January 13, 2017

When the news becomes comedy, only comedians can write the news

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Having exhausted the condition of tragedy, history appears to be repeating itself as farce, much as a certain icon of post-90s Chinese hip-hop (and the subject of an exciting coming-soon biopic) predicted it would.

Donald Trump, who is set to become the President of the United States in a week, gave a press conference a few days ago. It went, as we wrote yesterday, “not very good.” Basically that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with the roles reversed — all of our faces melting off, while the Nazis just stand around wondering what’s for lunch.

So… how, exactly, are journalists supposed to report on this? A failing pile of human garbage, standing a hot breath away from the most consequential job in the history of the world, just stared down a cadre of respected news organizations and proclaimed one of their number—wait for it—“a failing pile of garbage” that will “suffer the consequences.” Not an easy serve to return.

Or, like, pretend you’re a restaurant reviewer. The Gilded Truffle, a classy local beanery, gets a high-profile new executive chef, who creates a new menu. You book a table. But when you show up and place your order, the chef storms out of the kitchen, shouts, “No, you’re the food!”, throws a drink in your face, and takes a shit on the floor. Your job is to inform your readership about the Scampi, but in this case focusing on the Scampi seems patently insane. At the same time, nobody turns to the food section hoping for a detailed account of petulant floor-poopery.

Time and again, Trump’s behavior scandalizes the political imagination, throws its drink in the face of the Constitution, and shits on the baselines of human decency. It’s very hard to describe this behavior in a sober or politically useful way. Writing at CNN (which Trump assaulted at his fun party with the dreaded “fake news” cudgel), poor Timothy Stanley sounded like a tiny person trapped inside a giant suit of decorative armor: “Independent voters, meanwhile, might appreciate the way that Trump cuts through gossip to the heart of the matter.” (Translation: “The Scampi was fine, but I feel like this is more of a spaghetti-and-red-sauce kind of place?”) Reuters described Trump’s posture during the conference as “feisty.” (Translation: “The flavors were bold, the service more so!”) And writing for Fox NewsLiz Peck declared Trump “strong, assertive, focused on making America great again.” (“The Scampi is good, but the view is to die for.”)

But one writer got it right. In her regular ComPost column at the Washington Post, the indispensable Alexandra Petri struck a rare chord: she wrote something that worked simultaneously as both laugh-out-loud comedy and perfectly straightforward reporting. Petri has commented eloquently on the Trump conundrum (“How do you parody someone who takes a lot of the traditional tools of parody—exaggeration, making something look absolutely crazy—and uses them himself?”), and seems to have come up with a fantastic answer.

Here, for instance, is how she characterized Trump’s plans for the future of Obamacare: “Trump also said that he had a terrific, great, wonderful plan to repeal Obamacare and replace it with another plan, Repeal and Replace, which would repeal Obamacare and replace it with another plan, Repeal and Replace, which would repeal Obamacare and replace it with another — well, look, the plan is going to be great, and it will repeal Obamacare but one piece at a time and will replace those pieces with other pieces.” This is actually a pretty good summary of Trump’s exact words:

It’ll be repeal and replace. It will be essentially, simultaneously. It will be various segments, you understand, but will most likely be on the same day or the same week, but probably, the same day, could be the same hour.

So we’re gonna do repeal and replace, very complicated stuff. And we’re gonna get a health bill passed, we’re gonna get health care taken care of in this country….

So as soon as our secretary is approved and gets into the office, we’ll be filing a plan. And it was actually pretty accurately reported today, the New York Times. And the plan will be repeal and replace Obamacare.

The actual quote here reads like a version of Petri’s joke too exaggerated to be funny. Her version doubles as a kind of reportage: “Look, I didn’t eat the Scampi, the chef came out and shat on the floor, I don’t really know what to tell you but this restaurant is weird!” This is, in fact, useful information about this particular restaurant. At a moment when the truth has caught up with satire, such counterintuitive straightforwardness has a vital role to play.

I’m fighting the urge to reproduce any number of other lines from Petri’s piece, because really, you should just read it. And thanks, Alexandra Petri. (We now return to comparing your boss to a comic book villain.)

 

 

 

Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.

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