Trump era makes satirical comedy great again, and profitable, too: Don Pittis

Every president has had his impersonators. But industry insiders say U.S. President Donald Trump has reinvigorated the global satire business on TV, online and social media.

When Trump said he would create jobs, who expected they would be in the comedy business?

Mark Critch on the television program This Hour Has 22 Minutes is just one of many comedians riding a wave of material provided by U.S President Donald Trump. (CBC)

Can't you just imagine all the Trump impersonators in bathrobes later this week?

Maybe something funnier will hit the news feeds. But the bathrobe is a good candidate so far. 

Initial reports of the president sitting alone in the White House wearing a bathrobe were not funny in themselves. People in 24-hour jobs sometimes work in bathrobes.

But an outraged denial by White House press secretary Sean Spicer ("Fake news"), who insisted the president shunned bathrobes, prompted a series of Twitter photos with Trump wearing bathrobes. That may have clinched it.

Robed or disrobed?

Trump and his team have told so many howlers that it is impossible to know for sure whether The Donald exchanges presidential pinstripes for terry cloth during late-night sessions. But of course that's not important. Some things are just funny and it's hard to say why.

And when it comes to satire, Trump is an industry. According to people in the business, Trump is making comedy great again. In a TV market where audiences are shrinking, the numbers for satirical comedy are holding their own or growing. Larger audiences and new programs mean higher revenues and more production jobs.

Part of the fun for satirists is that despite Trump's ability to dish it out in comedy and reality TV shows, he is thin-skinned. The satire appears to bite.

As a presidential candidate Donald Trump hosted NBC's comedy show Saturday Night Live, but the show has been far more successful making him a satirical target. (NBC from CNN online video)

While it remains to be seen whether the new administration's plans to disrupt trade, bar refugees and build a wall will really make America great again as the Trump slogan promises, people who work in comedy say the Trump administration is great for business.

Growth industry

As editor in chief of the comedy website The Beaverton and executive producer of the newly launched Beaverton television show, Luke Gordon Field watches the comedy business closely. He says that following the roaring success of Jon Stewart's Daily Show, comedy has made a steady transition from Johnny Carson-type gags to political satire.

Trump has helped propel comedic careers, including Samantha Bee, who has taken on the feminist comedy file, and according to industry analysts the new president has revived the fortunes of NBC's long-running comedy sketch show, Saturday Night Live, now in its 42nd season.

The entertainment industry magazine Variety says the Trump election victory has meant SNL is now on a ratings roll.

Online sharing of Melissa McCarthy's manic portrayal of White House press secretary Sean Spicer helped double online traffic for Global, the network that has the Canadian rights to Saturday Night Live. (SNL/Associated Press)

"That was strong enough to make SNL the second highest-rated program of the week in the key demo, behind only CBS' The Big Bang Theory," wrote Variety editor Cynthia Littleton.

Here in Canada, Global Television, now owned by Corus, has the rights to broadcast Saturday Night Live on air and online. In Canada, the Global's SNL segment of comedian Melissa McCarthy was burning up the web, widely shared on Twitter and Facebook.

Profiting from Trump

According to a spokesperson at Global, the financial benefits are no joke. Broadcast on traditional television, it's the No. 1 late-night program overall in its time slot. It is also No. 1 for the crucial 25-54 demographic that advertisers crave.

Global's latest figures show the overall broadcast audience for the show up 60 per cent in the previous year. Online exposure has also soared. 

"During the current season (to date) page views and unique visitors [for digital audiences] have more than doubled with more than 1.1 million video segment views," said Global in an email. 

Of course, comedy shows have not been the only beneficiaries of the Trump boom. The news media have ridden a wave of Trump scandal and the New York Times says subscriptions are up. There are reports that cable news shows watched by Trump have raised their ad rates, with the implication advertisers are getting a direct line to the president.

The Trump comedy growth phenomenon is not just coming out of the U.S. Satirizing Trump has become a world-wide industry shared on social media.

The Beaverton's executive producer says that the Trump-related surge in satirical comedy has been one reason his team has managed to launch a program on the Comedy Network.

"Our website traditionally does the best when people are really paying attention to Canadian news," says Field, but the Trump phenomenon has changed that. He says the U.S. president has reshaped the site's coverage, with tangible results.

Stranger than fiction

"Because Trump is such a ripe target for satire, we actually have seen our numbers really jump up in the last few months in terms of articles that have gone after him doing quite well," says Field.

Canada's long-running political satire show on CBC, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, was in the business before Jon Stewart and has a long tradition of poking fun at our southern neighbours. The program's Mark Critch was an early Trump impersonator and beat SNL to the punch on sending up Spicer.

The 22 Minutes executive producer Peter McBain says Trump has been a rich source of material and has boosted social media hits, but there is almost too much material. It's a weekly struggle to choose which bits to include in the show.

The real action, he says, is on social media, where news feeds he follows are filled with memes and clips of real events that are stranger than fiction and that a comedy writer could just never make up.

"I think it's the No. 1 topic for comedians right now," says McBain.

It's only the third week into the new presidency. Perhaps comedians and their fans will get sick of Trump satire. But McBain says that so far it has been good for business.

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.