When Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart announced in relatively quick succession that they were each leaving their posts on Comedy Central, it was hard not to shake the feeling that the nation was losing a one-of-a-kind source of political satire. Colbert and Stewart didn’t just offer the public quality satire with a sharp bite; they also became a trusted source of news in an increasingly sensationalized media landscape.
There is no question that, despite a long and illustrious history of political satire in America, Colbert and Stewart redefined the genre and amplified its public impact. Colbert’s neologisms from “The Word” segment became part of the nation’s daily lexicon, and Stewart’s pointed attacks on “bullshit mountain” were legendary. The more absurd the political landscape, the more sense it made to seek sanity in the comedy of Colbert and Stewart. Many of us worried that when they abandoned their posts, political satire would never recover.
Flash-forward to today and, while it is still easy to miss the comedic punch of the Colbert-Stewart duo, we have to admit that political satire is thriving in our nation. With politics, pundits and the media offering up an endless array of source material, we have more options for political comedy than ever.
Not only is Trevor Noah coming into his own as host of “The Daily Show,” but Comedy Central also offers “The Jim Jefferies Show” and “The President Show,” which each contribute their own take on the political follies of the moment. Across cable and the big three networks we also have John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, Lee Camp’s “Redacted Tonight,” Colbert on “The Late Show,” and “Saturday Night Live” with “Weekend Update” and hard-hitting political impersonations. In the passage from the George W. Bush era to the Trumpocalypse there is little question that political satire has been on the rise with an ever-expanding menu for audiences to consume.
But there was still something missing. At least until this week.
This Monday, Jordan Klepper transitioned from his role as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” to hosting his own show, “The Opposition.” “The Opposition” airs in the same slot as “The Colbert Report” did on Comedy Central, but that isn’t the only similarity between the two shows.
“The Colbert Report” was a rare form of political satire. Neither impersonation (i.e. Alec Baldwin doing Trump) nor smartass wit (i.e. Stewart), both “The Colbert Report” and “The Opposition” are examples of in-character satire, which require the comedian to embody a personality. Rather than mock the object of ridicule, in-character satire emulates the comedic target. Colbert in character was a parody of a conservative pundit, mainly modeled on Bill O’Reilly and Fox News. Klepper is taking aim at the "alt-right," so he has modeled his character on Alex Jones and the alt-media platforms of InfoWars, Breitbart, and The Blaze.
Klepper has already been asked repeatedly about the commonalities between his show and Colbert’s. He explains that, while they had similar formats, his new show is responding to a different media landscape than the one that framed “The Colbert Report.” “We have to tell our stories through a different mind-set, a different filter,” he points out. “We have to make it about now.”
Asked to think about the links between “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” and “The Opposition,” Klepper explains that Noah uses a straightforward, earnest approach to exposing “bullshit,” whereas he gets “to be the flawed personality who peddles that bullshit.”
It’s a synergy that is highly reminiscent of the Stewart-Colbert duo. In fact, Colbert himself described an almost identical pattern. As he explained in a 2009 interview, when he and Stewart were at the top of their game: “Jon deconstructs the news in a really brilliant comedic style. I take the sausage backwards, and I restuff the sausage. We deconstruct, but then we don't show anybody our deconstruction. We reconstruct — we falsely construct the hypocrisy. And I embody the bullshit until hopefully you can smell it.”
In-character satire is without question the hardest satire to perfect. You have to be an exaggerated version of the thing you are mocking, without inadvertently making the object of your ridicule look good or you look stupid. It’s an extremely delicate balance. And Colbert’s character was arguably the best example of a long-running satirical parody in U.S. history. It’s a tough act to follow.
But after just one week, Klepper shows signs that he may well be up to the task. The first four episodes of “The Opposition” were better with each passing day: Thursday night's was the best of the four, since Klepper and his team could settled into their roles and avoid clunky intros.
Here are four ways his new show is taking “The Colbert Report” to the next level, adjusting the comedy for the times.
1. The thesis statement
While it’s easy to focus attention on the ways that in-character satire requires that the comedian embody a personality they find ridiculous, the key to this type of show is actually its thesis statement. The thesis statement is the framing concept for the whole show, and it goes well beyond the confines of the personality or personalities that the comedian embodies. The thesis statement is what distinguishes in-character satire from impersonation.
The thesis statement of “The Colbert Report” was the idea of “truthiness.” Colbert explains it this way, “how you feel is more important than what the facts are, and that the truth that you feel is correct is more important than anything that the facts could support.”
The thesis statement of “The Opposition” — what they are calling their “golden rule” — is "May you only hear from others what you've already been telling yourself."
While the two ideas are very much connected, the core difference is that Colbert targeted the war on truth; Klepper, in contrast, targets the war on knowledge. He is focused not just on the problem of facts, but on the problem of how we think about facts.
Klepper launched his thesis statement on his opening show, much in the same way that Colbert launched “truthiness” on day one. “[The mainstream media] smuggles their dangerous ideas across the open borders of your mind," Klepper said Monday night. "I want to shut down those borders. I want to close your mind. It’s called mental nationalism, and it’s an idea whose time has come.”
As Klepper’s character has insisted throughout his debut week, he does not want to learn anything he doesn't already know.
Comparing the thesis statements of the two shows is an excellent way to see how Klepper is adjusting his show to the contemporary context of echo chambers and confirmation bias. It isn’t just that we live in an era of alternative facts; it is that there is an increasing tendency to be suspicious of what we don’t already know. Facts are only part of the problem. The real worry is that we have lost our ability to think about them. The problem Klepper is targeting isn’t just alt-facts; it is mental atrophy. There is nothing better than in-character satire to expose that exact sort of brain rot.
2. The role model
Colbert’s character was focused on emulating and exaggerating conservative pundits like O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. When he launched his show, those talking heads had amassed an audience of loyal followers who tuned in to hear their favorite pundit call out the liberal media, hype a culture of fear and stoke political polarization.
Today, while the conservative pundit persona is still going strong, it is the "alt-right" personalities who are ruling the day. They don’t just concoct polarizing battles between left and right; instead, they ramp up full-blown hysteria via conspiracy theories, fake news, xenophobia and virulent anger at just about everything. They make O’Reilly’s completely biased “No Spin Zone” seem tame.
To mirror the times, Klepper’s character is influenced by Alex Jones of InfoWars, Steve Bannon of Breitbart and Jesse Watters from Fox News. Old school conservative, Republican, Fox News-style punditry is replaced by bigoted, lunatic, extremist characters who don’t champion anything other than their own views.
Klepper described his character's models this way: “They all see being transgressive as something that is ultimately positive, that automatically makes you authentic. They’re opportunists, and they know how to sell their brand.”
As the promos for “The Opposition” made clear, Klepper’s character “won’t stand for anything.” In contrast, Colbert used to describe his character as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot."
3. The set
One of the best ways to see the difference between the two shows is by looking at their sets and by noticing how they relate to their audience.
Colbert’s set was pure Americana, a move that heightened his self-defined role as a protector of American values. Klepper’s set is modeled after a survival bunker — a perfect haven for a paranoid conspiracy theorist.
Colbert used to swoop in on screen during the opening sequence riding a flag and accompanied by an American eagle. Klepper opens by standing next to a bulletin board laden with conspiracy theory notes. On the first week we read one that suggested that Taylor Swift is a shill for the Democratic Party and another calling for Hillary Clinton’s impeachment. When Klepper sits down we can see an American flag hanging backwards behind him.
The sets establish a stark contrast between the shows. Colbert’s was responding to the way that right-wing pundits like O’Reilly imagined themselves as champions of American values. He focused on how after 9/11, the right wing appropriated patriotism and maintained that those on the left hated their country.
Klepper, in contrast, is focused on a fringe right that imagines itself at war with “the establishment,” which often includes the conservative Republican establishment as well as the Democrats. Klepper even addresses his viewers as “couch warriors.” Colbert referred to his audience as the “Colbert nation.”
Thus the set of “The Opposition” stages the idea of a host poised for apocalypse, civil war or some other sort of political Armageddon. It’s a sharp way of staging the deep differences between the context for “The Colbert Report” and “The Opposition.”
4. The context
When Fox News was founded in 1996 it launched as a channel that would be “fair and balanced” in a media landscape Fox characterized as dominated by coastal liberal elites. By the time “The Colbert Report” first aired in 2005, the dominance of the Fox News mentality was in full swing.
One of the core issues that Colbert attacked with his satire was the way that Fox News “felt the news at you,” as he put it on his first show. Fox News, along with its cousins on other conservative media outlets, was populated by a string of pundits who, rather than allow the viewer to form their own opinion, worked viewers up into an emotional state. Fox News got the facts truly right only 10 percent of the time, but the bigger problem was that they focused on appealing to viewer’s emotions. Colbert’s show exaggerated that approach, allowing his audience to become aware of it.
Klepper, in contrast, is up against a far more radical media landscape. In fact, Klepper explains that it was his coverage of Trump rallies that revealed to him the way that “the fringe had become mainstream." Thus, rather than emulate Fox News style news coverage, Klepper is embodying alt-media or what he calls the “flamestream media.”
The presidency of George W. Bush framed the political backdrop for “The Colbert Report.” Klepper has to contend with Trump and his kakistocracy. But the core difference between the politics of the shows is that Colbert’s character would never question Bush; meanwhile, Klepper as Jones and his ilk will question everything.
Mocking the way the alt-media prides itself on following absolutely none of the rules of objective reporting, he quipped this week that “You don’t hear that kind of thought from vetted sources.”
Klepper’s media foil lives primarily on the internet, not cable. And it is, as he puts it, “anti-everything, anti-mainstream, anti-knowledge, and anti-progress.”
There is now significant data to support the claim that the circulation of fake news stories on social media helped Trump win. A recent Stanford study shows that fake news tended to favor Trump over Clinton and that Trump supporters were more likely to circulate fake news stories. This means that Klepper’s real media context is that of fake news, whereas Colbert had to contend with the relatively tamer biased coverage of Fox News.
Calling Jones a “glistening slab of Texas Truth” and showing clips of InfoWars where he claims that the Clintons practice voodoo or that Michelle Obama is a man, “The Opposition” gives its audience a chance to stare into the "alt-right" media void through the comedic prism of satire. As Newsweek explains, Klepper’s comedy makes it possible to venture into an “overwhelming and depressing world.”
Jones gave Klepper a gift by going after him even before his show launched, allowing Klepper to use clips from that rant on his first episode. The Jones rant focused on the idea that Comedy Central viewers are mentally deficient and have been lulled into comas by lefty comedy: “They will say things and do things every night to create a branding for the type of mentally retarded people who believe” Comedy Central, Jones warned – “people that have been induced into these comas.”
As Jones rants about "retarded" viewers in comas, there is nothing more satisfying than to think he will be the dark matter that provides energy to “The Opposition.” And that is because in-character satire is inherently one of the smartest forms of satire. Satire is always designed to counter stupidity, but in-character satire is the smartest of them all because it requires the viewer to detect both irony and parody. Everything the host says has to be filtered through the image that they are emulating in an ironic way. The cognitive functions required to process this type of satire are a welcome antidote to the incoherent, lunatic ravings that dominate "alt-right" media.
Klepper, like Colbert, isn’t really trying to dismantle his comedic foil; he’s just trying to keep the rest of us sane in an increasingly insane world. One week in, he and his team have launched a valiant battle to protect our mental nationalism.