Trump's insult-comic act enters danger zone 

President TrumpDonald TrumpSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Laura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement MORE must be very worried about impeachment because he’s clearly setting himself up for a new post-White House career: America’s top insult comic.

He’s already packing arenas around the country, hurling off-color jabs that leave his audiences howling. But as any Hollywood executive can tell you, he’s entering a dangerous line of work that often backfires.

Insult comedy is a tried-and-true genre that can provide a valuable social function. Even in less politically correct times, it’s hard work to stay inside the accepted customs of daily living. 


We know we have to do so in order to get along at home and to get ahead at work. But since childhood, everyone also experiences the secret thrill that comes with breaking the rules — like sticking your hand in the cookie jar when your mom told you not to. It’s a way of asserting yourself, especially in a society like ours that places a premium on individuality. 

That’s where insult comedy comes in: A dark night club is a safe place to experience the titillation of seeing someone else step over the line, saying all those things you know you can’t say if you want to remain a member in good standing among friends and family. 

That’s a lot of what Trump is doing at his rallies — and he knows it. He plays to the audience like the notorious Andrew Dice Clay at his height, riffing the way Don Rickles once did in top Las Vegas rooms during his Rat Pack-era glory days. As cameras pan a Trump venue, you can sense that half the crowd is there for the pure entertainment value of watching him shatter acceptable behavior and simply not care. 

That can be electrifying. But it also can be a difficult, dangerous way to get attention.

Insult comics face enormous pressure to keep ratcheting up the noise level or risk becoming irrelevant. If your entire act is based on breaking rules, then the transgressions need to get more and more outrageous to keep people shocked.


Think of Rickles in his later years, when he had become a beloved comedy legend: People in the audience begged him to make fun of them; it was something to be proud of, a moment to share with everyone you knew. The sting was gone. 

Trump is fully aware of this. That’s what sparked his infamous Minneapolis performance, cresting with a Joe BidenJoe BidenMacro grid will keep the lights on Pelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown MORE zinger about kissing former President Obama’s backside. The crowd roared, and Trump soaked up the reaction like a seasoned comic enjoying his best “drop the mic” moment.  

But how does he outdo that — and when he does, what happens? The frightening dilemma insult comics face as the jokes get harsher is that some people forget it’s all an act. They think it’s a call to action. 

That reaction is even more alarming when you aren’t actually a comedian but, say, the president of the United States.

“Shifty Schiff” may be a cute use of alliteration. But the joke wears thin when Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden to make voting rights play in Atlanta Democrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Overnight Health Care — Insurance will soon cover COVID-19 tests MORE (D-Calif.), head of the House committee leading the impeachment inquiry, starts receiving death threats. Barking at the “fake news” media always gets a laugh — until someone sends bomb threats to CNN or creates a “humorous” video of the president leading a bloody anti-media massacre.


Most comedians and shock jocks, including Clay and Trump favorite Howard Stern, eventually move on from pure insult. Clay essentially was forced to stop his act when it went too far — but he now earns accolades for nice-guy supporting roles in hit movies such as “A Star Is Born.” Stern these days displays a more sympathetic, self-aware persona, the result of years in therapy and coping with a cancer scare.

But Stern doesn’t expect his old friend to dial back. “I feel that Donald is caught up in getting the love of the masses,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. “Which is unobtainable and leads to no good.”

Every entertainer knows it’s hard to step out of the limelight — too many do whatever it takes to keep the applause coming. Trump has more rallies lined up, right until Election Day 2020. Along the way, voters will find out just how far he’s willing to go to stay on top.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.