without a script wasn’t funny at all. Steve Hilton recently said his old boss David Cameron had thought Obama was “one of the most narcissistic and self-absorbed people” he’d ever met. I suspect, judging from Obama’s inability to be spontaneously funny, that verdict isn’t as harsh as it sounds.
Don’t agree? Watch Jerry Seinfeld interview Obama in a dedicated episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee on Netflix. Again and again Seinfeld, an American king of comedy, tries to set the President up to make a joke at his own expense, to laugh at himself. No chance.
“Have you ever had one of those George W Bush moments, remember when he couldn’t find the door in the wall…I don’t believe that you’ve ever publicly had one of those?” Seinfeld asks, straight-faced.
“I have not had a public moment like that,” the then-President replies.
“You haven’t tumbled down a stair?”
“No, not yet.”
“You’ve never leaned over and just started vomiting?”
“No. Nothing like that’s happened so far.”
“Nothing? What’s your most embarrassing Presidential moment?”
“This may be it.”
In fact, at least twice during the interview (which is predicated only on the idea that Obama can be a total laugh riot) Obama references his own coolness. “I’m supposed to be the cool President,” he says. But even school kids know: you can’t be both cool and funny.
It must be said, of course, that being spontaneously funny is by no means a pre-requisite for being a great leader. On the whole, we don’t look to Presidents for light relief. In fact, one suspects in general we’d prefer them to be serious. But the ability to be funny without effort does demonstrate, if nothing else, an incontrovertible common touch – the common touch Trump’s many enemies claim he doesn’t possess beyond demagoguery.
The great received wisdom about Trump, especially from those who hate him, is that the joke’s on him. We’re told again and again that he’s amazingly stupid (Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury managed to stretch this single thesis to 336 pages). “If it wasn’t so serious, it’d be funny”, they say, shaking their heads, of virtually every Trump utterance and action. But surely this assertion is ludicrous. If Trump’s so stupid, then how come he’s a multibillionaire and the world’s most powerful man? Wouldn’t we all like to be so stupid?
The time has come, I think, to reassess Trump’s supposed stupidity, without the clouding lens of loathing. That probably begins with accepting that, if you can’t see that he’s funny, the joke’s not on him, it’s on you.
Trump’s humour may not always be pretty, but it’s there alright. Accept it: the President’s a funny guy.