Donald Trump was elected president against the predictions of everyone and the wishes of everyone important. “How could it come to this? Aren’t there rules against this?” the latter folks ask. Of course there are, and rule-breakers get punished.
News broke a few days ago about the first batch of retribution against boundary-crossers in the furor at Trump’s election. Adult Swim canceled “Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace,” which had just finished its first season. The show was bizarre and sublime, familiar to anyone who remembers Tom Green or who has seen other Adult Swim productions like the “Tim and Eric Awesome Show.” Half of the sketches were taboo-defying knee slappers and the other half bordered on incomprehensible, but all of them transmitted to viewers what seemed to be the manic daydreams of “Million Dollar Extreme,” the YouTube-born comedy trio behind the show.
“World Peace” wasn’t just toiling in the status quo, though. Where Green was sincere goofiness and “Tim and Eric” was defined by absolute irony, Million Dollar Extreme finished the sequence by muddling the qualities of the previous two. It was post-ironic. Maybe this is trouble?
Figuring out the intentions of the ironist is easy: whatever is being shown is being mocked. But the post-ironist folds over on his own sincerity with exaggeration, using the ironic not just to ridicule, but also to enjoy the absurdities of what he genuinely appreciates.
MDE gave us experimental proof that self-caricature and impenetrability are explosive when mixed, at least for right-wingers. Its members—Sam Hyde, Nick Rochefort, and Charles Carroll—are all open about their support for Trump, and were slapped with a cancellation, excellent ratings be damned. The first “World Peace” episode had more than a million viewers, only a few hundred thousand behind established blockbusters like “Family Guy” and “Bob’s Burgers,” an impressive feat for a brand new show on the 12:15 time slot.
It wasn’t a matter of personally pissing off the top brass at Adult Swim, either. Hyde, who is something of a frontman for MDE, told me over the phone that the executives said they loved the show, and renewed it for a second season as soon as the first had aired. From its inception the media buzzed about it being an “alt-right” show—journalists love using terms so ambiguous they can mean anything the author wants—but “World Peace” was mostly apolitical. It made political statements just as infrequently as any other sketch show, except opposite the typical direction, with the trio tipping their culturally right-wing hand every now and then.
This, combined with Hyde retweeting too-edgy Twitter accounts, put a bad taste in the mouths of powerful entertainment industry figures that couldn’t be ignored. Judd Apatow, perhaps the single most important name in comedy today, directly spoke to Adult Swim chief Mike Lazzo to get him to cancel the show, according to Hyde.
Even comics inside the network, such as Brett Gelman and Vic Berger, used their pull to put the accursed Trump supporters in their place. The network executives, including ones from minority groups, were bummed out, but the cancellation was a casualty of the narrative that Adult Swim doesn’t hire enough women. Whether a narrative is true doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether the accusation is loud enough to get our cultural gods to stoop to notice. Something, someone, had to be sacrificed to appease them, so why not make it non-believers?
Gelman and Berger make all of this a neat little package. Their respective productions are surreal in a way that may be on the same level as “World Peace,” but more important than any similarities are their differences. Where there was a practical cottage industry of news and commentary articles about “World Peace” being badthink, the two other comics got nothing but praise for being supposedly bold.
The tediously unfunny “Brett Gelman’s Dinner in America” aimed to tackle racism in the United States, and its trailer showed Gelman—the absolute maverick that he is—burning a Confederate flag. Whoah, can you do that? I think you can and I think that zero important people will care, but the Los Angeles Times hailed him as a bold satirist nonetheless. Gelman cut ties with Adult Swim in November ostensibly due to the network’s sexism and MDE’s racism, but Hyde argues that the departure was due to Gelman’s material not being funny enough to air, a position that’s hard to contradict.
Slightly less unfunny was Berger’s contribution to the “Trump is dumb xD” genre of humor favored by teenage redditors. He made a YouTube video of debate footage modified in a wacky way to make Trump look, you know, stupid. The New Yorker saw silly editing and remembered that Trump was bad, so it decided this had to be a very funny “ubiquitous and enigmatic” work of satire. Wired literally called Berger a genius in its headline for making the video, so I’ll just leave it at that.
These two are iconoclasts in the way that America loves, courageously standing up to speak in favor of those things we’re supposed to believe and against all those things that everyone hates. Grafting an air of the outlandish and experimental to unquestioning devotion to the new American civil religion is an obvious way of having a cake and eating it too. It simultaneously gives the rush of feeling like a punk-rock rebel while providing the cocoon-like reassurance of being in line with the ruling ideology. Everyone wants to feel daring while never actually being in any danger.
The truth is that leftists aren’t dissenters anymore, despite the increasingly desperate theatrics to somehow seem that way. For something to be dissent it has to be able to hurt the dissenter. No substantive penalties, no dissent. MDE crossed the wrong boundaries, and got their show cancelled.
Everyone else “violates” boundaries so worn-down from routine traffic that it’s hard to even identify them as boundaries any more. Their shows are safe. They’re safe no matter how far left you go. That’s because leftists, even the “radical” ones, are not in the business of actually challenging the powerful, but of petitioning the powerful to move the slider even further in their direction.
You didn’t change, American, but the ground slid under you and things now look different. Laws and boundaries exist for a reason. With the ugliness of law-breakers and boundary-crossers, it couldn’t be more obvious. How was it that you were the first to figure this out?