There was a point, in the later years of the Emperor Tiberius, when making a joke about the emperor could get someone killed. So could laughing at a joke about the emperor. So could failing to turn in someone who laughed at a joke about the emperor. So could … in any case, the point is that the emperor tended not to have a great deal of tolerance when it came to being made an object of derision.
Not every aspect of Roman Empire maps neatly onto modern events (for example, Americans don’t generally store their safety deposit boxes with a collection of sacred virgins). But if there is one thing that has been true across the ages, it’s that demagogues and dictators rarely have anything that looks like a sense of humor, especially as it applies to themselves. Someone whose psychological makeup is evenly divided between ego and paranoia, is just extremely unlikely to sit through a roast without taking down names.
So it shouldn’t be surprising to find that when it comes to his portrayal on Saturday Night Live, Donald Trump was not amused. Even so, it may be surprising to find that, as The Daily Beast reports, Trump tried to get the FCC and the Department of Justice to shut down sketch comedy.
Trump never hesitated to give his opinion on Saturday Night Live’s take on all things Trump. That’s because 1) He apparently watched TV for 23.5 hours a day and 2) watched anything, on any channel, that was even remotely about him.
The March 2019 episode that at first had Trump tweeting about how his portrayal by Alec Baldwin was “not funny” then pondering whether the “Federal Election Commission and/or FCC” should investigate the show, was actually a repeat. It’s unclear if Trump didn’t remember its first run, or whether repetition really rubbed him to the wrong way. Considering that he tweeted (in the days when he could tweet) that the show’s cast spent “all of their time knocking the same person (me), over & over,” it’s not even completely clear that Trump understands how repeats work.
But Trump didn’t just tweet about going to the FCC, he actually insisted that someone talk to them about the “equal time rule.” Because Trump was apparently unaware that Republicans have waged a decades long war against the equal time rule, and that “lax” would be a kind description of how that rule is enforced. Also, there are a set of established carve outs from that rule, including mentions of someone in actual news events, interviews, debates, talk shows, and satire. Actually, satire is not even mentioned in the FCC rules, because multiple court cases have established that it’s protected speech under the First Amendment. So there.
Trump seems to have gotten the equal time rule mixed up with the fairness doctrine. That would be that other rule that Republicans waged a decades long war against, before actually sinking that ship back in the time when Ronald Reagan was solidly anti-fairness.
However, Trump—who obviously never spared a thought to how actual enforcement of either the equal time rule or the fairness doctrine would affect Fox, Newsmax, or OANN—apparently tried to get the FCC to do something about not just SNL, but Jimmy Kimmel and others. Trump even called up pillow-guy Mike Lindell to congratulate him for what Trump saw as a very pro-Trump appearance on Kimmel’s show. Everyone else saw it as Lindell getting his ass handed to him on a pillow.
Colbert doesn’t seem to be mentioned. As a guess, Colbert was never mentioned in Trump’s presence. If any of his aides were smart, they took CBS off the White House TVs while Trump was busy looking at his phone.
Trump also had discussions in which White House attorneys had to talk him down from sending the Department of Justice after SNL or others who dared to make fun of him. It’s not clear how Trump thought that was going to work. One of those present described an effort by the guy then sitting behind the Resolute Desk to have the DOJ chase down people for making fun of him as “more annoying than alarming,” but really … it seems pretty alarming.
One thing that is kind of funny: Over the course of four years, Trump repeatedly attacked NBC and parent company Comcast. At first, each of these attacks, no matter how obscure the threat, generated drops in Comcast stock prices, and concerns that the FTC or other agency might genuinely order the cable giant to divest itself of the network. But by 2020, Trump was making overt threats against NBC and Comcast while on his rally circuit, and the market ignored him completely. It took them four years, but Wall Street investors finally figured out that Trump was the joke.
And he really, really hates it when you laugh.