Trump, Clinton campaigns a gold mine for comedians

Published August 18 2016
Updated August 18 2016

Matt Fernandez was always a Bernie guy.

He tweeted in February: Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who doesn't seem like they'd be "too good" to drink out of a hose.

He tweeted in December: I'm going to vote for Bernie Sanders, even though he looks like he builds creepy wooden toys in a dimly lit workshop.

"He looks like he tinkers," the Tampa comic chuckled over beers in a corner booth of the Independent in Tampa.

THE ART OF POLITICS: Read more of our special report on the colors, design, movies, books, fashion and theater connected to the 2016 presidential race.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? They don't tinker, and they definitely don't drink hose water. But for Fernandez, they are still comedy gold mines. They are the stars of the most improbable presidential campaign in modern history, a race that seems beyond the grasp of satire, yet tailor-made for the news-breaking, star-making medium of our time:

Twitter.

From Delete your account to I love Hispanics, the candor and engagement of @realDonaldTrump (10.9 million followers) and @HillaryClinton (8.32 million) has yielded an all-day, all-night buffet of joke fodder for Twitter's 310 million active monthly users, from talk show hosts like John Oliver and Samantha Bee to working standups like Fernandez. With a constantly refreshing slate of gaffes, feuds and outrageous claims to be fact-checked, this election is the comedic gift that keeps on giving.

It's a far cry from 25 years ago, when Johnny Carson's Tonight Show monologue was the closest thing America had to a nightly pickle barrel. If 2012's race was the first real "Twitter election," covered as much on social media as via traditional outlets, 2016 is a roast battle royale unfolding in real time, with thousands racing to tweet the same joke at once — and perhaps find a global audience in the process.

"If you're a comedian, it's the golden era right now," Fernandez said. "This is the time to be alive."

• • •

To understand how the balance of power for political comedy shifted to social media, look at late-night TV.

Four years ago, David Letterman and Jay Leno aired at 11:35 p.m. Seth Meyers was still on Saturday Night Live. Stephen Colbert still followed Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, while John Oliver and Samantha Bee covered the Republican National Convention in Tampa as correspondents for The Daily Show.

Today, Letterman, Leno and Stewart are gone, and Colbert has toned down his political schtick on CBS. Meanwhile, as hosts of their own shows, Meyers, Oliver and Bee have evolved into three of TV's most politically pointed comics. Their five-to-eight-minute bits on Trump's rhetoric, Clinton's emails and other hot-button issues are built for shareability, which is why they often gain traction on Twitter and Facebook each morning after they air.

"You're not going to share an entire monologue, or even a piece of one," said Dannagal Young, an associate professor and expert on political humor at the University of Delaware. "But a standalone segment, like when (Meyers) does 'A Closer Look,' that's a perfect, shareable bit."

Television and social media feed off one another when it comes to creating cultural comedy, said Amber Day, a professor at Bryant University and author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate. Especially during live events and trending hashtags like #TrumpSoPoor, #FamousMelaniaTrumpQuotes or #WhichHillary.

"There really is a sort of comedic-satiric commentary industry that is developing — and more user-friendliness because of the technology that's available," she said. "It is a little bit easier for your average person to start developing a following."

For example: When Trump's public sparring with the parents of a fallen soldier launched the hashtag #TrumpSacrifices, Twitter user @drjimcox wrote:

Many many sacrifices, wonderful sacrifices and they were outstanding sacrifices, believe me, believe me.

The tweet garnered 1,600 likes for an account with barely 150 followers.

Each week, the Huffington Post stages a hashtag game for readers, a la Comedy Central's @Midnight (another new late-night entry since 2012). Those with a political theme — #TrumpUniversityMascots, #TrumpOlympics, #BernieHillaryTVShows — do "insanely well," said comedy editor Andy McDonald.

"So much of the funny stuff on the Internet is from people who aren't comedy writers," McDonald said. "They're all ready for something to happen and comment on it. It's almost like we're all in one big Mystery Science Theater episode, just constantly commenting on everything that's happening in the world."

• • •

Are the candidates themselves in on the jokes? Funny you should ask.

Certainly, this is the first presidential election where both candidates seem fully invested in Twitter's potential. Trump has been tweeting since March 2009 — three months longer than Mitt Romney — and uses the platform as his own unfiltered, very effective bully pulpit. Clinton's campaign has embraced the same social sleekness upon which President Obama built his campaign in 2008 and 2012.

Comedically, though, their accounts are very different. Trump is funny enough to have twice hosted Saturday Night Live, and his stump speeches generate laughs in the room. But his carnival-barker's grandiloquence doesn't fully translate on Twitter, where witless taunts like "clown," "dope" or "goofball" land with clumsy thuds, too often setting up someone else's punchlines. When he tweeted an awkward photo of himself eating a taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo, grinning and announcing, I love Hispanics!, Twitter couldn't pounce soon enough.

Of course Donald Trump eats taco bowls, tweeted writer and editor Erin Gloria Ryan, the only Mexican food that comes with a wall built around it.

The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, has embraced the cheeky parlance of the Internet, serving up a steady dose of sharable memes, gifs and one-liners. In June, the campaign went viral with a drop-the-mic retort to one of Trump's Twitter insults, simply tweeting: Delete your account.

"That was a perfectly timed, perfectly executed joke," McDonald said.

Does that mean Clinton is funnier than Trump? Absolutely not. Her official Twitter feed lacks the voice of Trump's, and says more about her social media team's understanding of Internet humor than her own.

"You always get the sense that everything is sort of approved by committee," Young said. "That's not to say that she's inauthentic, because if anything, that is authentic Clinton. That is who she is. That is consistent with her mode across platforms."

But the mere semblance of a good sense of humor can be a real asset to a modern political campaign, said U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson.

"The entire national political discourse has descended into constant scolding, which, if anything, is the opposite of humor, and for sure the opposite of wit," said Grayson. "I think that's unfortunate."

Grayson's re-election campaign has played around with humor this summer, tweeting gifs of Harry Potter and The Simpsons and hopping on hashtags like #FamousMelaniaTrumpQuotes ("Make America Copy and Paste Again"). When Trump unveiled a much-mocked "Trump-Pence" logo with the stem of Trump's T suggestively penetrating Mike Pence's P, Grayson's campaign tweeted: This logo accurately represents what Trump Pence will do to America. The joke has nearly 1,500 likes.

"There are one-liners that Twitter lends itself to that are genuinely funny and get people to think about things, as well as to laugh," he said. "We try to do those as much as we can."

• • •

For joke-writers like Matt Fernandez — who as @FattMernandez has 11,900 followers, and has landed tweets on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Today — the process is simple. When inspiration strikes, he crafts a draft and massages it, sometimes for up to a half hour. He searches to make sure no one else has made a similar joke. Then he hits tweet.

From October: Hillary Clinton sounds like the electronic voice you'd use to disguise your real voice when you're making ransom demands. Likes: 27.

From May: Trump loves Hispanics the same way Cruella de Vil loves Dalmatians. Likes: 409.

From June: What a historic election. Hillary could be the 1st female president. Trump could be the 1st can of Orange Fanta to be president. Likes: 99.

"My favorite political joke is the next one," he said. "It's going to come."

As a voter, he was hoping that by August, he'd still be writing jokes about Sanders. But he's come around on Clinton, saying, "I think she'll be a great president. I don't have any hate or ill will toward her."

And Trump? Fernandez tweeted in December: Trump's presidency will basically translate to millions of old white people standing on the coast of America screaming "Stay off my lawn!"

But there is one upside to the prospect of Trump in the White House, Fernandez said.

"I think he's great for my career."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

 
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