Before he became president, the only thing I thought of when I heard the name Donald Trump was how convenient the toilets were at Trump Tower. It isn’t always easy to find public toilets when you’re wandering around Manhattan, taking in the tourist attractions with visitors. I’d cheerfully announce, after taking a photo in front of the Charles Atlas statue, “You wanna take a dump at the Trump?” I did not say this out of maliciousness. It was just a way to check off another landmark, make fun of the mondo-80’s marble and brass interior, and take care of business. You see Trump, at this point, was just another idiotic celebrity. He was no threat to me. I truly didn’t give him much thought besides the clean, easily accessible toilets his tacky Tower offered.
So back in 2011, when my friend Greg asked if I wanted to attend the Comedy Central Trump Roast and sit at Larry King’s table, it was not fraught with political overtones. I jumped at the chance to see my pal and enjoy free booze. The comedy was not the draw. (Which is a good thing, because Jersey Shore’s The Situation was one of the Roasters, and comedy seemed to be a foreign concept to him.)
I walked over to Manhattan Center that chilly March night. I wore my winter boots and coat, feeling pretty fortunate I lived close enough that I could actually walk there. Look at me! Girl from tiny Pacific Northwest island now lives within walking distance of Manhattan Center! Wow! But as I stood in the parking lot, waiting for Greg to arrive with Larry King, the limos and other luxury cars all started pulling in. Seth MacFarlane showed up and a gaggle of unbelievably gorgeous, tall, thin, shiny women spilled out; no coats, no boots, just slinky dresses, long, bare legs in high heels, and big smiles. They did not need to worry about hailing a cab, taking the subway, or walking in the cold night. Chauffeured nights out are free from bulky clothes, or the threat of getting your tights stuck in a boot zipper.
As more and more celebrities strolled in confidently, my geographic accomplishment seemed rather unimpressive. I was grateful when my friend showed up. I was starting to feel like the unpopular kid in the school cafeteria. But at least I wasn’t alone at the table…until I was. Greg escorted me through the empty hall to a table right in front of the stage. He then had to go backstage to help Larry get ready, which included adjusting his famed suspenders.
Now, I’m usually okay sitting alone. I’ve gone to lunch and dinner by myself many times. I enjoy my own company and I’m not shy. But this felt different. I didn’t feel I belonged at this table. I felt like an intruder, an interloper. This suspicion was confirmed when a tall blonde woman pointed at my face and asked, “Who are you? Why are you at this table?” I stuttered, “I’m…I’m…I’m with Larry King’s people,” because I was pretty sure my own name wasn’t good enough. I was not terribly convincing, as there were no other Larry King people to back up my claim. So she sniffed, stared at me and said, “Well I’m Vanessa Trump.”
This flustered me, as I had no other table and it seemed as though she was booting me out of this one. By the grace of whichever gods look after chubby thighed non-celebrities at a coveted table, Larry King’s in-laws came to join me. His father-in-law casually greeted Vanessa and said, “This is Saara. She’s with us. Would you like me to get you a chair?” She said nothing and walked away. A few minutes later Don Jr. joined the table, along with some other guests. There was clearly no room allotted for Vanessa, so in fact she was the intruder, the interloper. She sat on Don Jr.’s lap until Larry’s father-in-law (a man in his mid-80s) found a stray chair, hoisted it over his head, and put it next to the table. She thanked him as you would a waiter clearing a plate; an expected gesture. It soon became clear why this table was so important: Ivanka and Melania were at the next table over. This was as close as you could get to their orbit.
The show began with Donald Trump riding in on a golden golf cart, flanked by glamorous women in sequined dresses, pageant sashes across their ample breasts, flinging fake money into the air. We all rose and cheered. Trump took his place on the stage and Roast master Seth MacFarlane turned to him and quipped, “It’s pronounced, ‘I’m fucking delusional’ not ‘I’m running for President.’” We all laughed. What a hilarious idea! This buffoon becoming president! Hee Hee! Ha ha! What a rascal, what a scamp! Oh, that Donald Trump—such a character! Only in New York, fellas, only in New York!
As for the show itself—it was hit or miss. You can watch it for yourself. That’s for you to decide.
When it ended, we had VIP passes to the afterparty at Gotham Hall, which was my first experience in this world. I’d always read that in the heady days of Studio 54, the club itself was dazzling, glittering, glamorous. But the allure of 54 was that anybody could get past the velvet rope; you didn’t have to be famous or infamous, provided you impressed Steve Rubell at the front door. So they needed to figure out a way to make the VIPs feel like VIPs. Their solution? A tiny basement area where an heiress was supposedly chained up to the radiator for hours once because someone forgot about her. But it was ONLY for VIPs!
This afterparty sort of felt like that (minus the chained up heiress.) It was just a little balcony overlooking the splendor of Gotham Hall. Down below, people had more space to roam around. Upstairs, we were all crammed together—but we were VIPs! There was Seth MacFarlane and his father, the gorgeous leggy women he arrived with, Jon Hamm and John Slattery, (looking decidedly scruffy, far removed from Mad Men costumers) comics from the roast, and best of all…Ice-T and Coco. What I loved the most about them was that of course there were tons of appetizers offered on trays by good looking waiters. The models declined them. I got a little too excited to try all of them and dropped one on the floor. Out of instinct (or actually, my mother’s voice in my head) I bent down to pick it up. The waiter rolled his eyes and said, “Girl, why would you pick that up? I’m not about to take it. Leave it on the floor.”
Point is, there were appetizers, plates of mini-bites as far as the eye could see…except for Ice-T and Coco’s corner. They were sitting on a sofa, and Coco had a huge, delicious looking bowl of pasta in front of her. She was enjoying the hell out of it. I do not know where she got this pasta but this was the best thing I saw all night: Coco savoring her food, and Ice-T smiling, happy to see her enjoy it.
I spent the remainder of the evening talking primarily to one person. No, I did not prod Jon Hamm into revealing upcoming Mad Men plot twists. I did not network with Seth MacFarlane, in an attempt to get voiceover work or write for a show. That would be useful. No, I mostly spoke to comedian Lisa Lampanelli’s husband, who took my heart with how incredibly proud he was of his wife. He also talked about home repair projects. I guess this is why I am not famous. I never listen to the valuable confessions.
The night ended and I went home. I watched the roast when it aired on Comedy Central a few weeks later. Didn’t think about it again until Trump was elected, and people started taking celebrities to task for being hypocrites. “Oh, you all loved him before, smiled in photos with him, and now you’ve turned your back on him! Typical Hollywood liberal bullshit.”
But that’s just not true. It isn’t hypocritical to be angry when someone is not who you thought they were. A lot of people just thought he was a stupid, comically arrogant famewhore. That’s okay. That’s entertainment! But when that stupid, comically arrogant famewhore wants to make decisions about health care, a pandemic, foreign policy, and tax cuts, well, you’ve crossed multiple lines.
I watched the roast again before I wrote this essay. Because of my prime seat, I am in multiple shots, blurred in the background, often when the camera is on Ivanka. It’s fitting image; being at a table where I didn’t feel I belonged, out of focus. That is how I’ve felt the entire time Trump has devoured the national conversation.
Enough essays have been written, by better writers than I am, about how Trump has been systematically destroying the foundations and institutions of our country. I totally agree. But I think we’ve underestimated one of Trump’s worst crimes: he stole people from us. People we love and care about. Over the past four years, I’ve lost family members, friends, and friends who felt like family. He stole them from me because I never knew they held his vicious beliefs. It’s like some bizarre invasion of the body snatchers, finding out they not only voted for this fucker (because they’re life-long Republicans, or they hated Hillary Clinton) but that they fully support him too. Sometimes I wonder if I should be grateful that their true nature has been revealed. Isn’t it better to know that they’ve harbored these feelings all along, and I was too naïve or blind to see it?
But I’m not grateful. I am incredibly sad. It’s so hard to believe that certain people who helped raise me–bought me clothes when mom and I didn’t have much money, put my hideous school photos on their fridge, took me to church, baked me birthday cakes, sat in the audience of my plays–are spouting Trump’s hateful rhetoric, and posting insane conspiracy theories on social media. They’re not just Trump voters. They’re Trump supporters, forgiving him of all his sins though he never asked them to. It absolutely breaks my heart that I cannot look at them the same way again. Especially those who are going to vote for him again.
I’m also confused. Some of these people took Vietnamese refugees into their homes in the late ‘70s. Made sandwiches for homeless people who knocked on the front door. Quietly pulled me aside when the big kids made fun of me, hugged me and told me it was gonna be okay. None of them shrieked, “Fuck your feelings!” (Or wore the t-shirt.) No one delighted in anyone’s tears, liberal or otherwise. What happened? How did these people become the bullies? Much like with Trump, I had no idea they would show another side. I never knew this side existed. I just can’t understand it and I cannot forgive them. Because they haven’t asked for forgiveness. And they never will.
With the Trump Comedy Central Roast, it was clear that funny is subjective. Some jokes work, some jokes don’t. You’ve gotta know your audience. But with the Trump White House, there is no such nuance. There is right and there is wrong. That joke isn’t funny anymore. It never was. Get the hook. Lower the curtain. It’s time for this show to close.