“The crucial distinction between systems is no longer ideological. The main political differences are between those who do — and those who do not think the citizen is the property of the state.”
- Christopher Hitchens Letters to a Young Contrarian
I often don’t have trouble with opening sentences, but something here is eluding me. For one, I probably should’ve picked a different title, though I’m going to leave it as is. I should’ve because there’s really no part of me that believes defining World Peace — a sketch comedy show by three white men which aired early in the morning on Adult Swim for six episodes — “Alt Right” helps anyone understand anything. I have trouble defining what “Alt Right” means. I used that Hitchens quote above because that’s about as close as I can seem to get to understanding. Woke people want everyone to think the way they do, to get on the team. In no small part — they seem to believe that everybody belongs to them (or at least anybody who matters). They are the kinds of people who believe the citizen is property of the state (as long as it is their state).
This constitutes something of a political shift since, for much of the 20th century, the liberal party was the party of radicals, individualists. One of my favorite political summations that I read some years ago went like this: Liberals tend to overestimate their uniqueness, Republicans tend to overestimate the consensus. One might simplify this into — everybody is overestimating something. And recently, it seems, liberal journalists seem to overestimate the threat of this nebulous “Alt Right.”
Yet there is a part of me — me who is watching YouTube videos, old Million Dollar Extreme sketches (this is that sketch groups internet tag of sorts) reading articles, specifically this one from Buzzfeed which seemed to help to contribute to the cancellation of the show, watching interviews with Sam Hyde and being reminded of that clever send up he did on TED talks — there is a part of me that kinda gets what these journalists are complaining about. There is something in Hyde (who is only one third of the comedy troupe that put together World Peace but has done the most independent work. Seems the most interested in a comedic “career”) there’s something about him that has an in-your-face attitude. Gives off an aura of “personality — unchained.” (For better and worse.)
Perhaps there was more to the cancellation of the show rather than just the political muck it seemed to rake up. It is weird. And was probably fairly expensive for episodes only 11 minutes long. Though I loved the show. It doesn’t have characters that you’re going to sit around for hours watching over and over — but the actors were occupying the new space that sketch shows like Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show had already bushwacked. The main difference (as it appeared to me) being World Peace was doing more conceptual stuff with a little bit of nastiness.
But if one is to continue the Tim and Eric comparison; that show often featured amateur regulars who were, however, of this peculiar kind whom never really seemed to get that they were the butt of a joke. The guys from World Peace make it abundantly clear. So, in a way, what comes across mean-spirited, could be rationalized as being kinder. A stripping bare of artifice. One of the points of comedy is to disrupt, by absurdity, some stance or thought mode you might have taken seriously. And it’s obvious that though Hyde might be a messy person, he is not afraid to make a fool of himself. A skill which can often highlight and exaggerate messiness. For, it seems to me, to become a truly great comic actor; one must become comfortable with saying anything.
This is not a skill that is earned trivially. Go out and try it. Try and say something offensive to somebody’s face. In part you will resist, saying; no, it’s not productive, it hurts relationships. And you’re right. As a reasonable professional you understand that relationships are all that matter. But they are not everything. They are not the individual inside.
I watched one interview with Hyde where he talks about when he was growing up he ended up alienating everyone. Later in his life he leaned into this. But it is not because he lacks empathy, he just became aware that he was not going to be a part of the group. And if there is anything ‘alt right’ it’s that. The groupless looking for the people who get it, who also don’t feel a part of any group. But there’s also an inherent paradox — such a group will never really come to be. Its main feature is the grouplessness. A feature which is only tackled by friendship, knowing how willing the other party is to push themselves. To debase their characters, poke fun at anything and everything. It’s likely that if the entire world was filled with such people a kind of chaos would ensue (or perhaps not, perhaps an impossible utopia) but are such people dangerous enough that they can’t have their own show? Honestly there is some part of me that finds it bizarre to be arguing for a TV sketch show canceled four years ago, but it’s the kind of thing that is hard to replace.
“Any fool can lampoon a king or a bishop or a billionaire. A trifle more grit is required to face down a mob or even a studio audience that has decided that it knows what it wants and is entitled to get it.”
- Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian
One of the challenges of life is that you have to be somewhere, and often that somewhere-ness is random. Doesn’t quite add up. If there’s solace in comedy, watching programs edging towards absurdity, it’s because we get an escape from a prescribed notion of what is natural. Edgy left leaning shows usually take on this ‘natural’ construct with sexuality.
Specifically, I’m thinking of the fairly recent show on Comedy Central called Broad City. If you’ve never seen it I’d recommend it. It’s at its most transgressive when our two leading young women talk of “pussy swallowing” a date — taking back some of the agency of their sexuality (whether or not most women would actually want this is another matter). Though I liked the show, I can’t help but think of a specific episode. In the year of the 2016 presidential election they had a hero-worship episode that featured an appearance by Hilary Clinton. I can’t get this comparison out of my head because obviously the guys running World Peace would never have platformed a politician in that way. Yet they are the ones who are dangerously political?
Let’s talk about the actual show Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace, for a minute. I’ll start with an obvious sketch, one highlighted by Bernstein in his article labeling World Peace as ‘Alt-Right.’
In the sketch Hyde is doing a version of black face. But the joke is not aimed at black people, its aim is posturing. Watching a dorky white guy put up this facade pokes fun at facade, not black people. Albeit it does also happen that a lot of hip-hop culture trades on facade - but it doesn’t matter your racial identity to find this kind of thing worth poking fun at. World Peace means to poke fun at all things that have an aura of identity politics. A measure I think well and good and desperately lacking from our cultural mediums.
But really, most of World Peace is esoteric stoner comedy. It has other vaguely offensive sketches such as a musical number where kids and adults in a colorful setpiece sing the phrase “Jews Rock!” But the sketch is not long and has a clever twist. It turns the cameras onto the executives sitting in chairs watching the proceedings while checking their phones. The joke here being “Look what we made these people give us money for.” Now maybe that’s not a great joke, but it’s not anything other than a joke.
Unfortunately its easy to get lost in a political quagmire. Watching defense videos for World Peace - its boring and disappointing how quickly the commentators will fall into conspiracies like the Zionist control of the media and blah blah blah. Much of the reason for canceling Hyde specifically was a series of tweets he sent out, and there’s part of me that just wants to encourage the guy to get out of his own damn way. When you’ve got talent your obligation is to your talent, not politics. But perversely, my suspicion with Hyde is that he has learned that his base is interested in that kind of thing and he has leaned into it. When he understood that he was never going to be accepted by the mainstream it seems he doubled back into the fringe. And on that front I can hardly blame him. I myself sometimes find it tempting. Traditional publishing seems to have very little interest in me, but unlike Hyde, there’s virtually no way I could support myself as an independent writer. Hyde has his own channel on the internet called MDE.tv — perhaps one day I will pay the fee and do reasearch on it but I don’t know who would care enough to read my results.
That was one of the good things about World Peace as compared to the stuff Hyde independently creates. Having a partner like Nick Rochefort write out and act in sketches — like the beautiful and surreal ‘stoned teacher sketch’ where Rochefort sits at a desk at the bottom of an inclined plane, possibly inspired by this great Australian sketch of a man coming home drunk — the collaboration and money gave them more options. I feel a bit melancholy that they didn’t get to keep pursuing that way of creation, who knows what else they would’ve come up with?
Their show had a rough-and-tumble editing style (as far as I understand Hyde, Rochefort and Carrol all met at a prestigious film production school) mixed with the chaos and fun of improvisation. What I like best about their style often includes individual takes where the actors break character. Introducing mini outtakes into the show itself. It’s a style that keeps sketch comedy fresh. A new kind of style that has much in common with podcasts. A mix of the real and the produced.
Now, to return to my question if World Peace was actually “Alt-Right.” I think the only intellectually honest response is: probably. Even if I’m still unsure what I’m supposed to find frightening about this. Really, if this article has a question, it’s: what did these liberal journalists like Joe Bernstein actually think they were accomplishing? Especially now, looking back, you can see how their intentions are in many ways having the opposite effect. It’s almost too generous to call what they are doing journalism. It’s like a kind of PC muck-racking. They think they’re cleaning house but they end up using all the wrong tools. They just spread the dirt around. You know what it feels like? There’s a Corporation of the State and these journalists are the dreaded ‘human resource managers’.
Losing the Corporate Culture War
“Be suspicious of those who use the term “we” or “us” without your permission. This is another form of surreptitious conscription. Designed to suggest that we are all agreed about our interests and identity. Populist authoritarians try to slip it past you. Always ask who this “we” is — as often as not it’s an attempt to slip tribalism through the customs.”
- Hitchens Letters to a Young Contrarian
This quote is a notion so close to my mind I’m often boggled by how quickly and unthinkingly someone will repeat a phrase like “We’re all in this together.” In, what, exactly? Yes this is a rhetorical question — because there’s so many different ways of thinking about this question to expound on all the options would get tiresome, quickly. Suffice it to say; one must expect exclusion if one wants to think freely. Freedom of thought is important for coming up with funny sketch ideas or transgressive pieces of fiction. One must be able to follow a train of thought even if it comes up with an erroneous conclusion, or even just a banal one. More often than not this is what happens. The failure rate in thinking is enormous. Getting comfortable with that is not the corporate game. But you’d think that if there was one group of people who were willing to give a little lee-way, a little benefit of the doubt to the new and edgy, proponents of free thought; it would be a group like journalists. These days, I’m often embarrassed to be even loosely associated with them. I’m embarrassed of Medium. Who needs Chinese state controlled censorship when publishers have already decided what kind of personality is going to write the article on the front page?
A reasonable conformer rationalizes that it’s their way to make a living. But it doesn’t have to be. If World Peace was ‘alt-right’ I suppose liking it makes me ‘alt-right’. Then, by that logic, I should hate a show like Broad City and should do my utmost to trash it. But I didn’t and I wouldn’t. Even if I don’t agree with everything (I mean, how could I? I will never completely understand the kind of attention an attractive young woman in her 20’s is capable of getting. Positive and negative) going out of my way to try and get it canceled seems silly. So why was it Ok to do it the other way round?
It’s not news that journalism for a while now has indulged in knowing who their side is. And often that side is The Corporation of the State. But there will be a very long and dry winter of culture if this is allowed to continue. There’s enough material to tide us over. I didn’t even get around to watching World Peace until this year for god’s sake. But one is not encouraged by that show’s fate. Not saying wrong words (cancel culture) has, if anything, gotten more pronounced. And the use of “WE” is a phrase on many lips. I’m an optimist so I doubt much major catastrophe, but I’d bet that TV, and comedic TV especially, is going to be boring for a while again.