Why Vic Berger Is the Perfect Satirist for the Trump Era
Tom Lehrer once said “I don’t want to satirize George [W.] Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporize them.” Perhaps even more than with Bush, impersonation saturation under the current GOP regime is high. If you still feel the need to bust out a Trump impression these days, you better have a damn good reason for doing so. Considering what the man stands for and all the horrifying white supremacist ideology he’s helped spread, the stakes for satire seem higher than ever. As angry as Trump’s administration may make us, the most effective comedic response might not to be hold up his bloody severed head but to distort and subvert his endlessly repeating visage instead through video. There are many people drawing caricatures of Trump or dressing up like him or putting his face on a giant inflatable chicken, but precious few doing the kind of skillful work that Vic Berger is.
Berger has worked with Tim and Eric but gained attention posting material through Super Deluxe and his own YouTube channel, and he’s known for taking the pithy Vine to a new art form, even netting himself a New Yorker piece on his work. It only recently struck me, though, that Berger has positioned himself as an ideal comic voice for the endless madness and narcissism of the continuing Trump administration. When nearly every image from the current White House sparks a wildfire of thinkpieces, it seems a lot more direct to go after the images themselves. There’s been endless talk about how we shouldn’t “normalize” Trump, and Berger’s best work does the exact opposite of Fallon’s notorious hair ruffle by striving to put us on edge instead of at ease.
Watch a couple of Berger’s montages and the style becomes clear pretty quickly. Whether it’s Ellen DeGeneres forced to sit through an endless interview with Kanye West or Melania interrupting an interview, each person Berger deconstructs ends up in a searing orange-and-pink nightmare full of air horns, canned sound effects, and their own inane sound bites.
That’s why, try as I might, I can’t get excited about Anthony Atamanuik’s The President Show, or the unfunny cartoon Trump on Colbert’s Late Show that’s getting its own spin-off, or even Alec Baldwin’s much-lauded impression. Trump may disapprove of all of this, but it still feels like he’s winning in some small way every time someone slaps on orange pancake makeup and dons a fake yellow hairpiece. In the time it takes most comedians to establish a setup, Berger can fire off five times as many jokes simply through odd, ridiculous juxtapositions and pauses. It’s a dense style to keep up with the density of bullshit we’re all forced to process on a regular basis.
Consider the video “President Trump’s offer for the American people,” posted in July. In it, Berger splices a video address from Trump on healthcare with the infamous commercial for Trump Steaks, backed by cheesy music. It’s a pretty obvious joke (Trump treats being POTUS just like being a spokesman) but it works so much better with the obvious cutting and dubbing than it would in a live-action SNL treatment. And it ends with one of my favorite recurring Berger jokes: a sneeze dropped in before Trump says “God bless you.” Even the thumbnail, with Trump’s face retreating into his head, feels like the sort of thing the president would ban if he could.
Another clip turns a photo op with children into something out of a peach-tinged horror movie, complete with screams and scary music. It treats Trump as a threat, not just a doofus. In some cases, such as this poorly-produced Breitbart interview with Sean Spicer, Berger’s touch is almost redundant compared to the cringe comedy of the real thing. But all of this ridicule builds a consistent thesis on why Trump is abhorrent and shouldn’t be president, constantly dredging up his appalling past behavior and comments as evidence. Just the way he awkwardly pronounces the phrase “Judge Gorsuch,” magnified endlessly, feels like it comes from a place of rage, not amusement.
I’m not claiming that there’s no other good political comedy right now, of course. Far from it: Samantha Bee has proven herself to be the true heir to Jon Stewart’s righteous rage, and there’s no shortage of podcasters, standups, and protesters ready to sock it to the GOP. But by turning Trump’s image against himself — in an administration that is solely about image and appearing to accomplish things — Berger’s method feels like the most fitting way to tackle the endless barrage of incompetence and evil coming from this White House, and it adds immediacy to otherwise simple comic ideas. We don’t need another person imitating the president to make fun of him when Berger can make him do that himself.
While there’s always a sense of irony to Berger’s videos, they’re informed by his clear perspective on the president and a desire to show him to be the danger he is, even when Berger’s take is relatively simple. This seems to be more obvious as of late. His newer “Forced to Fix It” video calls The Donald out for lying, contradicting himself, and trying to walk back his own heinous statements, but only through actual footage, pivoting on a dime from horror to silliness. Another recent one, “Did Trump know about Don Jr’s meeting with Russian lawyer?”, almost veers into reportage territory, putting forth a John Oliver-worthy theory about the Trumps’ Russian collusion in less than two minutes, and with Trump’s own words in the mix, no less.
It also helps that Berger seems to have some reservations about the Donald Trump comedy industry in the first place. Both Berger’s channel and Super Deluxe have fired shots at other comedians; the former once featured a mocking “message to SNL“ before Trump hosted that ridiculed the very idea that the show could ever undermine Trump on air, and the latter featured a compilation of Trump impressions that seems to show the hollowness of ever doing one in the first place and ends with an ironic gut punch for Democrats.
I don’t agree with all of the points Berger puts forward in his work. In the past there’s been an element of “all sides”-ism to the way he’s handled Hillary Clinton in particular, and the jokes about Trump and Putin being in love bump up against the underlying homophobia and misogyny that Anita Sarkeesian rightly pointed out persists in many corners. Plus, there’s a line between focusing on weird little facial tics and simply making fun of the way someone looks, even if that person made themselves look that way.
In an interview from last year, Berger said that some Trump supporters have actually become fans of his videos and that he wanted to “keep this in mind” for his future work. I wouldn’t be surprised if the desire to distance himself from those fans is motivating him to put an even sharper edge on his material. As Super Deluxe has evolved into one of the weirdest channels on YouTube, Berger is there to make sure we don’t forget about the many, many unforgivable things the president and his cronies keep doing (there’s a reason Berger regularly contributes Trump shorts called “American Horror Story”).
For a convenient summary of Berger’s apparent views on the president, we can turn to “A Song for Donald.” It’s the rare unedited, candid video of Berger onscreen, playing a simple ditty about how Trump has “always been a clown/But now that [he’s] president/There’s not much funny to be found.”
Clearly that isn’t literally true, since there’s plenty of funny in Berger’s work. The way forward for comedians, though, may lie in thinking that the current situation is deathly serious and working up from there. As long as Berger keeps his devastating perspective, we can maybe look forward to a comedy world that’s less of a MESS.