Rubin: Comedians can’t top candidates’ unwitting humor

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The problem with doing Donald Trump jokes is that you keep getting topped by Donald Trump.

The problem with doing Hillary Clinton jokes is that at least in public, she’s just not funny.

And the problem with the whole campaign, if you’re a comedian, is that people seem more eager to be angry than to be amused.

Except with Gary Johnson. Bob Phillips of Northville does a joke about the Libertarian candidate that everybody seems to like.

Otherwise, he says, “It doesn’t matter which way you go: Half the audience hates you.”

Great. At the point where we can use some laughs, stand-up comics can’t deliver them.

We keep hearing that 2016 is the most rancorous presidential campaign in history. Or recent history, anyway; if the comedians were writing their jokes with quill pens, it doesn’t count.

If anyone were immune to the animosity, you’d think it would be the people who get paid to be outrageous — to stomp through the places where the rest of us only tiptoe. But no, comics say; an air of crankiness hovers over crowds the way cigarette smoke used to back in, say, 2000.

That was when you could get laughs from an entire room about how stiff Al Gore was or how poorly George W. Bush spoke English.

“Now everybody has taken a side,” says comedian Mark Sweetman of Livonia, “and you’ll get grief from the opposite side in the audience.”

Hostility aside, stiffness and dullness also had the advantage of endurance. Gore wasn’t going to dance the tango before election day, and Bush wasn’t going to memorize sonnets.

With Clinton and especially Trump, what seems outrageous today might sound reasonable after the next news cycle.

“It is a challenge to do something funny that hasn’t been done already,” says Justin Klimko of the parody musical troupe A (Habeas) Chorus Line. “The problem is, they’re doing it themselves.”

Toxic material

The exceptions to the too-toxic-to-handle rule are late-night talk shows, satirical news programs and “Saturday Night Live,” which have the advantages of immediacy, reputations for outrageousness and large teams of writers who see no sunlight and subsist on carryout Chinese food for the entire election cycle.

A (Habeas) Chorus Line has Klimko, who’s been crafting the lyrics for the team of eight lawyers and a case manager for 25 years.

The group will hold its annual public show Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the Warren Consolidated School of Performing Arts, which is located, logically enough, in Sterling Heights. (For tickets, go to habeas.

There will be a Clinton song, “I Exploit Being a Girl,” and a Trump song to the tune of the Four Seasons’ “Dawn.”

Also, there will be tunes about swimmer Ryan Lochte and creepy clowns, which are easier to do. “It’s hard to parody something,” Klimko says, “that sort of self-parodies.”

Let China buy us

Sweetman says audience members have become much more vocal lately about objecting to political humor, “at least those that look up from their phones.”

His solution is to disguise his topical humor by attributing it to a relative, as in, “My father-in-law gets all upset about these Chinese companies buying up American companies. I say let’s get a good price and sell ’em all — and then let’s load in a socialist government and take ’em back.

“What are they going to do about it? They can’t start a war. All their property is over here now.”

Phillips — who, for the record, is a Republican — says he drew laughs with a couple of Trump jokes last month in Ann Arbor, “but they were uncomfortable laughs, because nobody knew where it was going to go. If you come out swinging against one candidate, it’s like you automatically hate them and you hate half the audience also.”

Fortunately, there’s Johnson, who’s happy just to get noticed.

“Gary Johnson is the Discover Card of presidential candidates,” Phillips will say. “You use him if you have to, but you’re kind of embarrassed about it.”

That gets a big response — and better yet, it doesn’t attract any boos.

At least, it hasn’t yet. But there are still 12 irritable days until the election.