Trump Is Telling "Jokes," But Nobody's Laughing

08/04/2017 04:49 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2017

I asked comedians: is Donald Trump funny?

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“And when you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — I said. Please don’t be too nice.”

Those were Donald Trump’s remarks to law enforcement at a recent speech in Long Island, New York. Later, White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee, would say that Trump was only joking at the time. This is not the first time Donald Trump has told similar “jokes.”

In February of 2016, Trump stated at an Iowa campaign rally: "There may be somebody with tomatoes in the audience. So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. OK? Just knock the hell..I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”

The list goes on

Trump vs. Comedy

If a joke is told in a forest and nobody is around to laugh at it, is it still a joke? If a joke is told at a rally and nobody laughs and then you don’t clarify that it was a joke, is it still a joke? Or is it just an irresponsible statement that will later be dismissed as jest to save face?

I’m not expecting Trump to be the next Jerry Seinfeld (Jerry, sorry for bringing you into this), but come on. We’ve had presidents in the past whose jokes were at least universally recognized as such.

When used correctly, comedy can be an extremely powerful tool. It can be used to stand up to power. It can help us approach chaos from new perspectives in an effort to find clarity. It enables us to discuss taboo topics. Laughing even leads to a number of health benefits. Comedy is not available to be used as a method to mask cruel, hurtful policies. This goes back to locker room talk. This goes back to accountability.

Michael Ian Black may have said it best 👇🏻👇🏻👇🏻

And while what someone finds humorous is subjective, it’s fair to say that those who devote their lives to the ins and outs of comedy have an especially profound grasp on what qualifies as a joke, and what it means to be funny. Similar to how doctors are the authority when it comes to medicine.

So, is Trump telling jokes? Is he being funny? Or is he using humor as a cloak to cover up his damaging viewpoints?

I reached out to comedians to ask.

Zack Bornstein (@ZackBornstein)

Zack Bornstein currently writes for NBC’s Saturday Night Live and is a contributor to The New Yorker. Formerly, he wrote for Jimmy Kimmel Live.

“I've also realized things I've said are really dumb and claimed "I'm just joking." Except the dumb things he says get people harassed and killed. And the dumb things I say just get me uninvited from my family Thanksgiving. Different stakes.”

Alexandra Petri (@petridishes)

Alexandra Petri writes a humor column for the Washington Post and is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences.

“He is absurd without being funny. He is funny in the sense that you say ‘this tastes kind of funny’ when you take a sip of milk from the local milk people and it turns out it expired six months ago and there is a dead beetle in it. Or in the sense that Han Solo says ‘I got a funny feeling... like I'm not gonna see her again’ when he lets Lando Calrissian borrow the Millennium Falcon for the battle of Endor, that sort of sick sensation low in your gut that your iconic ship is going to be destroyed or you yourself will surely perish and maybe Ewoks will devour your carcass. Or in the sense that you say ‘my elbow feels funny’ and it turns out that it's gangrene. Funny in the sense that it tingles and you think maybe something is fatally wrong. And you can make jokes about it as you lie in the hospital while people determine whether or not you are going to be allowed to keep your arm. He is as funny as a joke about grabbing people by the [noun], which is to say, not.”

David Litt (@davidlitt)

David Litt is a former Obama speechwriter and joke writer. His memoir, "Thanks, Obama," comes out on September 19th.

“What's remarkable about Donald Trump is that he never, ever makes jokes at his own expense. It's like he's allergic to self-examination.”

Allana Harkin (@AllanaHarkin)

Allana Harkin is a Producer and Correspondent for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.

“Donald Trump is HILARIOUS. His set is so tight. I highly recommend he hit the clubs. He'd become so huge that he'd have NO CHOICE but to quit his day job. Please Jesus. Let's all support him in his burgeoning comedy career. It may be our only hope. (P.S just tell him hecklers are ‘just joking’).

Maz Jobrani (@MazJobrani)

Maz Jobrani can be seen in the new CBS sitcom Superior Donuts. He has had four standup specials, and his newest special, “Immigrant,can currently be streamed on Netflix.

“I've always said Donald Trump is great for comedy, but bad for the world. He also does try to hide behind his reprehensible words by either blaming someone else on his team and throwing them under the bus, or by claiming that he was just joking. He needs to start taking responsibility for his words. He's the president and people are listening to him.

He may be joking but the guys who get inspired by his xenophobia and go out and commit violence against immigrants are taking his words at face value. For example, I think there is a direct correlation between his words and the murder in Kansas a few months back when a man shot 2 Indians and claimed he had shot 2 Iranians. One of the victims died. You see a lot of videos nowadays of Trump supporters yelling at people to get out of the country and claiming that this is Trump's America. There's nothing funny about that!”

Jordan Carlos (@jordancarlos)

Fresh off an appearance in Samantha Bee’s Not The White House Correspondence Dinner, comedian Jordan Carlos stays busy. You might know him from shows "Guy Code" and "Girl Code" on MTV. Other credits include The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Comedy Central's "Live at Gotham," "The Colbert Report," "Nurse Jackie," "Girls," and "Broad City," and most recently, Golden-Globe winner, "The Affair." College Humor's go-to Obama, Jordan can also be counted on for a presidential impression with over a million YouTube clicks.

“Donald Trump's humor is roast humor, except he only punches down, which is the low-hanging fruit of laughs. He does have the bearing and timing of a Borsch Belt comic, and often sites great comics like Chris Rock in his jokes a la, ‘I like war heroes who don't get captured.’ That was an old Chris Rock bit about McCain.

But in truth I'd say he's not funny, because he's incapable of self-deprecation, which is essential to being funny. You actually have to have some modicum of self-reflection. Also, some new material wouldn't hurt! This guy is still bringing out the Hillary material. The election was in November OF LAST YEAR. If a comic held on to material that long, let's just say they wouldn't be working The Cellar.”

Lauren Reeves (@laurenreeves)

Lauren Reeves is a digital producer for Comedy Central's @Midnight with Chris Hardwick.

“Is Donald Trump funny? The answer is a hard no from me, and you're talking to somebody who spent 5 minutes today laughing at a rock I found in my pocket. He seems like the type of guy that if you told him you were a comedian he'd demand "Tell me a joke!" Which is one of the weirdest things you can say after someone tells you their profession. It's like walking up to a firefighter and saying ‘Oh, you're a firefighter? Put out a fire then!’

Brad Jenkins (@bradjenkins)

Brad Jenkins is the Executive Producer and Managing Director of Funny Or Die DC. He also served under President Obama as the associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

“Two skills are required in good comedy: walking in other people's shoes and speaking truth to power. Our current President does not have the mental or emotional capacity to do either of these two things. 

When he or his aides say he is "just joking," it is an excuse -- like when my four year old daughter knows she has done something wrong. Trump is "joking" only when he makes a mistake: a lie, an offensive statement, an amateur misstep. Mr. President, you're not a comedian. Stop giving comedians a bad name. 

If there is any comedy coming out of the White House, it is entirely unintentional. Somewhere in between The Three Stooges and Dumb and Dumber. There is a long unintentional comedy history from Commedia dell'arte to Shakespeare to Sacha Baron Cohen -- we love laughing at buffoons who believe they are brilliant. In that way, the character of Donald Trump is crushing.”

Jason Shapiro (@JDShapiro)

Jason Shapiro is a comedian and writer based in Los Angeles. He's currently writing a pilot for Hulu based on his popular twitter feed @LosFelizDaycare.

“Yes, I think Donald Trump is funny, but under one condition: when there are absolutely zero stakes. Was he funny when he was part of the WWE? Yep, he was hilarious. Both intentionally and unintentionally. Is he funny when he's the Commander in Chief with a fundamental misunderstanding of how our Government works coupled with the fact that he shows almost no interest in actually learning how it works? Not funny. He does look hilarious though and if you're a nihilist, I guess the idea of him is absurd and funny. Short answer, no.”

Kerry Coddett (@Overfab)

Kerry Coddett is an actress, comedian, and writer from Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been featured in Huffington Post, Jezebel, the New York Daily News, Gothamist, Elle, Salon, Elite Daily, and Mashable. She can be seen doing stand up at Caroline’s on Broadway, New York Comedy Club, and Gotham Comedy Club, to name a few.

"People always say outlandish things and then use ‘I'm joking’ as a get out of jail free card if their intended audience isn't receptive to their vitriol.  Clearly he's not joking when he makes these incendiary statements.  He's like my old boss who used to make inappropriate sexual comments, but whenever I called him out on it, he'd go, ‘Whoa! Relax! Can't you take a joke?’ Like sir, I know what jokes are. I write them for a living. Plus, I heard you used to smash the last two girls that worked here, so ‘joking?’ I think not! "

Ben Gleib (@bengleib)

Ben Gleib is the host of Idiotest on GSN. He is also a regular on The Today Show. His standup special, “Neurotic Gangster,” is currently airing on Showtime.

Is Trump funny? Yes sadly he is. He has a decent sense of humor and sometimes uses it when he speaks. But this is the problem. He is so loose with his language and makes such frequent, extreme, and outlandish statements that it is easy for him to go back and say 'I was just joking.' When to any intelligent person in most cases clearly he was not.

It's an insult to comedians for him to hide behind actual humor to excuse horrible statement. And much worse, it's a real danger to our nation. When comedians make bad jokes, policies don't change, and people's lives aren't put at risk. It's time the president realized that riffing off-the-cuff like a comic doing crowd work is not part of the job description.”

Nicole Silverberg (@nsilverberg)

Nicole Silverberg is a TV writer and editor at Reductress. She’s also the co-host of the Reductress podcast "Mouth Time!"

“Donald Trump is not funny. I actually think this is the only circumstance when it's accurate to compare Trump to a baby. A baby is not funny; a baby can be entertaining or make you laugh, but there's no design or intent there. A baby isn't telling a joke, because a baby doesn't have those skills. And for the record, I've seen babies further along on that front than the president.”

Are Donald Trump’s “jokes” funny?

You can decide. But according to a handful of the professionals who get paid to make us laugh, it’s more likely that he and his team are retrospectively disguising his dangerous rhetoric in the name of humor. And that’s no laughing matter.

The takeaway: don’t mistake Trump’s seriously flawed ideas as attempts to be humorous.

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