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Trump’s shtick is wearing thin


Even when the comedian Henny Youngman got old (he lived to 92), he never changed his standup routine. He’d been “king of the one liners” for decades. “Take my wife–please” was his best-known line, but there were others:

A doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill, so he gave him another six months.

“Doctor, my leg hurts. What can I do?” The doctor says, “Limp!”

A drunk was in front of a judge. The judge says, “You’ve been brought here for drinking.” The drunk says, “Okay, let’s get started.”

‘A man says to another man, “Can you tell me how to get to Central Park?” The guy says no. “All right,” says the first, “I’ll mug you here.”

A man goes to a psychiatrist. The doctor says, “You’re crazy.” The man says, “I want a second opinion!” “OK, you’re ugly too!”

How many times did Henny tell those jokes? Hundreds, maybe thousands of times. That was part of his funniness: when you heard him at, say, Atlantic City in 1990, you knew he’d been telling the same joke since the ‘20s.

When he died, in 1998, Henny Youngman was still popular, almost beloved. But his act—let’s face it—was getting stale. As an entertainer, he never really evolved over the years. Other comics did: Robin Williams, Woody Allen, George Burns, Jerry Lewis, Joan Rivers, Jonathan Winters—all showed arcs in their careers that permitted them to engage in drama as well as silly shtick, and their jokes themselves evolved to meet changing times.

Not Henny Youngman. If a joke worked in 1935, he knew it would work in 1985:

A hooker stopped me on the street and told me “I’ll do anything for $50.” I said, “Paint my house.”

The twentieth anniversary of Youngman’s death is this Saturday. There is a curious similarity between Youngman’s joke-telling career and Donald Trump’s. Trump is not a professional comedian, of course, and he has a reputation for not having a sense of humor, but his remarks and tweets are not without a certain dark, sarcastic edge whose New York City origins are clearly discernible. His humor is more of the Don Rickles sort (insults), but that’s one of the things his supporters like about him. Whether it’s Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” “Leakin’ Lyin’ James Comey,” “Liddle Bob Corker,” “Jeff Flakey,” “Wacky and Deranged Omarosa,” “High Crime Nancy,” “Cryin’ Chuck,” “Crazy Maxine Waters”—his base loves it. Of course, it’s juvenile, schoolyard humor, but there is a certain n’yah n’yah quality, a poke in the eye, or the flick of a booger.

Among the more frequent targets of Trump’s naughty schoolboy insults is the “failing New York Times.” He’s used the phrase countless times. It’s a lie, of course; the New York Times is not “failing.” Last year the paper exceeded four million subscribers for the first time in its history. Its stock price, which like most other stock prices collapsed precipitously in the Great Recession, has rebounded sharply, particularly since 2012, and is now trading at its highest price in 13 years. The Times’ third-quarter revenues in 2018 (fourth-quarter revenues have not yet been released) were $417.3 million, topping the same period’s earnings in 2017 by $33 million. The reason why Trump continues to call a profitable company “failing” is simply because it pleases his base.

Trump’s most recent fusillade against the New York Times was yesterday, when he tweeted, “The New York Times reporting is false. They are a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” This apparently was in response to the latest blockbuster article by the Times, headlined “Intimidation, Pressure and Humiliation: Inside Trump’s Two-Year War on the Investigations Encircling Him.”

The insults, nicknames and smears of his opponents will continue, naturally, because they’re all Trump can come up with, in these twilight days of his presidency. Increasingly, he’s like an old comedian, tired and ragged around the edges, unable to come up with new material, but depending, like Henny Youngman, on the old stuff, in the hopes that some people will still laugh at it.

Some people will: the shrinking percentage of Americans who stand by him. But with each of these stale cracks, Trump’s desperation is showing. He’s like Henny Youngman in that he keeps repeating the same old shtick. But Youngman remained weirdly funny and relevant until the end of his life. Trump is no longer funny (if he ever was), and he’s no longer relevant, except in the sense that the power he wields make him dangerous. He’s turned into a boring, balding, bitter old Vaudevillian, trotting out his act to threadbare audiences in dilapidated theaters, waiting for the peals of laughter he used to get—and hearing only echoes of the past and warnings from the future. Yesterday’s report that he’s workshopping brand new nasty nicknames to use against Democrats in the 2020 primaries simply shows how he intends to continue on the same pathetic path.

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