I’ll admit I’m reluctant to criticize The Opposition w/ Jordan Klepper because I am a great fan of everyone on it. The show has a talented cast and a talented writing staff and I’m very glad all these people are working. Still, I’m kind of baffled the show is on the air. It’s dreadfully uninteresting and doesn’t seem to have any point of view other than, “all this stuff that’s going on is pretty crazy.” Which is true, but, you’d think the bar might be somewhat higher, especially for talent of this caliber? In theory it’s a parody of fringe right-wing media like Infowars, but in practice it sounds like any other liberal comedy show. There’s usually some veneer of conspiracist lunacy, but it’s all pretty flimsy and transparently in the service of a liberal point of view. Consider this segment on Oprah from yesterday’s show:
“We can’t ignore this threat to Trump in 2020. I mean, ‘Win’ is Oprah Frey’s middle name.” What? Fine, okay, good pun, definitely something Alex Jones might say, yup. “Let’s just look at Oprah’s scandals. To start, she has a private email server. We hate that. Also, I don’t see anything about Benghazi in O Magazine. She doesn’t care at all. And who’s to say that ISIS isn’t on Oprah’s list of favorite things? Plus, if Oprah takes office, she’ll start saying to America, ‘You get a healthcare, you get a healthcare, you get a healthcare, you get a healthcare!” It’s like conservative buzzword Mad Libs. Or, no, it’s like a bunch of Sunday and Monday’s most common Twitter jokes strung together. (Okay, the “bread” punchline is pretty funny.) It’s entertaining and quotable and it doesn’t say anything at all about the likes of Alex Jones, who of course had a much darker response to the prospects of an Oprah candidacy: “They want to call Trump a Nazi? Look out, lady. We know what you’re designed to do. You’re the black face to carry out the enslavement of black folks and everybody else.” No wonder The Opposition prefers a more toothless approach—the reality of right wing media is quite painful to gaze upon.
So I was interested to see Klepper was a guest on yesterday’s Off Message podcast from POLITICO. I thought he might give some insight into The Opposition’s point of view, which he did, somewhat, but it also seems a bit like he hasn’t watched the show he’s on. By that I mean he leans very hard on his notion of The Opposition as a character-based satire, as though the obvious transparency of these characters—the overwhelming reluctance to actually gaze into the abyss of nativist, racist right-wing media—doesn’t make the whole project sort of, well, a joke:
I got to create a show after Donald Trump was president. I wanted talk about the news, I love the news, it’s what I’m living, I want to comment on that. But for me, the fun way to do that, instead of just being mad every day, is to play with it. And so I think character-based satire—I can show it, I can be more show than tell, I can play with with the wildness of it. If he says he needs a button, I can explore what that means. If he’s obfuscating the truth with, like, creating fake villains, I can create real villains and get kidnapped on television… I can use those constraints to, like, play… Because I get tired of just yelling at Donald Trump and, ‘look how dumb he is.’ And so for us, we’re like, let’s try to find some fun in the new and like, let’s show it. Let’s show these tactics. We’ll be talking about him anyway, right? Let’s not be mad about it. Let’s lets expose it by playing with it.
It all makes good sense: Enacting a thing indeed opens different comedic possibilities than just commentating on it. But when Klepper says The Opposition’s approach allows him to “explore” what Trump means by his nuclear button tweet, here’s how that manifests in reality:
The joke in this bit—the thing he exposes by “playing with” Trump’s words—is that Chris Pine and Chris Pratt are the same person. Not all that hard-hitting, is it? It’s silly, and maybe even funny, but to my eyes it does exactly the thing Klepper says he’s tired of. It holds something up—Trump to an extent, and conspiracy theorists to a greater extent—and says, “Look how dumb this is.”
Which isn’t all that bad! Klepper observes elsewhere in the interview that one great function of late night comedy right now is to provide catharsis. “I think a lot of people find catharsis in this weird time and so they turn to late night shows,” he says. “They turn to shows that are talking about this. And that is a cathartic moment: ‘We’re all in this together. Can you believe this is happening?’” I don’t want to downplay the value of comedy providing people with that kind of release. But I do think it’s worth asking of any show, why you? Why now? What do you do differently? What do you offer that I can’t get anywhere else?
In The Opposition’s case, I really can’t come up with any compelling answers. A few breaths after that last thought, Klepper says his team makes an effort not to preach to the choir and not to dunk only on Trump: “We try to stay honest and we try to stay open and making fun of the things that don’t have to be partisan based,” he tells host Edward-Isaac Dovere. “They’re, a lot of times, aimed at good ol’ DT, but we have to keep asking ourselves a question: ‘What do we really think on this?’” Here’s a recent example of one of those non-partisan segments:
The bit here is Laura Grey playing a drunk Trump supporter surreptitiously recording a conversation with Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff. It’s, again, perfectly entertaining and perfectly devoid of any message other than “These people are dumb.” What does The Opposition “really think on this?” I couldn’t tell you. It’s not that I think the segment is dumb or wrongheaded or counterproductive; I just think it doesn’t do anything. And it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to expect that the people who get to be on late night television might do something with their platform.
The most revealing part of the interview, to me, comes when Dovere asks how Klepper gets into character. “Do you have to do anything to, like, method it out?” he inquires. “Because it’s not you, right? It’s really very much not you… and I know you’re probably tired of the Colbert comparison, but I feel like your character is more distant from who you are than even Colbert was from who his character was.”
First of all: Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh, what? Klepper’s character is… almost completely indistinguishable from his normal (public) persona. It’s heightened, sure, but it’s hardly more performative than, say, Trevor Noah’s on-air personality on The Daily Show. Or, I don’t know, Klepper’s on-air personality on The Daily Show. See:
Secondly: I suppose I can’t blame Klepper for thinking he’s doing the thing he’s trying to do, but his answer still strikes me as oblivious. Here:
I’m not a one-to-one—I know Colbert was, like, one-to-one with O’Reilly, or someone, or Stone Phillips, in that world too. I think, like, I’m using the energy and the world of like an Alex Jones. I’m in the body of a Tucker Carlson or maybe even worse—Jesse Watters. Geez, I can’t believe I’m saying it. But I think the right and the fringe all kind of are starting to melt. And so I’m borrowing from those things.
(Then he says he doesn’t really get into character because they’re writing the show pretty much up until the moment it records.)
I say this strikes me as oblivious because I think it’s very clear why The Opposition is on television. Jordan Klepper is a funny, handsome white guy with a good resumé. He’s host material; his correspondents are correspondent material. He absolutely does not resemble Tucker Carlson or Jesse Watters (I know he’s exaggerating, but, come on, dude). Who he resembles is Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. In the same sense, The Opposition resembles a late night news satire: It features comedians playing over-the-top characters riffing on the day’s events. Everyone is very talented and the jokes are sometimes pretty funny. But they don’t say anything; with the exception of Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp’s Milo Yiannopoulos-types, they barely even take aim at their ostensible targets. And when the show occasionally nails the form of fringe right wing media, it rarely nails the substance, treading instead in safe territory—Chris Pine and Chris Pratt look similar, conservatives hate free healthcare, Trump supporters are dumb, lol. It’s easy, it’s unsurprising, it’s boring.
And it’s disappointing. As Klepper tells Dovere, we’re living in an important time for comedy. There is a surplus of voices struggling to be heard—to provide the catharsis people seek and deserve. It would be nice if the voices who break through the noise said something different than the noise itself. Listening to his interview, I was reminded of something Ed Helms told The Daily Beast in advance of his own lifeless iteration of The Opposition, The Fake News with Ted Nelms:
It’s now been more than a decade since you left The Daily Show. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the media over that time?
When I was on The Daily Show, my boss at the time, Jon Stewart, went on CNN, the show was called Crossfire, and he said to them, “You’re hurting America.” Because they were just doing this cage-match journalism. Just these guys yelling at each other. And Tucker Carlson was on the show at the time, he’s now on Fox News. What was so interesting is that right after that—and I don’t know if it was because of Jon, but it was certainly part of a moment of retrospection for CNN—they canceled Crossfire. And I think that was a smart move. And a responsible move. Now, when you turn on CNN, it doesn’t even matter what show it is or what time of day it is. It’s a version of Crossfire.
Yeah, it’s all Crossfire.
It’s all Crossfire, 24/7. And every network has taken up that approach and I think that’s a very sad development. But it’s fun to make fun of.
It’s sad—Helms doesn’t appear to realize the indictment he’s making. Twelve years ago Jon Stewart exposed the lunacy of mainstream right wing media. The immediate effect was the cancellation of one show, but the long-term effect was nothing. The lunacy took over. It won. Now the fringes are even loonier. And the response of Jon Stewart’s successors is to… keep making carbon copies of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report? You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not all that inspired.
It’s clear Klepper wants to tell us more than what we already know—that Trump is dumb, that Alex Jones is dumb, that the right wing is dumb. What’s not clear is whether he knows anything we don’t already. Well, we’re waiting. What do you really think?
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.