Just For Laughs Festival: Stand-Up Comics Debate Trump Jokes in "Volatile" Political Climate

U.S. President Donald Trump-Getty-H 2019
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"You can't say the president's name, unless you want to lose half the audience," 'Daily Show' correspondent Michael Kosta told a panel on political satire.

Donald Trump jokes may dominate late-night TV comedy show, but stand-up comics at the Just For Laughs festival on Thursday pointed to a downside in naming the U.S. president during live comedy acts.

"You can't say the president's name unless you want to lose half the audience or strongly gain the audience in a way you don't want to," The Daily Show with Trevor Noah correspondent Michael Kosta said during a panel on political comedy. In Trump's America, stand-up comics are increasingly finding themselves in the middle of opposing political tribes when performing live.

"It's so volatile now. You have to protect yourself," comedy writer and actress Erin Foley told a festival audience in Montreal about alluding to Trump while avoiding his name. "I don't want to mention our president's name. So I try to talk around it, OK, what if I tackle the issues around it? It's not about him, per se. Let's make a joke around gay marriage or climate change and tackle the issues," Foley added.

Trump jokes play better on late-night comedy shows, but even there series writers and performers risk being pulled into allowing Trump to control the news cycle. "The Daily Show is designed to comment on the zeitgeist of the day. Unfortunately, if what's happening is what he's tweeting, or what [Trump] is doing, we're forced to comment on that, whether we want to or not," said Chinese-American comic Ronny Chieng, another The Daily Show correspondent on Comedy Central.

The stand-up talent in Montreal were divided, however, by whether they can bring about political change with their comedy. "If you just address it onstage, and try to make it funny and make it bearable, you're impacting change," Foley argued.

But Kosta said making his audience laugh supersedes everything else: "If people can have a good time that night, maybe 2 percent of it affects change ... But if we're all laughing, we're getting closer to something."

Chieng, who recently appeared in the box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians, said just his appearances on his global tour as a Chinese-American stand-up comic raises expectations among Asian communities where he performs. "But it has to be the change I want to happen. I can't go by what the [Asian] community wants to happen. I can't listen to what the community wants me to say. If you try to listen to what other people say or want, you just mess up your act," Chieng said.