I cannot think of a comedic piece that prompted greater discomfort than Tina Fey’s now infamous “sheet caking” sketch in the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville. Fey, the one-time darling of political satire, fell spectacularly flat when she took out her frustrations over Trump and the white supremacist rally on a sheet of cake. Why did we cringe rather than chuckle at the very comedian whose work was once so effective at disarming the Right that it was dubbed the “Fey Effect?”
The reaction among BIPOC commentators and their allies was immediate and apt. To encourage Americans to abstain from counter-protests and eat cake instead is a most overt and troubling instance of white privilege. Moreover, as several commentators have pointed out, Fey’s sketch was replete with racist overtones: from her joke about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings to her characterization of drag queens as threatening 6’4” black men.
Others opined that the critics were being too harsh. It was comedy, after all, and thus is meant to push boundaries and to make us feel uncomfortable. Yet if the audience was confused about whether this was comedy or social commentary, Fey herself was partly to blame. Donning a shirt of her alma mater and reflecting on her family’s remarks about her stress level, audiences can be forgiven if they confuse Tina Fey the sheet cake-eating character with Tina Fey the person.
Traditionally, comedy works through a conceit that seems to have eroded in Trump’s America. Comedy trades our standards of moral decency for the sake of entertainment. When we enter the special sphere that is the comedic world, we permit ourselves to suspend ordinary moral judgment because we expect—in the comedic sphere and in that sphere alone—that characters’ standards will be deficient. This is in part what makes them comic. Walter Benjamin puts it this way:
Comedy shows the true sphere to which these pseudo-moral character descriptions are to be consigned. At its center, as the main protagonist in a comedy of character, stands often enough an individual whom, if we were confronted by his actions in life instead of by his person on stage, we would call a scoundrel. On the comic stage, however, his actions take on only the interest shed with the light of character, and the latter is, in classical examples, the subject not only of moral condemnation but of high amusement. It is never, in themselves, never morally, that the action of the comic hero affect his public; his deeds are interesting only insofar as they reflect the light of character. (Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings II, 541).
In other words, the audience accepts that the comic figures are scoundrels and seeks in no way to be edified, but simply to be amused by them. The comic figures, in turn, present not themselves but a character, whom they allow to be ridiculed, but never judged.
It is little wonder that we have confused the spheres of comedy and life. We live in a world, after all, in which the leading comic figure is a president whose entire life seems to be the extended performance of the role of scoundrel (witness the appalling throwing of paper towels to the desperate people of Puerto Rico). In our world the protaganist/President is a professional caricature and his audience–the American public–is assaulted perennially by his thoughtless buffoonery. Our public life has become the comedic stage, and we have learned to suspend our moral judgment because we have been so thoroughly absorbed into this spectacle. We have learned, in other words, to treat politicians as comic figures and comic figures as politicians.
Tina Fey is an active participant in the collapse of comedy. Like Trump there is no clear boundary between the person and the character, and thus we find ourselves confused as to what our proper response to her might be. That Tina Fey deserved the criticism she received for her ill-conceived comedic sketch there can be no doubt. But the conception of such a sketch, in which lines are blurred between the comedic stage and political life, is a problem in which she is but one small and misguided example.
Comedy is just one of the casualties within Trump’s bizarre new world, but it is an important one, because the lack of clarity between the comedic world and public life not only cheapens the latter, it also leaves us unprepared to judge, and to fight with utmost seriousness, the perilous follies of a clown.