Cancelling 'The Opposition' is a Loss for Satire
The void left by the departure of Stephen Colbert almost four years ago has yet to be filled. After nine months, Jordan Klepper's The Opposition just went dark after last night's episode.
Following in the heels of a man considered to be a legend in the industry is admittedly a no-win game, but the 11:30PM timeslot has now claimed two victims for its own. First, there was The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, who failed due to a changing format and bad timing – Jon Stewart's retirement came just seven months into Nightly's run, and the show went on hiatus to prepare for Trevor Noah, causing Nightly to lose its lead-in audience (Wilmore has since switched to podcasting, a medium that suits him far better than a TV show). Midnight with Chris Hardwick was used as a stopgap (ironically moving up to 11:30PM) until it ended its run after 600 episodes last August.
Klepper is the latest in The Daily Show's long list of alumni – a group that includes Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Wyatt Cenac, and Michelle Wolf – to get their own show. Along with Hasan Minhaj, Klepper was the last major hire of the Jon Stewart era. His tenure began somewhat unevenly, as he exhibited a lack of chemistry with Jon and fellow correspondents, while switching back-and-forth with his blowhard character. But over three years and one new host, Klepper demonstrated the most improvement, even subbing in for a sick Trevor Noah in a John Oliver-esque trial run at manning the desk. The Opposition premiered a year later, garnering generally positive reviews from critics and viewers alike.
So, why did it only last nine months? An interesting twist from Comedy Central was that Klepper would immediately begin work on an eponymous show Klepper, a move unseen since actress Haley Atwell immediately transitioned from the cancelled Agent Carter to another ABC show Charisma (a horrible show that lasted only 13 episodes). Comedy Central's official statement stated that Klepper would "drive the narrative instead of regurgitate it," and that it would address "issues important to him and to the country," a sentiment that fundamentally misunderstands the role of satire, especially The Opposition's particular brand of satire. While any comedy-satire show is rooted in commentary and thus intrinsically involves some regurgitation, that premise doesn't exclude the possibility of 'driving the narrative' – an idea so abstract that it's hard to imagine what Klepper would include that The Opposition didn't.
Naturally, Klepper's character will be contrasted to Colbert's because of the obvious similarities and premise – and the fact that Klepper comes up in direct competition with Colbert's 11:30 The Late Show (which is in competition for the same demographic). Yet, it's important to understand the contrast, considering that Klepper's show comes at a different time with an entirely different impetus. Colbert tiptoed the line between serious journalism and nonsense, while Klepper balanced non-serious journalism with a modicum of common sense.
The Colbert Report parodied Bill O'Reilly, a man who dominated cable ratings and was only brought to heel by sexual misconduct allegations. O'Reilly was a behemoth not only as a host, but as a force of personality. While Alex Jones garners a substantial viewership, a non-negligible chunk of it is out of curiosity or fascination by people who are radically opposed to his views and his content. He is not someone who commands a multi-million dollar salary by a major news network and appears on mainstream shows, or even someone who is generally considered a reporter or a journalist. O'Reilly's viewers took him seriously, and he took himself seriously – a collective lack of self-awareness that allows for parody. Jones, conversely, has admitted (in a child custody battle) that his show is a piece of performance art, and his day-to-day persona . While O'Reilly's persona could be encapsulated by the word 'obnoxious', Jones' is more along the lines of 'manic'. Consequently, any parody of Jones is not necessarily a parody of the man, but rather the worldview – a paranoid, crazed, conspiracy theorist who railed against mainstream media. Klepper uses correspondents more frequently than even Trevor Noah, using his show to mock the entire InfoWars platform (Colbert, notably, never utilized correspondents).
Quick Tangent: Colbert had the interesting position of having his name attached to the show. It wasn't The Report with Stephen Colbert, rather, it was The Colbert Report. It was different from franchises like The Daily Show because, well, it wasn't a franchise but a standalone show. Most of late night abides by the franchise naming convention, including The Late Show, The Late Late Show, Late Night, The Tonight Show, and more. If there were ever any chance at replacing Colbert in a plug-and-chug move when he left at the end of 2014, this weird logistical difficulty made that near impossible (because 'Colbert' and 'report' kind of rhyme, I guess). Besides, at the time, playing a show completely in character (while retaining one's name) was seen as a unique talent, one that supposedly only Colbert could have pulled off.
The Opposition wasn't singularly focused on Jones, instead choosing to focus on the entire far-right establishment, a group that sometimes included the leftovers at FOX News (Ingraham, Hannity, etc.) and the faceless 'journalists' at Breitbart. While Klepper was quite capable of playing (and staying in) character, something he consistently did despite the segment he was running, the character he chose wasn't all too susceptible to parody. A common theme of Trump-era comedy is that the material writes itself – Colbert often spends minutes of his opening monologue simply reading Trump tweets in a mocking imitation – but that only makes it harder to write smart comedy. The Opposition combatted this challenge impeccably, producing a smartly-written show with actual fresh jokes, some of which can only come from someone playing a character. While on paper it may feel derivative considering the network and timeslot, it's unique in the larger spectrum of cable television. Plenty of people do field pieces. No one else plays a character. While Klepper's best work often comes in the field, he is at his best as a performer and comedian in an interview format.
Some of Klepper's best pieces presented fully fleshed-out arguments surrounding things the NFL anthem protests and the gun control debate. These were outside the realm of pure satire, even though the job of satire isn't to "drive the narrative" as Comedy Central seems to imply. Really, the point is to shed a light on the absurd. For of Colbert's acclaim as a cultural force, he likewise did nothing more than hold up something and say "hey look at how stupid this is." The Report was enjoyed by conservatives and liberals alike, as the conservative viewers demonstrated an inability to grasp the real meaning behind satire, showing that the show didn't quite have the destroyer-of-worlds impact as it is mythologized as having. The Opposition wasn't simply catharsis, it was a cartoonish but honest deconstruction of the fringe conservative viewpoint – an important role in the politics of today.