I HAVE been gifted with a sixth sense. There are many sixth senses: some people can detect an oncoming thunderstorm in their bones. Others can detect a dead person in the room. My own sixth sense is the ability to detect tight buttholes in an audience. That squirmy tension that fills a room when a comedian is saying something uncomfortable. I’ve encountered it thousands of times – even one butthole tightening can suck just enough air out of the room to throw you completely off kilter, or create the most exhilarating tension ripe for cutting.

Most comedians have this sixth sense. In order to survive, we must develop a hypersensitivity to the status of our audience’s buttholes, and learn how to use it to our advantage.

This sixth sense has been put into overdrive ever since we in the US accidentally elected a black hole as president. Literally nothing, and no-one, can escape this one man’s bottomless, unquenchable ego. We passed the event horizon on election day, and now we are trapped in Donald Trump’s gravity-crushing singularity of personal vendettas, demented tweets, and oozing lava-flow of lies. Even people who claim to love him are living in a nightmare house of cards of their own making. With every new headline, the mental gymnastics a Trump supporter has to do in order to justify their continued support of this man must be absolutely exhausting.

Loading article content

Only half a year into Trump’s term, Americans are tired, anxious, and cranky as hell. The result? A nationwide epidemic of tight buttholes. People are showing up to comedy shows with their buttholes pre-tightened, and it’s been a struggle for every comedian I know. Whenever I come out onto the stage, the first thing I do is survey the faces of the crowd and try to get an idea of the vibe in the room. And often times lately, I’ve encountered audiences in which half of the people look like a toddler who just woke up from a monster nap – and you just know they’ll start crying if you even make fleeting eye contact with them.

In the very first minute of my show, I mention that: “I did not vote for him.” I don’t even say Trump’s name. It’s been fascinating to gauge the reaction at this moment. Even though this line usually gets a big laugh, I can immediately feel a subsequent wave of reverse farts rippling through the crowd. The anxiety is palpable. They’re thinking: “Oh no, she’s political!” “Oh no, she’s a libtard!” “Oh no, she’s gonna scream at us about Trump for an hour!”

It’s important to note that this tension doesn’t feel partisan. I truly think that people on both sides of our political divide are nervous about what happens when a comedian starts talking about the President in public. Part of it is because many people just don’t want to hear about him. Every 15 seconds, there’s a new bombshell headline that is more absurd than the last. The current news cycle feels like sitting in the ocean, getting smacked in the face by one wave after another, between which you barely have a moment to gasp for air. So naturally, some folks come to the comedy show hoping to escape the hellscape.

Others simply don’t want to be yelled at, no matter what their political beliefs. In my conversations with non-comedians, I hear this sentiment often, even from liberals: “I’m tired of all the screaming.” And they’re right. There is an awful lot of yelling going on right now. We have some very good yellers here – Samantha Bee and John Oliver for example. And they have a big audience that is thirsty for a good old-fashioned takedown. So I’ll have some of these people in my audience too. People who want me to go in on Trump, hard. They want to partake in a verbal effigy-burning of the man they detest.

It’s tempting to give in to these people – because they will respond very enthusiastically to anything I say about him. But I have to be careful, because I feel like if I pander to this faction too much, I’m at risk of falling into virtue-signalling in exchange for “clapter.” Clapter is when an audience claps for a plainly-made point, instead of laughing at a well-crafted joke. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m all for a strategic clapter moment. But this isn’t a Ted Talk. It’s a comedy show. Preach responsibly.

On top of all the various personalities in the audience, I also have to account for my own feelings. When Trump first came into office, many people claimed that he would be “amazing for comedy”. They described him as a “comedian’s dream come true”. They’d say: “The comedians are going to have a field day with this!” These people of course were not comedians. I am pretty sure most comics would trade a thousand “mouldy tangerine” jokes for one minute without Donald Trump screwing up even a basic handshake with a world leader. We’d gladly exchange our viral tweet about Mar-A-Lago for one afternoon with a marginally competent president, one that knows more than 10 vocabulary words.

I was talking about this to my friend, fellow comedian Nikki Glaser, and we both agreed that in many ways, we’re too angry and scared to find the funny in Donald Trump’s rule. For me, dark material has to incubate for a really long time before it can make its way to the stage. (To give you an idea, it took me a decade to be able to find a way to write jokes about my mom’s death.) Comedians are now struggling to get the distance needed to make something awful hilarious.

And it’s not just raw outrage aimed at politicians – many of us are dealing with the emotional fallout of the 2016 election in our personal lives. We’re grappling with family members, co-workers and friends who voted for the other side. Everyone is very angry at each other. Nikki summed it up well when she said: “I hate doing Trump jokes because if a section of the audience doesn't laugh, then I know they voted for him and then I have to spend the rest of the show hating part of my audience.” It’s a two-way street. Not even the comedians can avoid succumbing to The Great American Butthole Tightening.

On top of all of this, comedy in the age of Trump gets even more complicated when you factor in social media. Have you been on social media lately? Hooooboy. The rampant hate speech, harassment, and general breakdown of communication has poisoned us, and we carry that toxic sludge with us everywhere we go. I have dealt with a fair amount of harassment, and it’s deeply unsettling if not downright terrifying. One death wish is enough to ruin your day. But 50? You’re wondering if it’s safe to go outside.

Social media has also ignited a tidal wave of stupidity never before seen in the United States. Intentional misunderstandings and bad-faith interpretations of art have led to all-out campaigns to shut down comedians’ entire careers. So nevermind the sensitivity of individual buttholes in my audience, I’m now worried if I’ll become the target of a harassment campaign by the alt-right. Will they come to my show? Will they heckle? Will they disrupt?

I recently produced a show in which 50 female comedians told their favourite joke about their genitalia. The purpose of the show was to make fun of the tired stereotype that “female comedians only talk about their vaginas”, and to thereby defy it by showcasing the endless diversity in our scene. On social media, I can tell you that just the poster for the show triggered insecure men who can’t handle women doing comedy. Despite their trolling, the show was a huge success. After the show, Sabrina Jalees, who performed on the show, said: “Thankfully, no-one came here to shoot us.” I laughed knowingly. But then I got really sad. This is our new reality. With so much vitriol on social media (and living in the gun show that is America), there’s always a tiny fear in the back of your mind when you go to a show you’ve publicly promoted. What if one of these guys from the internet actually shows up?

And it’s not just the comedians that feel this, it’s the audience too. When I open my show with a joke about Trump, you can tell that everyone in the room feels like a line is being drawn. They’re worried: “What if the comedian forces me to publicly identify which side I’m on?” Stand-up comedy, by nature, is awkward enough without having to worry about sparking a civil war.

Of course, these things are subtle – and almost always amount to nothing more than tiny ripples in the atmosphere. But they’re always there, humming in the background.

My buddy Hari Kondabolu has never shied away from political material, but even he has struggled with joking about Trump. He feels that the news cycle is so rapid that topical jokes about Donald get stale too quickly. That’s exactly how I’ve felt too. Especially with social media. Any time a new story breaks, hoards of comedians (including me) will rush to make the funniest joke as quickly as possible. I enjoy this phenomenon, but it doesn’t easily translate to the stage.

So, what is a comedian to do? Should we ban his name from our work? Is the 45th president our “Scottish Play”? Perhaps we should not mention his name in comedy clubs, lest our show be cursed. As a former theatre major, this strategy feels quite mysterious and cool. But I don’t think that’s the answer. Hari put it best: “Ignoring Trump altogether feels ridiculous, because it's like ignoring a tsunami outside.”

What I’m finding, and I think what a lot of others are finding, is that the real meat of political and cultural comedy right now won’t be found in Trump news. Instead, it’s about the bigger picture of who we are and how we got here. When did reality TV stars become our greatest political minds? Did the concept of the “American dream” poison us, or did that happen when we decided to put hot dogs inside the pizza crust? These questions have been both wonderful and challenging to explore.

With all of this in mind, I’m nervous and excited to see how UK audiences will react to my Edinburgh Fringe show, Little White Box. Performing abroad as an American right now feels a little nerve-racking, like bumping into your neighbour the morning after you’ve had a terribly destructive party. “I know. We made a big mess.”

Nevertheless, I know that Brexit has divided the British people in a similar way that Trump has in America, and I think the themes I’m joking about will resonate.

Ultimately, tackling all of this has enabled me to masterfully manipulate the buttholes of my audience. OK, that sounds really bad. (Or really good, depending on what you’re into.) What I’m trying to say is that I’ve found ways to release the tension with my audience, gradually build their trust, and then surprise them along the way. I’m interested in finding common ground, and I find that most of my audiences appreciate this.

Of course, there is always that one guy who sits within plain view and refuses to laugh the entire show. Arms crossed, he sulks, openly hating me and every inch of my being. I try not to look at him, but it’s hard to ignore when one person is doing their damnedest to suck the oxygen out of the room solely using his rectum. I used to hate this guy. I would be in my head, screaming: “Why are you here? Did you not do one second of research? You could have easily figured out that you hated me via a simple Google search! Just leave! I Don’t care!”

At one point, I seriously considered putting disclaimers on my shows to try and ward this type of guy off. “Warning: this show contains a woman comedian who openly identifies as a feminist.” Or maybe something simpler. “Warning: this show contains a woman comedian.” Hmmm. Still too complex. “Warning: this show contains a woman.”

Eventually, I came to accept the presence of this breed of man at my shows. He can try to Trump my comedy (pun intended), but I will not be deterred, and maybe one day I’ll figure out a way to loosen even his butthole. One can only hope.

Sara Schaefer’s debut stand-up show Little White Box will be at the Pleasance Courtyard during the Edinburgh Fringe, from August 2-28. For tickets visit www.edfringe.com