This story is part of “At Risk in the Trump Era,” a four-month investigation by advanced radio students at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, exploring how vulnerable communities across Southern California have reacted to the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency. The series profiles individuals burdened by new worries — looking for work, registering for school, or even deciding whether to publicly express their sexual orientation or religious affiliation.
Joanna Clay brings us the story of Sara Schaefer. She’s a comedian who had always tried to avoid jokes about politics. That is, until the 2016 presidential election.
Sara Schaefer stands in the back of an East Hollywood pizza parlor, test-driving her material before she takes it out on the road.
“I legitimately saw my therapist do a little victory dance during therapy recently,” she tells the crowd. “I was like, ‘I think people are having total mental breakdowns right now. They’re so anxious about all the news.’ And she was like ‘great for business!’ And she did a little dance.”
Politics have long been fodder for comics: take Will Ferrell’s President George W. Bush impersonation or Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of White House spokesman Sean Spicer on SNL.
For others, like Schaefer, politics might not be a big part of their comedic repertoire. But the current political climate is pushing comics to step into new territory: Trump territory.
Schaefer is a stand-up comedian and writer for Comedy Central’s “Problematic.” Prior to the election, she’d touch on politics lightly, like encouraging people to vote. But it wasn’t heavy-handed.
But come January, that shifted. She wanted to make an impact with her work. Get people to wake up a bit.
“Politics are just dominating everything,” she says. “It’s hard not to write about Donald Trump and what’s happening. It’s my only option. It’s all I think about.”
Schaefer, based in Los Angeles, is known for observational comedy. She talks about personal experience, embarrassing moments, what she sees on TV. But now she’s also pondering alternative facts and the “post-truth” world.
“Sean Spicer apparently has had this long-waged war with Dippin’ Dots,” she said. “These are the people in charge. How can you not make fun of this stuff?”
But that doesn’t come without trepidation. Schaefer calls herself a liberal feminist. She knows she may not always share the same views as her audience, especially while touring small towns in the Midwest. And entertaining that audience is priority number one.
“I want to find a way to talk about that stuff that doesn’t make people stop listening or think that I’m getting up there wagging my finger at them,” she says. “I think that doesn’t really work.”
She’s trying out her new material with a very specific audience, one she thinks is really pivotal in this moment in time: college students.
“They’re going to be a big, powerful block of change,” says Schaefer. “If they equip themselves, they can potentially save us from some of this craziness that we’re in.”
For the first few months of Trump’s presidency, she left her safe liberal haven of Los Angeles for universities big and small in Wisconsin, Maine and Minnesota, to name a few.
It was a chance to feel out this new material and find a way to get people to listen — regardless of their politics — and not be turned off.
At a performance earlier this year in Minneapolis, Schaefer tested out a new joke.
“One thing I’ve also noticed is that there’s been a plethora of articles about Trump voters,” she started out. “We need to understand their feelings, their hopes, their special, special needs.”
And then, a moment later, the punch line.
“I 100 percent think, like face-to-face contact, like kissing and licking and things like that, empathy are all the ways that we’re going to get through this mess. The polarized sides need to come together. We need to talk. We need to have real conversations. I am all for that. These articles are all about that,” she said, as the crowd laughed. “And I agree. Just because you voted for Trump doesn’t mean you’re a racist, You might also be a sexist.”
Abigail Mills, a student in the audience, often feels the political divide in her own family. They’re conservative and she’s a liberal lesbian.
“You know, joking about those issues, it helps cut the tension for me,” she said, with a laugh.