Two recent developments indicate that President Donald Trump might have won key battles in his long-fought war against comedy. The most recent example involves one of Trump’s frequent targets, Alec Baldwin, who announced this week he’s planning to hang up his orange wig and no longer play Trump on “Saturday Night Live.” The Emmy-winning actor told USA Today, “I can’t imagine I would do it again. I just can’t.”
Baldwin gave two reasons for leaving the show. One was spending more time with his family. But the other reason makes me wonder if Trump helped drive Baldwin from the role. Baldwin shared that “all these people were attacking me,” saying things like, “Your impression sucks and you suck. Please go away.” The actor apparently had enough, explaining, “I thought to myself: ‘I really don’t have a lot invested in my Trump impersonation, so please find someone and convince Lorne [Michaels] to replace me.’ ”
This isn’t a total surprise. Baldwin’s reactions to Trump’s attacks on Twitter over the years offer insight into whether Trump played a role in Baldwin’s decision.
At first, Baldwin ignored Trump or responded playfully. For example, in December 2016, just a month before being sworn in, Trump tweeted, “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live – unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad.” In response, Baldwin tweeted, “Release your tax returns and I’ll stop. Ha”
In March 2018, Trump took his attacks to an even more personal level, writing, “Alec Baldwin, whose dying mediocre career was saved by his terrible impersonation of me on SNL, now says playing me was agony. Alec, it was agony for those who were forced to watch.” Then adding, “Bring back Darrell Hammond, funnier and a far greater talent!” Despite the anger of Trump’s tweet, Baldwin again responded with humor, tweeting, “Agony though it may be, I’d like to hang in there for the impeachment hearings, the resignation speech, the farewell helicopter ride to Mara-A-Lago.”
But, recently, Baldwin’s responses turned much more serious, expressing concern that Trump was trying to inspire someone to attack him or his family. In February 2019, Trump took to Twitter calling for “retribution” against “SNL” for mocking him: “Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC! Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution?” Trump then added a tweet minutes later, “THE RIGGED AND CORRUPT MEDIA IS THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”
As a reminder, this was just four months after self-professed Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc — known as the “MAGA bomber” — had sent explosive devices to a variety of critics of Trump, from Hillary Clinton to CNN. Perhaps that (and Trump’s tweets) explain Baldwin’s response: “I wonder if a sitting President exhorting his followers that my role in a TV comedy qualifies me as an enemy of the people constitutes a threat to my safety and that of my family?”
Now, just because Baldwin won’t play Trump anymore does not mean that “SNL” will stop mocking the President. But has Trump succeeded in diminishing the visibility of the show by possibly driving out an award-winning actor who will be replaced by someone less known — given that “SNL” is typically a platform for up-and-coming talent?
Another apparent victory for Trump in his war on comedy involves the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) annual dinner, which for years featured a comedian who roasted the President. That is, until this year’s dinner in April, when instead they featured historian Ron Chernow. To many, it appeared the WHCA had yielded to Trump’s demands after he took to Twitter to not only lash out at comedian Michelle Wolf, who had mocked his administration at last year’s dinner, but also called for the WHCA to change the dinner’s format of featuring a comic: “Put Dinner to rest, or start over!”
To be clear, Trump’s war on comedy predates his run for president. For example, in 2013, Trump sued Bill Maher for $5 million for making a joke that Trump is “the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan.” (He later withdrew the lawsuit.) And over the years, Trump has angrily lashed out against comedians Jon Stewart and Seth Meyers.
But never before has Trump appeared to have won even one skirmish in this war on comedy — until now. We can debate the role Trump played in Baldwin ending his “SNL” run or the WHCA no longer featuring a comedian. But clearly these are developments Trump wanted.
The hope is that Trump never wins another battle in this war. Comedy has long been used in America to expose the faults of people in power, especially presidents. We cannot allow comedy to be silenced or infringed upon in any way simply because Trump is too thin skinned to take a joke.