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In the first episode of Comedy Central’s new nightly satirical late-night series The Opposition With Jordan Klepper, the host explains why he jumped ship from The Daily Show, where he’d been a correspondent since 2014. The Jordan Klepper who cocked his eyebrow through Daily Show field segments in a perfect burlesque of the detached, just-the-facts-ma’am reporter, he insists, was just playing a part; the real Jordan Klepper is the guy sitting behind his very own desk, a self-styled leader of “the new alternative media.” Klepper continues, “If you see me, in an interview or a deposition, say that I’m playing a character, that’s because in that moment I’m simply playing a character who, to throw them off the scent, would say that he’s playing a character. Because the truth is, I’m not playing a character. Except when I am. Close quote.”
It’s a joke that rewards the informed viewer. You’d have to know that Alex Jones, the right-wing radio host and conspiracy theorist that Klepper is parodying — the Bill O’Reilly to Klepper’s Stephen Colbert — used the “performance artist” defense in a recent custody battle. (Jones lost.) Like a lot of the jokes on The Opposition, which premiered on September 25 with so-far mixed results, the target is the crazy-making strain of confrontational conservative media outlets like Jones’s InfoWars, Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze, and the mothership, Breitbart, brought to you by Steve Bannon and his billionaire backers, the Mercers.
The show is an effective illustration of the dilemma this new species of right-wing media has hoisted on mainstream and left-leaning outlets: how to present truth to a fractured public increasingly devoted to conspiratorial madness. Do you match the super-heated far-right rhetoric with an equally outrageous left-wing version? Or do you occupy a higher ground — a safe space from inflammatory speculation and flat-out bullshit? The Opposition has opted for the latter, with disappointingly milquetoast results.
The Opposition is claiming fertile territory. Colbert’s departure from Comedy Central in 2014, for CBS’s Late Show, left a void in the field. The Daily Show, with Trevor Noah, wins decent ratings, and new-ish, quasi-journalistic iterations from Daily Show alum Samantha Bee at TBS and John Oliver at HBO have successfully channeled liberal outrage while producing genuinely informative segments on topics like Trump’s judicial appointments, gerrymandering, and the NRA. But since Colbert abandoned his right-wing persona to play it straight at CBS, there hasn’t been a go-to comedian to parody increasingly nutty far-right media figures like Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Dana Loesch, who have been emboldened and in some cases even legitimized by the election of Donald Trump.
Two weeks in, it appears Jordan Klepper is not that comedian. Although The Opposition’s production design reflects the fiery, crouching-in-the-bunker sensibility of an Alex Jones — Klepper’s desk is littered with a giant microphone, like Jones’s, and thick packets of documents that they don’t want you to see — Klepper doesn’t (can’t? won’t?) commit to the character the way that Colbert did. There’s a perpetual glimmer in the comedian’s eyes, a wink that assures his undoubtedly liberal audience that he’s on their side. Whether he’s jocularly engaging in some ritual Hillary-bashing, oozing disgust for NFL players who take the knee during the national anthem, or attacking “the failing New York Times, the Amazon Washington Post, and the slutty Cedar Rapids Gazette,” Klepper pays only dutiful lip service to the talking points of the vast right-wing conspiracy. (Right-wing radio shouter Mark Levin at least calls it the Washington Compost. Now that’s funny.) The character he plays isn’t nearly as wild as the real Alex Jones, who literally calls Democrats lizard people and devil worshippers and who, never forget, sprang to prominency on the claim that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax.
Even the writing staff can’t seem to bring themselves to go full truther. The show is peppered with jokey asides that undermine the put-on right-wing bias, like when Klepper pauses his in-character admonishment of kneeling athletes to make a jab at the Giants (“even the bad teams took a knee”), or declares he’d follow Sarah Palin anywhere: “To Alabama, to Alaska, or to complete anonymity.”
Then there’s the obvious: Klepper is far too handsome and affable to play a vulgarity like Alex Jones. While the show surrounds Klepper with various “citizen journalists” — like “First Amendment champions and social provocateurs Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson,” who play eye-rolling, head-tossing versions of Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulous — everyone orbits around him, a straight, white, 38-year-old man who’s got the physical stature and vocal tone to convey the kind of authority we’re used to seeing behind a desk. That sure sounds like the kind of person who could make it in conservative media, but it muddies the comparison to a Jones-like blowhard, which makes me suspect that Comedy Central simply wanted to give a show to Klepper, and this is what they came up with. Instead of feeling a sense of truth-to-power catharsis, The Opposition mostly left me feeling a sense of Jesus Christ, Comedy Central, what is it gonna take for you to greenlight a late-night show anchored by a woman?!
“I’m not trying to have it both ways,” Klepper jests. “I’m succeeding at having it both ways.” But really, The Opposition is trying to have it both ways; it wants to, in the terms of click-bait headlines, totally eviscerate its right-wing targets without offending the gentler sensibilities of its left-wing audience. In between monologues delivered in front of a cluttered corkboard and hushed promises to keep crusading for the repeal of Obamacare, Klepper welcomes a succession of comfortably progressive guests, journalists and lawyers and activists, who would fit right in at the headquarters of Crooked Media and who gamely giggle through their talking points. It’s 2017; what kind of corn-fed liberal white boy would dare to sit across from DeRay Mckesson and speak in the thundering voice of Alex Jones? Not Jordan Klepper, apparently.
And for that matter, what liberal viewer would want him to? For all the comparisons to The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, The Opposition faces a greater challenge than those shows in lampooning the ludicrousies of life — and media — under President Trump. Even more than Fox News in the 1990s and early 2000s, the new, and newly empowered, branch of right-wing media the show intends to spoof upends the typical anchor-comic dynamic. Who’s the straight guy here and who’s the clown — Alex Jones or Jordan Klepper? Is Jones doing a bit when he describes liberals as “inter-dimensional invaders” hell-bent on “intergalactic invasion”? Or is he dead serious? Who’s the adult in the room?
There isn’t one, not with Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Jimmy Kimmel has had a successful run of viral hits lately, shedding real tears for the collapse of congressional oversight and forcefully criticizing Senator Bill Cassidy, the co-sponsor of the most recent Obamacare repeal attempt and a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live! back in May. Kimmel’s recent monologues on healthcare repeal and gun control have cut through the fog of the news-and-commentary cycle with their unabashed sincerity. That’s not an argument for eradicating late-night satire; The President Show, also on Comedy Central, is effective simply because it takes aim squarely at the president himself, in the uncanny form of Anthony Atamanuik, who does the best Trump impression I’ve seen. But The Opposition clouds its commentary in so many layers of irony, you have to squint to make out its targets.
Watching the show feels like scrolling through your Twitter feed at the end of a long day; here’s a knowing joke about legislating women’s bodies; there’s an ironic gag related to the latest rollback of environmental regulations. Har, har. “We’re all controlled by the same elite puppet masters,” Klepper quips in the premiere. “It’s why they all ‘agree’ on certain ‘facts.’ ” It’s funny because it’s true. But it’s not really funny.