To my knowledge, there has not yet been any wide public reckoning by the purveyors of late night comedy with the role they played in Donald Trump’s election. To be sure, comedians are not responsible for putting him or any politician in office, but they do have considerable power in the reframing of politics as entertainment in the public consciousness. This in effect lowers the stakes of politics for millions and millions of viewers—it turns issues that affect real people’s lives into, well, sports. Such a reckoning is important because it might provide late night comedians with a path forward through this uncertain era: Should they directly challenge the instruments of power that would do us harm, or continue to seek distraction in bits, bobs and celebrity interviews?
The reason I doubt this conversation will ever happen is that most late night hosts would probably rather avoid the first option, though option two is obviously the lesser choice. I also suspect that many comedians think they are traveling the first road when they are in fact traveling the second, cough, Stephen Colbert at the Emmys, cough. Which brings me to The Opposition w/ Jordan Klepper, the new Comedy Central news parody that debuted last night. Pitched as a satire of fringe right-wing media outlets like Infowars, it features Klepper, a longtime Daily Show correspondent, as a peddler of, I guess, conspiracies. His team of correspondents includes Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp as provocateurs in the vein of Milo Yiannopoulos; in their introduction, they hold up a copy of the Constitution and whine about the cancellation of Berkeley’s free speech week, then ask viewers to follow them on social media. Then there’s Laura Grey as a “citizen journalist” who lambasts NFL players for taking a knee: “Is there anything more violent than a nonviolent act of civil disobedience? Those knees don’t belong on the ground, they belong out on the field, smashing into groins and faces.” Kobi Libii shows up as a paranoiac radio host, Niccole Thurman as a black Republican duped by the party (“Obamacare was bullshit, all right? I get my healthcare from the Affordable Care Act”), and Tim Baltz as, just, another whacky dude who thinks bad stuff. It’s a funny ensemble, though by necessity we didn’t see much of any single member in the first episode.
There are a couple things that don’t seem to click in the pilot. Frankly, Klepper is a weird choice for a parody of Alex Jones. He’s a tall slender handsome articulate man who for many years has starred on The Daily Show. He tries to get around this in a segment where he claims to have been a mole, spying on Trevor Noah for unclear purposes. But on an aesthetic level it’s still a stretch to see him as a foil for the likes of Alex Jones. Second, for all its insistence that it’s a counterpoint to the mainstream media, The Opposition barely tries to conceal its liberal point of view. Both of those jokes I quoted above practically came with large stickers that said “Hi, I’m a liberal comedian and I wrote this bit.” Later in Grey’s segment, she asks: “Progressives love freedom of thought so much, what about freedom from thought?” It’s obvious stuff. As satire it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table; I’m not sure what makes any of this different from The Colbert Report’s critique of Fox News. Klepper also effectively breaks character in Baltz’s segment, when Baltz suggests that neither Alabama Senate candidate is far enough to the right:
Klepper: Tim, they’re both pretty darn conservative. Roy Moore has conflated homosexuality with bestiality.
Baltz: I can’t get behind Moore until he comes out against true bestiality, which is when animals have sex with other animals. Imagine it, Jordan: a dog having relations with another dog.
Klepper: …That’s how dogs reproduce, Tim.
Baltz: What are you, a Democrat?
Klepper: Okay, fine. Keep us posted.
It’s a funny joke that Klepper totally tanks! I’m not sure what the point is in him playing the straight man here. The whole idea of the show is that he’s not a straight man. It seems to undermine the endeavor if he’s suddenly a normal intelligent person for one joke, then a few minutes later tells us that Jake Gyllenhaal has bionic eyes. This speaks partly to his uncomfortable fit in the role of deranged lunatic, but also to a broader problem with The Opposition. In its first episode, at least, it’s parodying the idea of conspiracy theories more than conspiracy theories themselves—what they are, why they’re so influential, what they’ve done to us and what they may yet do.
What I mean by that first and foremost is that the comedy is weak. The episode’s very first joke, from Klepper, is this: “President Trump may have declared war on North Korea over Twitter, and it’s the boldest foreign policy move since FDR unfriended Japan.” Its final joke, from Libii, is: “The question isn’t whether players should or should not kneel. The real question is: How has the government genetically modified human knees to make us more prone to subservience?” In between there’s a joke about how Thomas Jefferson was killed by Alexander Hamilton and another that people have chips in their brains. Klepper tries to get his own iteration of “Truthiness” in right off the bat with his theory of “Mental Nationalism”: “That’s how they operate,” he says of the mainstream media’s insistence on facts. “That’s how they smuggle their dangerous ideas across the open borders of your mind. I want to shut those borders. I want to close your mind. It’s called Mental Nationalism, and it’s an idea whose time has come. That’s why here at The Opposition we believe in our own golden rule: May you only hear from others what you’ve already been telling yourself.” Like… fine? It’s a weird mix of wordy stuff that tries too hard and bland bits that don’t try hard enough, all of them relying on the audience’s preexisting notions of what a conspiracy theory is. The jokes don’t surprise so much as they make you think, “Oh, right, this stuff is funny.”
The Opposition comes out of the gate sneering on a caricature of its subject matter. Or, sure, its subject matter is already a caricature, so The Opposition feels more like a caricature of a caricature. I’m all for shitting on Alex Jones, but this is serious stuff; I don’t mean serious as in not funny, but serious as in this affects a lot of people. Paranoiac fringe media is a powerful force in our culture. It’s not just maniacs saying dumb shit; it’s maniacs with loud microphones tapping into deep wells of racial animus and virulent misogyny. I’m not sure smarmy one-liners are very well equipped to understand or challenge the deep-seated hatreds that so empower the likes of Alex Jones and Stephen Bannon. I am sure that liberal back-patting is not. It doesn’t strike me as particularly necessary or useful, right now, to have another comedy show that reminds Us we’re better than Them. We may well be, but it doesn’t matter. Being better than Them hasn’t stopped them yet.
None of this is to say you should not watch The Opposition or that it’s a failure. It’s aired one episode. I hope future episodes go deeper and tell harder jokes. I hope they reckon with the ideologies of right-wing media rather than just the aesthetics. I hope Klepper’s character coheres a little more and that he doesn’t undercut Baltz’s jokes, because Tim Baltz is real great and we’re lucky to have him on TV. I hope characters who are supposed to be ignorant stop speaking with the intelligent, considered perspectives of TV writers, because, come on.
I want to close with an anecdote. A few months ago I was talking to my friend’s father. He’s a retired doctor, a white man who voted for Trump because he didn’t trust Clinton, because he thought it would be better to blow up the system than elect a corrupt member of the global elite. He’s also a frequent reader of Drudge Report. We spoke shortly after that naval collision in the Pacific, and he said he was certain there was something else going on there—some sort of special ops mission that they wouldn’t tell us about—because he just couldn’t believe two huge ships would accidentally collide, it didn’t make sense, it was terrifying to imagine. Then he railed against the Obamacare repeal efforts—this was in early July—which he said were cruel and mendacious, though he believes the entire healthcare system is a failure. He said we should get rid of profit incentives for providers and switch to single-payer. He said he hoped Trump changes his mind and does the right thing. It was nuts! It didn’t add up. But he believed all of it. In his head the puzzle pieces fit together. I couldn’t figure out how and I still don’t get it. I’d like to get it. I think this guy is a few conversations away from voting Democrat in 2020. He’s obviously not alone. I wonder how a show like The Opposition, by examining his media diet, might help me consider how to have those conversations.
It’s certainly not on late night comedy to do the work of grassroots activists or political parties. But like all art, comedy has the potential to expand our powers of empathy, to help us think about old issues in new ways, to see renewed possibility in what previously felt hopeless. I don’t pretend to know how it’s done, though I suspect the first step is skipping the easy jokes. The Opposition is perfectly equipped to do that, and I hope it does.