September 12, 2017 / 12:13 PM / a month ago

Trump's White House: a gift or a curse for TV comics?

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If you thought the election of Donald Trump has been a gift for comedians, think again.

A combination photo shows L-R, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Bill Maher in Reuters files. REUTERS/File Photo

Just as news media outlets struggle to keep pace with the controversies and personalities at Trump’s White House, comedy writers, producers, and talk show hosts have scrambled to process material that a year ago appeared to be a comedy gold mine, but which some no longer see as a laughing matter.

“People say, you comedians must be so happy about Trump,” said Miles Kahn, writer and producer on Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” television show on TBS, a unit of Time Warner Inc.

“I don’t think any of us are. We’re scared. We get very anxious, we’re kept on edge and when you’re anxious it’s really hard to concentrate and write something funny,” Kahn said.

“Full Frontal” is competing on Sunday for a variety talk series Emmy - the highest awards in television - in a tight race that includes late-night shows featuring Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Bill Maher, who all have relentlessly attacked Trump and his policies.

Asked about the plethora of Trump material, Bee told reporters last week, “As citizens, we would actually ask for less. ... We have what we have, so we make what we can out of it.”

Colbert’s skewering of Trump sent ratings soaring for his “The Late Show” and helped win him the job of hosting Sunday’s prime-time Emmy Awards show.

After its most-watched season in 23 years, sketch show “Saturday Night Live,” got 22 Emmy nominations. Melissa McCarthy’s impersonations of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer brought her a guest actress Emmy last Sunday, while Alec Baldwin’s take on Trump and Kate McKinnon’s spoofs of Trump aide Kellyanne Conway are in the race this weekend.

STILL A LAUGHING MATTER?

In a nation divided by the 2016 presidential election, comedy fills a vital role, even if laughter is sometimes being replaced by outrage, said Dannagal Young, associate professor of communications at the University of Delaware

“Comedy has a history of making light of tragedy. A lot of people are looking to these shows to make sense of the political world, to find some kinship with other people watching and in recognizing the insanity for what it is,” Young said.

TV comics like Bee, Colbert, Oliver and Seth Myers, host of “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” have been so hard-hitting that their material sometimes “comes close to being didactic, and not cheerful,” Young said.

In August, Meyers called Trump a “lying racist.” In May, Colbert said Trump has “more people marching against (him) than cancer.”

Writers on topical shows are constantly being outpaced by news from the White House and Trump’s freewheeling Twitter habit.

“Pretty much on a weekly basis we are throwing out something that we wanted to talk about. After we have rehearsed the show and are in rewrite, we are constantly checking the news to make sure we are not missing anything,” said Kahn.

Meanwhile, shows like White House comedy series “Veep,” which is bidding for its a third Emmy, and nefarious Washington drama “House of Cards,” a contender for best drama series, are in danger of being sidelined.

Young questioned whether the once far-fetched premise of such TV shows is still compelling.

“I have been a huge fan of ‘House of Cards,’ but I’ve not even started watching the new season because I don’t have room for the fictional version. I‘m already overflowing with the real version,” she said.

Reporting by Jill Serjeant

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