“Clinton: The Musical,” a raunchy and infectiously silly show currently running off-Broadway in New York, is a testament to the staying power of Monica Lewinsky jokes.
The production, which has scored rave reviews, plays like a nostalgia trip to the kinder, gentler 1990s – and spends the bulk of its running time rehashing the infamous sexual encounters with Lewinsky, then a White House intern, that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. But its exaggerated portrayal of Hillary Clinton arguably steals the show – the over-the-top version of her persona so etched in the public consciousness that it’s become the equivalent of comedy comfort food.
The former first lady and current 2016 presidential candidate is depicted here and in virtually every other American comedy routine as a scheming careerist who sees her husband’s rise to power as little more than a springboard for her own ambition. It’s a compelling comedic conceit, albeit one largely based on public projections instead of facts. Despite the inherent sexism in virtually all the spoofs, the parodies have endured because they are often quite funny and voters may suspect they contain a kernel of truth.
Despite nearly eight years in the White House, the Obamas have proven frustratingly hard for most mainstream comedians to mock. With the notable exception of Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele,” few, if any, impressions of the first African-American president have broken through. The president’s historic significance and race have scared off some comics from taking real shots at his personality and policies.The Clintons, however, appear to be permanently fair game. Although the musical, written by Australian brothers Paul and Michael Hodges, was conceived before Hillary Clinton launched her 2016 presidential campaign, her ambition to be commander-in-chief is frequently front and center. She sings her own praises in a chorus of “I’m awesome,” compares her future run to a cup of “bitter tea” and ends the show with a plea to the audience to “vote for me.”
“One of the things that makes funny ‘funny’ is incongruity. And one of the things that this country still finds weird or incongruous is an ambitious woman or a woman who isn’t subordinate to her powerful husband. It’s considered unattractive and unnatural and cold. It’s Lady McBeth, basically,” comedian Katie Halper, the co-founder of Laughing Liberally, told msnbc.
Halper, who is also a writer and a filmmaker, sympathizes with the fact that Hillary Clinton had to balance a “non-threatening” persona of first lady with her own political career through her husband’s two terms in the White House. But she also concedes that the “dynastic element” of the Clintons deserves ridicule.
“All politicians should be made fun of. The question is whether the joke is about her policy or her so-called cankles,” Halper said.
While “Saturday Night Live’s” Kate McKinnon has impersonated Clinton only a handful of times on the show, her performances have already generated more buzz and excitement than Jay Pharoah’s long tenure playing Obama.
In “Clinton: The Musical,” the former POTUS is portrayed as two different people inhabiting the same body. One is William Jefferson Clinton, the progressive hope and statesman, the other is “Billy,” a silver-tongued charlatan and skirt chaser. Hillary Clinton is stuck in the middle, preferring each version of her husband depending on the political expediency of a given situation.
When their dream of universal health care fades and the Republicans win big in the midterms, the musical’s Hillary decides to embrace “Willy,” because he is more ideologically pliant, a decision that comes back to haunt her when the Lewinsky affair is exposed.
Stand-up and improv comic Chris Griggs, who once played Bill Clinton on stage, said, “There’s also the old comedy perception of them — whether true or not — of the fun loving party guy and her as the long-suffering spouse. It’s a universal perspective that is easier to write comedy from.”
“I mean, I think comics should be able to do what they want but there are better places to push the writing I think,” he added. “She has clearly earned the platform to run for president whether you agree with her politics or not.”
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And ultimately, the humor is usually not solely about her personality. “I’ve already written many jokes about the absurdity of the media’s obsession with her — the phony e-mail scandal, the lunch at Chipotle, the focus on her logo,” comedian Frank Conniff told msnbc. “I feel the media’s obsession over stupid stuff that isn’t important will be a major comedic vein to tap into.”
For her part, the candidate herself seems to be more self-aware and self-deprecating this time around. Before embarking on her presidential campaign, she made uncharacteristically comedic comments to the media back in March. “I am all about new beginnings. A new granddaughter, another new hairstyle, a new email account. So why not a new relationship with the press?” Clinton asked reporters. “So here goes: no more secrecy. No more zone of privacy. After all, what good did that do me?”