Perhaps we should have expected that in the Age of Trump, even comedy was going to be a very fraught affair.
Last weekend in Boston, it became clear just how fraught, when the political passions aroused by the most incendiary presidential campaign in memory spilled out during an invective-laced comedy benefit show Saturday at TD Garden.
Much of the response to the election of Donald Trump as president has played out in the streets, with protests from opponents across the country. Will the reaction to Trump, pro as well as con, also play out in comedy clubs, on scripted television, in theaters, at concerts? It seems highly likely. A country already polarized along political lines may fracture further along cultural lines.
The episode Saturday night at TD Garden, which featured ferocious broadsides from opposing perspectives that were delivered by comedians Wanda Sykes and Nick Di Paolo, underscored a new reality for standup comics and their audiences: The days, months, and years ahead will be an awkward dance amid conflicting political sensibilities. Laughter, the best medicine? More like a volatile and unpredictable brew.
Yet on that same night, host Dave Chappelle delivered a remarkable opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live’’ that perhaps pointed the way for comedians trying to navigate a very complex and potentially treacherous political landscape. One of the first African-American comics to command a national platform after an election that spotlighted racial divisions, Chappelle spoke in a pointed yet conversational vein, illustrating the power of comedy to channel the national mood as he charted the reaction to Trump’s election, ranging from incredulity to hope to utter dismay.
After describing his attendance at a White House party where virtually all of the guests were black, Chappelle concluded by saying: “It made me feel hopeful and it made me feel proud to be an American and it made me very happy about the prospects of our country. So in that spirit, I’m wishing Donald Trump luck. And I’m going to give him a chance — and we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one too.’’
In the weeks before the election, comedy and politics collided in Tampa when an estimated 200 audience members walked out of an Amy Schumer show when Schumer referred to Trump as an “orange, sexual-assaulting, fake-college-starting monster.’’ Schumer later offered a sardonic open letter to the walkouts: “Dearest Tampa, I’m sorry you didn’t want me, a comedian who talks about what she believes in, to mention the biggest thing going on in our country right now.’’
Veteran political comedian Jimmy Tingle, a Cambridge native, has seen evidence of a polarized nation firsthand as he has performed this year in California, Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire, and even liberal Massachusetts, where Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton trounced Trump.
“In almost any state, [the audience] is going to be 50-50, or 60-40, one way or the other,’’ said Tingle. “It’s not going to be 80-20. People are definitely more sensitive, and more in their camps. A lot of it has to do with the way the campaigns unfolded, and a lot has to do with the legitimate dimensions of the country: people not feeling heard, jobs disappearing.’’
When Tingle performed at an event in Western Massachusetts to raise funds for a hospital in Haiti, he started to tell a joke about Trump’s proposal to stem illegal immigration by building a wall on the Mexican border. “All of a sudden I hear some guy yell ‘Send ’em back,’ ’’ recalled Tingle. “And then another guy yells out: ‘Send ’em to your house.’ It was kind of weird.’’
Tingle said he has found he can communicate his points more effectively by focusing on issues like health care rather than personalities like Trump or Clinton. Comedians should “authentically listen to different points of view’’ while also clearly conveying their own “authentic’’ point of view, he said. Likening the comedic art of political persuasion to a discussion with family members, he said: “We all have people on the other side. Imagine them in the audience. Do you want to yell at them, or do you want to have a conversation?’’
However, another well-known political comedian, Barry Crimmins, struck a more defiant note. Crimmins vowed to exercise the power of the microphone against “people [who] want to come in and try to shout me down, or they can’t take someone saying three sentences they disagree with.’’ Crimmins, who’ll be performing at this week’s Boston Comedy Festival, seemed invigorated by the prospect of Trump as a comic target, though he admitted that “It’s sort of too obvious, because he’s just a ridiculous person.’’
Jim McCue, founder of the Boston Comedy Festival, declined to comment directly on the TD Garden event because he was not present, but, speaking generally, he noted that audiences can sometimes react negatively to political material at charity events. “The difference sometimes is when they go and they didn’t have an expectation of your point of view on politics,’’ said McCue.
Tempers were running high on Saturday at Comics Come Home, an annual fund-raiser for the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care. It began when host Denis Leary mocked both Trump and Clinton; his routine included a video montage with a picture of Trump next to a photo of an orangutan.
When Sykes took the stage, she asserted that “we elected an orangutan to run the country,’’ prompting some boos. Then Sykes, who is African-American and a lesbian, lit into Trump for his comments about women, minorities, and gay people. “This is not the first time we’ve elected a racist, sexist, homophobic president,’’ Sykes said. When some in the audience started booing. Sykes responded: “How can you say he’s not racist? How can you say he’s not homophobic? . . . He said those things, dude.’’
When it was Di Paolo’s turn, he pushed back with a profane, pro-Trump diatribe that, according to audience members, featured caustic remarks about liberals and Boston women, a description of Senator Bernie Sanders as “an old Jew’’ and a description of a woman who protested his routine by walking up to the stage and yelling at him as a “Jew’’ from Peabody.
Sykes and Di Paolo did not respond to the Globe’s requests for comment, but each weighed in on the topic elsewhere.
A Trump backer, Di Paolo said in an online podcast that he felt compelled to respond to Sykes’s anti-Trump comments. He denied that his comment about Sanders was anti-Semitic, and said his description of the woman was “off the top of my head looking for something funny to reply. . . . Once I know the audience is PC, I become like a human troll up there.’’ To anyone who thinks they can censor his comedy on the basis of his gender and race, Di Paolo said “it ain’t gonna happen,’’ adding: “I suggest you — and this goes to Wanda and her friends — you get used to it, ’cause Trump’s the president now. The double standards, folks, you’re not going to have it.’’
Sykes, for her part, said on Facebook that audience members prevented her from getting to her punch lines. “They were yelling for me to shut the F up and to go F myself, so I simply told them how that made me feel,’’ she said. “I then moved on to other material, got some laughs, and said goodnight. I left the stage with my head held high and with my middle finger even higher.’’
The furor at the TD Garden almost certainly won’t be the last time the passions unleashed by the presidential election are manifested onstage. But it’s worth noting the postscript to Jimmy Tingle’s story about the hecklers at that fund-raiser in Massachusetts. Afterwards, the comedian went up to one of the men who yelled at him and said, “No offense.’’ The man proceeded to say: “I’m so sorry. I did four tours in Iraq, and I had too much to drink.’’ Recalled Tingle: “He was very cool afterwards.’’
Video courtesy of Roger Nicholson.
Steve Annear of the Globe staff contributed. Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.