Tonight, America will be riveted by the first U.S. Presidential debate of 2016. In a campaign season that has contained all the absurd drama of reality TV, the 56-year-old television tradition will provide voters the clearest and most sober presentation of the candidates and their views. It has tremendous potential to shape the choices we make November 8.
Hilary Clinton is the more experienced orator, but our perception of Donald Trump as a candidate could be shaped by another television institution in which he was on stage while facing opponents who cast aspersions upon him: The Roast of Donald Trump.
First popularized by Dean Martin in the 1970s, the celebrity roast mocks iconic performers and was initially designed as TV’s way of saying: We love you enough to put you through this. Now an annual Comedy Central tradition, in 2011 its subject was a businessman and reality star who is now the Republican nominee for President of the United States.
You can watch clips of the Donald Trump Roast on Comedy Central’s site, and the full, uncensored version is available on Amazon Video for purchase. Seth MacFarlane served as “Roastmaster;” also appearing were Roast mainstays like Whitney Cummings, Jeff Ross, and Gilbert Gottfried. It is an hour and four minutes long, and, for the purposes of this article, I watched it in full. I do not recommend doing this, but if you decide to watch “The Roast of Donald Trump,” here are a few notes:
- Amazon has priced the HD version at $4.99. You do not need to spend the extra dollar on pixels. The SD version, at $3.99, is just fine.
- Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino from “Jersey Shore” (remember, this was 2011) spends a few minutes speaking. He does his best. Brace yourself.
- Academy Award-winner Marlee Matlin is one of the roasters and proves to be the show’s biggest highlight. (The lady really knows how to mime a blowjob.)
It’s a standard roast for the most part, which means approximately half of the jokes are really about other roasters (and half of those jokes are about Lisa Lampanelli’s love of black men). Like most roasts, it becomes pretty unpleasant as it devolves into vaguely famous people saying incredibly mean (but occasionally funny) things to other famous people that solidify stereotypes about the public figure in question. (In fact, being famous enough to qualify for stereotyping is probably one of the primary qualifiers for roasting.) In watching this special, you won’t get to know the real Donald Trump, but it does paint a portrait of his persona as it stood in 2011: a gaudy caricature of a billionaire/reality star.
For the record, the mean things said on stage are mostly written by a team of scribes (sorry to ruin the magic). According to regular “Roast” writer Aaron Lee, the only material that was off-limits for Trump was “any joke that suggests Trump is not actually as wealthy as he claims to be.” His marital life, his children, his failed businesses, even his hair and weight were fair game — but tearing at his persona as a successful businessman was off the table.
So, the Trump roast opened with the Mississippi song “Money” (lyrics: “I’m all about money money — got to get money money money”) underscoring an intro featuring helicopters, beautiful women, and a limo ride through New York City. The stage design featured neon green dollar signs and a lot of (fake) gold.
None of what happens afterward is all that shocking; we made jokes about Trump before the roast, and since. Here’s what’s changed: the timing.
The Roast aired in March 2011 and contained several references to Trump considering a 2012 run for President. From MacFarlane’s opening monologue: “For me, it’s kinda tough to vote for a guy whose resting facial expression is ‘Who farted?'” And below is Snoop Dogg, making a joke about how if Trump wins the White House, “it won’t be the first time Trump’s pushed a black family out of their home.”
None of this is particularly entertaining, but the man featured in those 64 minutes also called Snoop Dogg a friend and applauded his “do-rag to riches” personal narrative. At this moment in time, he wasn’t particularly threatening to minorities or the disenfranchised. He came off as an almost-lovable boob, the rare corporate figure who knows how to take a joke.
About a month after this special aired, Trump made his entrance into the birther movement. His political commentary on Twitter and elsewhere became inflammatory and more grounded in attacks, preying on racial tensions and questioning the legitimacy of President Obama’s right to hold his office. As Michael Barbaro of the New York Times put it:
This lie was different from the start, an insidious, calculated calumny that sought to undo the embrace of an African-American president by the 69 million voters who elected him in 2008.
Trump’s attitude shifted, but the media still treated him as a harmless joke. So, let’s consider — did we mock Trump so hard in the early days of the campaign that it simultaneously humanized and hyperbolized him? It’s one way to make sense of Jimmy Fallon’s recent infamous “Tonight Show” interview, which to some degree feels like an apology for bullying Trump — despite Trump’s own bullying tactics.
In a June 2016 interview with IndieWire, Chelsea Handler noted, “I think [jokes about Trump] do solidify his fan base in a way… In two years, what I hope we’re looking back at is how funny it was when Donald Trump ran for President. That’s what I hope we’re saying.” That’s what a lot of people are saying. But at the same time, the panic is real, as we look at the polls and the upcoming debates.
There’s no denying television helped Trump build his public persona to a level that allowed him to pursue a political career, leading to tough questions for NBC’s Bob Greenblatt and “The Apprentice” executive producer Mark Burnett during recent press events. (“I think it surprised all of us that he would want to do this, but I guess that’s what’s great about this country,” Greenblatt said during the Television Critics Association press tour.)
Trump’s rise reminds us a joke is never just a joke. We want to believe that comedy can tear down the powerful, but George W. Bush was the subject of vicious mockery during his campaign. So was Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Here’s how “The Roast of Donald Trump” ends: Like all roast subjects, he gets the opportunity to come up to the podium to mock the other presenters. His jokes are competent but relatively unremarkable — maybe his best jab is that Lampanelli should be a Miss Universe judge: Like a universe, she’s “constantly expanding and full of dark matter.” Hopefully, he remembered to thank his teleprompter operator at the end of the night.
He gets the last word, and here is what he says:
“If I decide to run, you will have the great pleasure of voting for the man who will easily go down as the greatest President in the history of the United States. Me. Donald John Trump. God bless America and good night.”
He says this in 2011, a statement completely indistinguishable from any campaign speech he’s given over the last two years. The final words of “The Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump” are followed by red, white, and blue confetti descending upon the audience — clashing dramatically with the green dollars signs and gold decor.
Whether or not it was funny then, it’s not at all funny now.