by Marc Jampole
At first listen, Donald Trump’s speaking style when he eschews the teleprompter seems chaotically free form, as if he tossed a bunch of tweets into one of his MAGA caps and picked a few out, one at a time, and read them out loud, not bothering to supply connective material or an overarching direction.
But there is a method to Trump’s rhetorical madness—a tried and true method that has been around since at least the British music halls of the 19th century.
It’s called stand-up comedy, a style of public speaking with which voters are familiar from late night comedy shows and prime time specials, a style which generally makes its audiences feel good because it makes them laugh, even when the comic is discussing something serious or infuriating. Talking like a stand-up comic may be as significant a part of Trump’s appeal to his core as his nativism, racism, misogyny and isolationism.
Most candidates use the same speaking style, which after salutations and a short joke follows a basic three-part structure: 1) Tell them what you’re going to say; 2) Say it; 3) Tell them what you just said. Within that overall framework, the typical political speech will go from issue to issue. In each part of the speech, the speaker will employ a rather limited set of rhetorical devices: using more words than are necessary as opposed to speaking directly; referencing a mix of anecdotes and isolated statistics; and hedging bets with such weaselly phrases as “anticipate” “start to address” and “return to American traditions.” The speaker typically builds tension through repetition, especially of the first few words of a sentence, as exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream…” speech. Elizabeth Warren typically repeats the word corruption in her speeches, as in “Corruption has put our planet at risk. Corruption has broken our economy. And corruption is breaking our democracy.” In his stump speech, Bernie Sanders will embed the emphatic rendering of the simple phrase, “we are going to” in four or five sentences in a row.
Except for the use of anecdotes and statistics, both often fabricated, Donald Trump rejects this standard stump speech model in favor of stand-up comedy.
We can identify several characteristics of stand-up comedy that Trump has repurposed for the political arena. First and foremost is the lack of a recognizable formal structure in Trump’s rants. The contemporary comic for the most part doesn’t tell traditional jokes, but rambles from topic to topic, free form and without apparent goal, occasionally telling a story or saying something funny or zinging a sacred cow or well-known human foible. You never have the feeling that the contemporary comic is scripted, but rather speaking a spontaneous stream of consciousness rap. And yet the comic manages always to tell the same jokes and even sling the same insults at audience members in all routines. Doesn’t that sound like Trump?
The contemporary comic will take a complex social issue, reduce it to one or two points which will be inflammatory but not necessarily salient, and then melt away our anxiety with simplistic, often aggressive and senseless exhortations. Lewis Black and Chris Rock both take this approach. It’s what Trump has done to many issues, for example, reducing the complexities of illegal immigration to building a wall and the threat of a recession to what he calls stupid actions by the Federal Reserve Board.
Like Trump, most contemporary comedians depend on insults to get laughs. While some comedians, such as Don Rickles, Dom Irrera and Lisa Lampanelli, have built their routines entirely around insults, most will throw in at least some name-calling, sometimes of the audience, sometimes of well-known people, sometimes of themselves. Insult humor is also a mainstay of situation comedies like “Mom,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Two Broke Girls,” and “Two and a Half Men.”
Stand-up comics frequently find humor in reducing people to stereotypes consisting of one or two traits, and then making funny remarks or telling stories that exemplify those traits. Trump takes it one step further by symbolizing the traits as funny labels—“Crooked Hillary,” “Pocahontas, “Sleepy Joe.”
In stereotyping people, stand-up comics will often briefly leave their own persona by changing their voice and body movements to imitate another person. A wide range of comics will play several parts in their routines. Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher often break into their respective versions of Trump and Bernie Sanders for a sentence or two. A few extremely gifted mimics like Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams have built their entire routines going from character to character. Some of Trump’s most notorious moments occur when he is briefly playing another person, such as his imitation of a reporter with a physical disability or his whiney imitation of liberals. No other politician of recent vintage would dare take on the voice and gestures of another person.
Contemporary comics are self-referential, drawing from their lives or interrupting a thought process to refer to themselves—how the performance is going, why something makes the performer angry, the effect of current events on the comic’s personal life. There are many comics who focus on themselves, from Jack Benny, George Burns and Rodney Dangerfield on to Elaine Boosler, Wendy Liebman, Amy Schumer, Lewis Black and Jeff Foxworthy. Critics often rightly cite Trump’s extreme narcissism as a character flaw. Much of his mendacity stems from an irrational desire to self-aggrandize, for example, his lies about the size or crowds, buildings and other things. Other times, his inability to admit leads to wholesale duplicity, for example, the recent White House debasement of the National Weather Service because Trump could not admit he had misspoken.
Many contemporary stand-up comedians play a comic character that is a well-known stereotype. There are red-neck comedians like Ron White, Bill Engvall and Jeff Foxworthy. Wendy Liebman and Sarah Silverman are promiscuous and consumeristic Jewish-American princesses. Chris Tucker is an angry black man. George Lopez plays a series of Hispanic stereotypes. Playing a role is a cherished tradition of stand-up comedy: Jack Benny was a miser. Cheech and Chong were dopesters. Irwin Corey was a gasbag.
Trump plays a stereotype character whose roots go back to the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition of the Renaissance. He is Pantalone—the older, wealthy man, vain, a lecher and a bully, often pompous and ignorant, who usually eventually gets his comeuppance, sometimes even wearing the horns of a cuckold. Moliere’s “bourgeois gentleman” is the classic example of this comic type. A friendlier, sunnier and definitely de-sexed precursor to Trump was Ted Baxter of the Mary Tyler Moore show, played by Ted Knight.
But every comic type with a thousand year tradition will have many manifestations. The left, Democrats, many centrists and the mainstream news media see one version of the classic type upon which Trump has modeled, subconsciously or not, his public person. But Trump supporters experience a different version, comic to be sure, but also heroic.
To New Yorkers, Trump has long been a puffed-up, vain buffoon—a wealthy fool, someone with a lot of money but no taste: Pantalone. Before running for president, his private life exemplified what used to be called the “nouveau riche,” those who have money but spend it tastelessly and foolishly. His “Apprentice” TV show was a parody version of the business world, his gruff and insulting style a parody of a type of executive who is not all that prevalent nowadays.
But the rich and pampered oaf is not what his followers saw in Trump. To Trump voters, he was the Rodney Dangerfield and Jackie Mason characters of the two Caddyshack movies of the 1980’s that are still frequently aired on a number of broadcast and cable stations. Dangerfield and Mason both played extremely rich white males who made their money at least partially in real estate development. Their vulgarity, apparent ignorance of social etiquette and kind treatment of the “hired help” turned them into average Joes who break down the barriers of elite institutions. Viewers may laugh at Dangerfield and Mason as they commit social faux pas or make ridiculous statements, but we treat them as heroes who upend the social order for the good of the whole.
There is no difference in what the audience feels for these rich disrupters in the Caddyshack movies from what supporters feel about Donald Trump. In the numerous interviews with core Trump supporters, they forgive his vulgarity and stumbling as part and parcel of his outsider status.
How much did Trump’s stand-up comic style contribute to his success in connecting with enough former Democratic voters to eke out wins in a few blue states and win an Electoral majority? Delivering his nativist, racist, misogynist messages like a comic certainly made them seem “funny” to those who despise so-called “political correctness,” but did his voters respond to the jokes positively. Would Trump have won by a greater margin if he had delivered his material in the traditional style?
The very fact that Trump’s language and rhetoric so little resembles standard political fare certainly contributes to the view that he is a disrupter. That he distills his messages into short statements—be they insults, lies or simplifications—make them easy to remember, transmit on social media and use in television news, which now favors quotes of less than ten seconds. On the other hand, the news media routinely treats his rally speeches and early morning tweet rants as manifestations of instability, inexperience and ignorance. We can’t really know for certain whether his performance helped him win the election unless a progressive Democrat attempts the same approach. Thankfully, none of the 2020 candidates are following Trump’s lead.
Like any professional comic, Trump’s inventiveness feeds off the audience response. Playing to live audiences will likely continue to incite Trump to make more of the type of embarrassing and ignorant. In the best case scenarios, Trump or others walk back the assertions he makes by twisting the meaning, denying he said it or quietly restating long-standing American policy. We have already seen this dynamic play out again and again—with North Korea, Charlottesville, transgender military service, Israeli settlements and China. The worst case scenario has Trump turn a federal department on its head to lie for him or to implement a legally suspect executive order that hurts individuals and the economy, all so that Trump can say he delivers on a promise he makes in his large tent meetings.
In other words, Trump may talk and act like a stand-up comedian, but the joke is on the American people and the world.