Off Script: Laugh about it

Mariana Alfaro, Opinion Editor

As I walked through the Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library — a pop-up exhibit set up by Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” in Chicago’s Union Station — I couldn’t help but think, “Oh, there’s no way he tweeted that” after stumbling upon some random presidential tweet framed in gold. On display were some of the president’s Twitter masterpieces, including his “birther” claim (“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud”) and the tweet where he claimed to “love Hispanics” while holding the very white dish known as a “taco bowl.”

But even as I tried to convince myself that some of these presidential tweets weren’t real, they were, and they now live in posterity — mostly thanks to the law that mandates all of the administration’s online messages be stored away in the Library of Congress.

Though it’s been almost a year since the election, I’m still getting used to living in an America where, at any given time, we’re a tweet or two away from a national, breaking news story. I am not here to question how we got into this situation — actually, scratch that, I’m not American, so technically I am not here to question how you guys got into this situation. What I am here for is to offer some perspective — as a foreign observer and as an overall fan of the United States of America — on what is going on and how to deal with it, aided by the wise words from some of Noah’s correspondents, whom I had the pleasure to meet last week when they visited Chicago.

Before I go into that, I must note that, to me, comedy is one of the best coping mechanisms available for stressed humans. Good comedy can be honest, cathartic, multifaceted and — best of all — does not induce hangovers. However, as we venture deeper into this administration, mainstream comedy not only gets more and more attached to poking fun at Washington, it also edges dangerously close to normalization and erasure of non-dominant narratives. Take a look at contemporary late-night television shows — from Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” to Northwestern alum Stephen Colbert’s (Communication ’86) “The Late Show” — and you’ll notice that most of them have at least four things in common: They are shows hosted by men who are straight, white and left-leaning.

Comedian and former “Daily Show” correspondent Samantha Bee is late night’s leading woman, hosting “Full Frontal” on TBS and making a brand out of the slogan “Nasty Woman.” But one white woman in late-night television — arguably the highest achievement in the world of comedy — is not enough. And, though I remain hopeful, I am not holding my breath waiting for non-straight, Latinx, Middle Eastern, Native American or Asian comedians to sit behind a beautiful mahogany desk on television between the hours of 10 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. I also wouldn’t hold my breath for a conservative comedian to sign a contract with any of the major networks airing late-night shows. Right now, the vast majority of the comedy offered to us to help make light of this situation is limited to a bunch of straight, liberal white men who, though funny, can’t — and probably shouldn’t — broach the topics that afflict viewers of identities vastly different from their own.

This is why Trevor Noah’s show means so much to me. There’s something about seeing a person of color behind that desk, delivering deliciously-written zingers every night, comfortably knowing that we are getting something more than a white man’s perspective on things. Not that the other shows don’t employ writers of color; an example is Seth Meyers’ “Late Night,” which features comedians of color like Amber Ruffin. But “The Daily Show” counts with a cast of comedians — dubbed “correspondents” — that all bring perspectives radically different than Noah’s to the show.

Which brings us back to the Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library.

As I made my way through the tweets, I kept my eye on the correspondents around me. Desi Lydic, who was hired two years ago while pregnant with her first child, laughed at every other tweet as she strolled around the exhibit with the newly-hired Michael Kosta, who described himself as the show’s “white, male perspective.” Dulcé Sloan, also a new hire, played around with the plastic roses left behind on the exhibit’s memorial to the president’s erased tweets. Malaysian-born Ronny Chieng, who moved to the United States to pursue comedy, sat on the golden toilet, pretending to tweet some deep thoughts.

I asked Lydic what she thought of the role diversity plays on their show. To her, the diverse cast allows “The Daily Show” to cover things “in a way that feels really authentic and honest and in a way other shows may not have the same opportunity to do.”

“There are many pieces that I can’t do as a white person that Hasan (Minhaj) can speak to,” she said. “There are things that only Ronny can speak to. There are things that only Roy (Wood Jr.) can speak to. Things that only Michael Kosta as an entitled white asshole can speak to, just kidding. He knows what role he plays on the show.”

These are all people with very different perspectives on life who were somehow brought together by destiny — and casting directors — to make light of issues afflicting more than half of Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Americans “do not like the way Trump conducts himself as president.” And somehow, seeing them laugh about the whole ordeal made me feel better.

When I asked Chieng what he made out of this entire situation — as a foreigner, as an Asian man — he said that, as a professional comedian, it is his job to see the world “a little differently” than everyone else.

“When we see things that upset, we don’t really get angry ourselves,” he said. “(Our) first reaction is ‘oh that’s funny because of this,’ or we think of the funny angle.”

The absolute absurdity of the room — and “The Daily Show’s” funny angle — was literally tactile. I ran my hands on the golden toilet resting on a platform, surrounded by golden curtains and soft, red robes, which served as the show’s incarnation of what the president’s tweet throne might look like. As hundreds of presidential comments surrounded me — from insults hurled toward the Emmy’s (they are “sooooo boring!”) to messages that could only be described as holiday cheer (“Happy 4th of July to everyone, including the haters and losers!”) — I forgot about the breaking news notifications buzzing on my phone. I even forgot about my status as a foreign “alien” living in a very tumultuous time in American immigration history. All I could think about was “wow, he really did tweet that.”

And I couldn’t help but laugh.

Mariana Alfaro is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.