"I just think we're very cynical people, and cynical people tend to be right more often than not."
Whether or not you personally agree with Trevor Moore's observation, the comedian's philosophy is all over the work of "The Whitest Kids U' Know" (WKUK), a sketch comedy group whose self-titled TV show (2007-2011) has become a cult classic. It also may explain why the group's political sketches seem eerily prophetic today.
It just so happens that in the process of making us laugh about the problems they observed in America during their show's run — and which have gotten so much worse — they foresaw the advent of the Trump era. Their sketches also manage to speak directly to the problems of our time.
This is not intended to say that their material never crossed over to the problematic. For instance, although their name "The Whitest Kids U Know" was based on a joke made about them by a friend, one could argue that it is a little tone-deaf more than a decade later. That said, as the world has finally awoken to Black Lives Matter, the group's 2008 sketch "Be a Cop" (discussed below) directly addresses the police's excessive use of force. Salon reached out to a member of the group to get their current thoughts on their name after our original interviews, but was unable to receive a response prior to publication. While their name may not have aged well, however, it is a testament to their comedy skill that — even as they made us laugh — they also made us think.
Below, Salon spoke to each member of the group – Moore, along with Timmy Williams, Zach Cregger, Sam Brown, and Darren Trumeter – to break down seven of the sketches that have proven especially relevant to the world we inhabit in 2020.
"Presidential Props" (2009)
Starring Williams as an idealistic senator at a presidential debate intent on discussing issues like fighting poverty and ending America's latest war, the sketch takes a turn for the absurd (or so it seemed at the time) when the other candidates begin using props to distract each other as well as win over the crowd with cheap entertainment. This sketch gives insight into how people like Trump get elected president. Of course, after Trump's performances in the 2016 and 2020 debates — where he indulged in "braggadociousness" (his own word) while disingenuously denying doing so and, in the first 2020 debate, repeatedly interrupted former Vice President Joe Biden — the sketch's central joke seems more like a slight exaggeration.
"I don't think we knew that we were on this trajectory," Cregger said. Both this sketch and another one (see below) "are about that tendency of American culture to blend entertainment into its politics. And I think that 2016 was sort of the logical outcome of that sort of innate desire in all of us. It sucks because you then end up with a f***ing moron reality star as your president."
"President Trump is a symptom of the disease, not the start of it," Williams added. "So I think that those things were already there when we made those sketches, our tendencies toward worshiping celebrities and distracting ourselves with shiny objects. And it's only gotten worse."
"As a comedian, you don't hold a mirror up to society; you hold a funhouse mirror up to society," Brown explained. "As someone looking into a funhouse mirror could look and be like, 'Oh, this is what I would look like if I was super overweight in this part of my body,' all the negative stuff was there. We just happen to be living in that part of history where we're fat."
Of course, while it's funny to see yourself looking distorted in a funhouse mirror, Cregger observed it's just depressing when that becomes an accurate reflection.
"Now the person is on life support and at death's door. It's just not funny anymore," Cregger mused. "Everything is ruined. You could kind of hint at it and poke fun at it because society was kind of sick this way, but now we're f***ed."
"Ronald Reagan" (2009)
A fictionalized account of how President Ronald Reagan was nearly assassinated by John W. Hinckley in 1981, this sketch has a number of jokes about the intersection of celebrity and politics. A decrepit Reagan (Cregger) is met by adoring fans who love his past work in a silly movie about a pet monkey (a reference to his starring role in the 1951 comedy "Bedtime for Bonzo") and returns the adulation by (a) using the original "Star Wars" trilogy to legitimize his aggressive foreign policy and (b) talking about movies in general instead of answering questions about the AIDS epidemic (which Reagan refused to even acknowledge for many years) and his unprecedented budget deficits. While all of this is happening, Hinckley (Moore) is being manipulated by Vice President George H. W. Bush (Brown) into assassinating Reagan, an effort that only succeeds when Bush learns that Hinckley is also obsessed with movies and convinces him that "Taxi Driver" star Jodie Foster will make out with him if he assassinates Reagan.
Incidentally, while the stuff about Bush being behind the Reagan assassination attempt is fictional, the aforementioned jokes about pop culture being used to distract the masses from important issues are historically accurate. Reagan was very much like Trump, a man who became a public figure as an entertainer and used his celebrity to rise to the presidency, even as he pursued terrible policies.
"The sad thing is that this isn't going to die," Brown told Salon. "Even if Trump loses, these people that are still like, 'No, it was cool having a dumb guy president' are still going to be out there. 'He's a dumb piece of s*** like me!'"
Williams noted the downward trajectory that American politics has taken since the Reagan years, pointing out that at least "Reagan had some experience," while Trump is the first president to lack any previous political or military experience. "I think 10 years from now, there'll be more similarities when someone reveals, 'Hey, Trump had all this horrible amnesia and f***ing dementia that we had to pretend didn't exist.'" He agreed with Brown that things are only going to get worse, speculating that "I can certainly see Kid Rock or some asshole like that trying to run in 2028 or 2024."
"Why not the f***ing Paul brothers?" Williams said, referring to both Logan Paul and his fellow YouTube star, Jake Paul. "You guys are right. That's the trajectory because you go from movie star to reality star to YouTube star. It's perfect. It's a perfect downward angle." Cregger holds out hope that America can still make a "course correction."
"The goal is to try to get things more progressive, but you have to get back on the game board to do that right now," Williams explained. "It's like the pieces fell off onto the floor. We just need to get back on track a little bit, at least get someone who's got a little empathy and forethought."
"It's illegal to Say..." (2007)
Stylistically this is one of the group's simpler sketches. It shows Moore sitting on a stool in front of a generic backdrop explaining how it is illegal to say, "I want to kill the President of the United States of America." Of course, Moore then proceeds to continue saying it, finding progressively more elaborate phrasings that even he admits are "extremely illegal" and "ridiculously, horribly felonious" and adding, "They will come to your house in the middle of the night and they will lock you up" if you utter them.
Moore argued that this was probably their most controversial sketch.
"As far as making a big splash, I don't think you can beat going to the Supreme Court," Moore explained. He was referring to the case of Elonis v. United States, one in which a man named Anthony Douglas Elonis repurposed Moore's monologue into a diatribe against his wife and made other controversial online posts that he characterized as "art." Although he was eventually convicted on multiple counts of making threats (including the one involving his estranged wife), the Supreme Court reversed his conviction in 2015 in an 8 to 1 decision. Chief Justice John G. Roberts explained in the Opinion of the Court that they did not prove mens rea, or the state of a "guilty mind" required for convictions in certain types of crimes.
"We didn't realize [that the sketch had gone to the Supreme Court] until someone called me and they're like, 'They're playing your kill the president sketch on the nightly news,'" Moore recalled, adding that he found it "hilarious because it means like all of the Supreme Court justices had to watch our stupid sketch."
"Even RBG!" Williams added admiringly of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
"There's an irony to it in that the sketch itself was about how there there's laws against you making threats against this person who in a sense is an idea — we don't actually know the president [George W. Bush at that time] — and here's a way that we're going to express this angst, this broad angst" Brown said, adding that they did this while at the same time managing to "kind of sidestep it. And then someone else took what we did and then used it in a way where no, you shouldn't do that. You shouldn't be allowed to threaten someone you actually know and can actually harm."
"Be A Cop" (2008)
In this faux recruitment commercial for joining the police, the running gag is that all of the cops featured in it are shown firing their guns without any good cause. It concludes with a disturbingly accurate statement about the psychology that motivates many police officers:
"Law enforcement offers it all: Comfortable wages, an exciting work environment and a false sense of superiority! So join the police force to serve, protect . . . and to control the poor."
"We were kids when that Rodney King thing happened, you know?" Williams reflected. "So it was something we thought that everyone agreed, like that's f***ed up, you know?"
"I just think it's kind of a bizarre place that we've gotten to where like that sketch kind of comes through this new light," Cregger added, saying that he is appalled at how opposing "police shooting Black people is somehow political, not just universally condemnable." He pointed out that police officers abusing their power has "always been a problem, and now in 2020, that's a divisive sketch. It is ridiculous. Everyone should look at that sketch, because yeah, that's kinda f***ed up."
"There was already a problem and now it's gotten even f***ing worse," Williams added regarding the issue of police racism. "So like Zach said, it's gotten more politicized than it used to be, which is just weird and stupid since it should be something everybody's against."
Brown recalled how shortly after writing the sketch from a house in Queens, "there was this guy who was at his bachelor party and was getting out of a strip club or something like that and got shot like 50 times by the police. That was a thing that happened in New York around that time."
"Be A Cop" is not their only sketch to discuss racism in American law enforcement. During their last season, the troupe made a multi-sketch series called "The Civil War on Drugs" about two potheads in the 1860s who mistakenly believe that the Civil War is about banning marijuana. Later cobbled together as a movie, it included a number of references to the horrors of racism and slavery, subversively identifying how the oppression of racial minorities associated with the former conflict still exists — albeit in a different form — in today's war on drugs.
"It's definitely overtly hinted at certain moments in the movie," Cregger said.
"We made a joke and we found, after we made the joke, we found more and more truth in it," Brown observed. "And that's kind of, I think, what made it work. It worked because there was something there."
My personal favorite among the WKUK sketches, "Back Seat" tells the story of two kids (Moore and Brown) who start pulling pranks from the back seat of their school bus while the driver (Williams) becomes increasingly suspicious. While he tolerates them throwing firecrackers and food out of the window, he draws the line and starts yelling at them when they pivot to discussing how socialism is preferable to capitalism.
"It's kinda like just being really nice and fair," Moore's character muses. Brown's character agrees, observing that "if you think about it, socialism is like everybody helping everybody else out, and capitalism is like greed." Their discussion continues, with Moore saying that "the only reason capitalism works is because it plays on man's biggest flaw" and Brown adding that capitalism constantly throws obstacles in the way of being a good person. Both students are summarily punished.
"I think there was a pretty hard critique of capitalism," Moore said. "I don't think there was a whole lot to read between the lines of that . . . I don't want to sound like a pink." Moore added that they have covered many points of view and, "if you look at all of them together, we kind of just attack any angle that we think is funny."
Williams made a similar point several months ago when interacting with this author on Twitter about a Salon interview with conservative talking head Ben Shapiro, who argued, "I do not accept your premise that we live in a society where people literally cannot afford to feed their children, [where] their children will starve without a free school lunch." After joking that it must have been difficult to not fold Shapiro into a suitcase, Williams pointed out that "he thinks every struggle that he has been too privileged to have to deal with is just a 'debate topic.'"
In one of their most pointed sketches, "Point/Counterpoint" stars Moore as an extreme right-wing firearms advocate (clearly meant to represent an NRA spokesman) and Trumeter as the host of a talk show. Despite the host's attempts to have a rational conversation, the advocate becomes increasingly unhinged as he tries to justify his positions. First he argues that hunters need handguns to hunt a hypothetical "buck" in abandoned warehouses and factories so "he won't be around with your daughter anymore and filling her head with ridiculous ideas and corrupting her character." Then he argues that kevlar-piercing bullets should be legal in case "punk kids" strap a bulletproof vest onto a bear, which would lead to the "invincible bears" running around "raping your churches, burning your women." And on it goes like that, culminating in a climax that perfectly sums up how the misinterpretations of the Second Amendment, racism, conspiracy theories and threats of violence used by the pro-gun movement are nothing more than absurd and self-aggrandizing macho posturing.
"It's making fun of the mass shootings that are perpetrated by people who believe all that kind of crazy s*** that the dude in the sketch thinks," Williams told Salon. "There's people coming for you and that they're going to do all this stuff. And so that's why we need guns, you know?"
Drawing from his personal experiences, Williams explained, "Trevor and Zach are from the South where some of that stuff is a little more prevalent too. And me, out in the boonies [Williams lives in South Dakota], there are people who think they need to have a separate building full of guns because they're coming for you, that kind of thing."
He added, "I got told by a listener on my radio station yesterday — and he's way old too but I like talking to him because he always educates me about music and requests old stuff — but he also says stuff like, 'By the way, if I don't talk to you until after the election, some people are going to be rioting and damaging this country if their person loses, just watch out. I'm like, 'Okay, thanks man.' Cause he's totally talking about Democrats, you know?"
"People think that way. It's crazy," Cregger added.
Williams and Cregger also talked about a thematically similar sketch, 2009's "Call of Duty," in which the idea that video games are somehow violent is subverted by one player's incompetence. Trump, after all, has blamed violent video games for mass shootings to displace blame from the gun lobby.
"Video games are so widespread at this point," Williams commented. "I mean, everyone has a video game on their phone, you know? It's just like, leave it alone man. It's part of who we are now."
Cregger was unconcerned about Trump trying to shift the blame to video games. "Everything Donald Trump tries to do fails. So if he wants to take a crack at ruining video games, go for it. He can't get anything done or anything right. I don't give a s***."
"Scarin' Babies" (2007)
I'm closing this with "Scarin' Babies" because, in its own way, it best captures the distinct brand of cynical progressivism that defines the group. After Moore sneaks into a baby's bedroom, he proceeds to "scare" it by explaining how he will inherit a world in which college tuition will be unaffordable and global warming will severely damage the entire planet's ecosystem. It's a brilliantly simple and effective idea: Traumatizing the young by merely letting them know that we've left a terrible world behind for them.
"It's a common theme that we've had in our show," Brown explained. "There was a lot of resentment, especially at that time, that we had about the world that our parents were leaving us. And I think that kind of rings throughout the show in a lot of different ways."
Moore also commented, when this author speculated about whether they were worried about their own children when they wrote the sketch, "that 'Scarin' Babies' thing I wrote when I was a teenager. I wasn't thinking about kids in my own at all for that. I was just scared of things."
As Americans prepare to choose between Trump and Biden in the upcoming election, we remain scared of things — indeed, many of the same things that WKUK presciently satirized a decade ago. We have a president who was elected because he was a celebrity who distracted the public with spectacle and bigotry (and might try to become a dictator), a capitalist system that has robbed millions of their futures, abusive and racist cops, global warming, rising college tuition and a generation that in general feels it has been abandoned by its elders.
But at least we can still laugh about it. That's what I did when Brown sarcastically observed about "Scarin' Babies," "Hey, at least all all that s*** has been fixed since we wrote that sketch!"