The Cult of Persona
If our life has been about anything, it has been comedy. Laugh-In may have been stuffed with rehashed vaudeville routines, but they were all new to our eight-year-old eyes and ears, and we tortured our father with recitations as soon as each episode was over. Mad magazine remains an enduring influence, down to our use of “department heads” on this website. The Seventies Sitcom Renaissance was ours to binge upon, capped by SNL debuting just when we were ready for it.
But our deepest love was stand-up, and we hit the sweet spot for that too, led by Cosby (sorry) and Carlin: One a master storyteller, the other a master of language itself. We didn’t listen to pop music in our teens; we bought comedy albums.
Which is why we were deeply intrigued this week when the chatter went around that Donald Trump never laughs in public.
This is completely alien to our experience. We honestly don’t know how anyone can live like that. Without laughter — hearty, frequent laughter, verging on barking — we doubt we would have survived this long. Laughter is a relief from what ails ya. And, since song & dance is discouraged in polite company, it’s the only socially acceptable expression of spontaneity.
He snaps his head back, squeezes his eyes shut, and breaks out in the broadest smile.
Good fucking lord, Donald Trump is human. In an alternate universe, he could even be charming. String Theory is Trump’s only hope for redemption.
But until scientists solve that problem, we’re stuck with the Trump we have, the Trump who has molded his face into a permanent scowl.
This, by the way, was not the face he grew up with. Our introduction to Donald Trump was via the pages of Spy magazine — another deep influence, what with its taste for the Ironic Editorial We — which mocked him mercilessly, but never showed the Scowl. That, near as we can tell, was a very late arrival, introduced to the broader American public with Trump’s primetime game show, along with Trump’s catchphrase.
Donald Trump, scowling, says “You’re Fired!” A Persona is Born.
We doubt that Trump was consciously channeling Benito Mussolini in 2004, but the face fit, and he rode it all the way to the White House.
In stand-up, a persona is a fundamental tool of the trade. It frames your performance, establishes a context through which you deliver your material. Carlin, famously, started out as a skinny-tie comic before becoming a counterculture icon. Through his new persona, he could deliver an enduring cultural critique that would have felt constrained in a suit. At the other end of the spectrum, Steven Wright frames his dry humor with the driest of deliveries.
In the best stand-up, a persona provides a window on the soul, where the best comedy comes from — and the best laughter. But with bad stand-up, persona is all you got, and it wears thin quickly. It’s just an act.
Which, of course — no shocking insight here — explains Donald Trump over the past dozen years. It’s all act, all persona, no soul, no laughter, no personality. Appearances are everything.
And, well, for American electoral purposes, appearances appear to be enough.
We had thought, foolishly, that Trump would be a failure in his candidacy, but show the path for a more adept Evil Mastermind. We had no illusions about America’s susceptibility to a Cult of Personality — we lived through Reagan, mind you — but we thought Trump was too incompetent to fill the role. We thought Americans demanded more of their Traitorous Authoritarian Usurpers.
Turns out we were wrong. All you need is a scowl and a catchphrase; a persona, not a personality. You can fill in the details after you seal the deal.
And maybe we’re lucky. When things go south — which they will, and quickly — Trump has no reservoir of goodwill to fall back on, no honest Reagan charm to ward off bad news. All he has is that thin persona, and a very thin temperament behind it.
Maybe, if we’re lucky, the joke will finally be on him.