Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Some Thoughts on [adult swim] and Million Dollar Extreme

On December 30th, 1993 in Inglewood, California, Kurt Cobain was approached backstage by a drunken Eddie Van Halen who reportedly begged on his knees to join Nirvana on stage at some point during their set to solo over one of their songs. A disgusted Cobain - then leader of possibly the world's 2nd-most-famous active new rock band (after Pearl Jam) - famously declined the offer citing an extreme distaste of Van Halen's association with the flashy, misogynist, un-punk, big business era of '80s hair metal.

For better or worse, the state of rock in 2016 has grown far removed from the time when a band resembling anything like Nirvana or Van Halen could approach mainstream ubiquity, creating a scenario when rock musicians have grown substantially more desperate to be heard.

But let's discuss the '90s for a minute.

Throughout 1993 and its accompanying decade, MTV developed a niche that catered to young people who were interested in strangeness and art. While it only made up a small fraction of its programming schedule, the '90s were the decade when subversive and bizarre programming became oddly commonplace - shows like Liquid Television, Cartoon Sushi, Beavis & Butthead, Tom Green, Sifl & Olly, Oddville and The State, alongside video blocks like AMP that focused on arty EDM videos from the likes of Aphex Twin.

It's not like flashy Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses videos disappeared - quite the opposite, as they remained as overplayed as ever throughout the era of In Utero's (sadly shortened) promotion cycle. But in retrospect, MTV's politically neutral efforts to present mainstream alongside alternative - a hub for all areas of youth culture - seem very far removed from anything on television today. There is no "all things music" or "all things youth culture" hub on cable, and it will probably never exist again in quite the same way throughout the eternity of broadcasting.

Around Y2K-era, MTV programming slowly steered far away from strangeness. In the mid-2000s, MTV2 gave us a handful of awesomely absurd shows like Wonder Showzen and The Human Giant, but this only made up a small fraction of their programming. Viacom effectively peeled off its layer of subversiveness and hid it late at night in the middle of Cartoon Network's [adult swim] block. In due time, the weirdo contingent of youth culture discovered [adult swim] and its audience broadened through word-of-mouth, allowing the programming block to eventually blossom into a fully-formed channel of its own.

Since the early 2000s, [adult swim] has opted for the weirdo shows that MTV would have played 20 years ago. And while their earlier evening programming currently still sticks to mindless Seth MacFarlane re-runs, [as]'s after-midnight shows have remained the most refreshingly bizarre programming block of the past decade.

Generally speaking, their shows maintain a streak of political neutrality. Here's an incomplete list of perhaps their most popular exceptions:

- King Of The Hill's social commentary is mostly neutral, but from the perspective of a not-so-outspoken libertarian. (That would be Mike Judge, filtered through the lens of Hank Hill.)
- The Eric Andre Show, a talk show hosted by a self-proclaimed feminist, has remained proudly left-leaning since its inception.
- Tim & Eric's show started out as neutral, but little by little allowed hints of left-leaning gags to seep into their jokes. This eventually led to the production of Decker, Tim Heidecker's summer 2016 miniseries where he plays a government-agent hybrid of Donald Trump and MacGyver. Contained within a universe adjacent to Tim and Neil Hamburger's online-only movie review series, Decker would have been the most politically-charged satire in [adult swim]'s history.

Had it not been for Decker, it's possible that [adult swim] wouldn't have made any effort to ground themselves politically by actively searching for a right-leaning comedy series. But that's what ended up happening.

It was only natural that their choices for a right-wing comedy series produced by millennials might have been rooted within the often irreverent and deceptively hateful humor of 4chan. Consequently, a sketch show from the alt-right comedy group Million Dollar Extreme was green-lit. At the time this decision was approved, we were still in Obama's America, and while hateful anonymous online trolling was as rampant and obnoxious as it's ever been, the alt-right weren't yet widely known for associating with white supremacy and white nationalism.

Without any real knowledge of MDE's political or social agenda, [adult swim] and their average millennial viewer - now completely accustomed to the mindfucks within [as]'s occasional rotation (not to mention within the world of meme-culture) - had a very good shot of perceiving their sketch series with an open mind, naively assuming their bizarre sense of humor was rooted more within the provocative nihilism of Rick & Morty, or apolitically uncovering areas of hypocrisy, like South Park or Howard Stern.

Earlier, we neglected to mention one glaring aspect that [adult swim] carried over from '90s MTV: They both loved helping indie musicians get on late-night cable. Once upon a time, Space Ghost boasted band appearances ranging from Pavement to Bjork. These days, Eric Andre's show can claim perhaps the first cable performances of Trash Talk, HEALTH and Mac Demarco. The channel's "Summer Singles" series - showcasing unreleased music from (mostly) indie musicians - was recently expanded beyond summer, leaking weekly new songs throughout the calendar.

Aligning within this spirit, MDE are also huge indie-music fans and chose a few bands to appear on their show. Some of their music choices were obscure enough that we're only able to recognize the two bands who we've personally met: Ovlov and Chastity Belt.

We don't want to speak on behalf of either band. We haven't spoken to either of them since MDE's cancellation, so we only know that they were recently prompted to post about this situation on Facebook, and that both bands (along with 2 or 3 others) wrote several paragraphs detailing their opinions and expressing a desire to distance themselves from MDE's sneakily inherent hatefulness.

And it's entirely probable that either band would get upset or downright angry with us if they read that we unearthed this discussion 2 or 3 weeks after the fact. (Most of this was written weeks ago, and we're just finishing it now.) And so we won't be spreading this editorial on our own. It's not here for the sake of spreading knowledge or for self-righteousness. We just felt compelled to write about it. It's one perspective from a source that had way more to say about this particular topic than the words that would fit in the space Twitter and Facebook alloted for us. We know this is tl;dr. There's plenty of good reasons for that.


On a Friday evening in July 2016, we unexpectedly caught ourselves watching the midnight premiere of Eric Andre Season 4 live on [adult swim]. Who watches [as] live anymore? I guess we did, because we had no car all summer and our friends had no interest in driving to our house on this night.

Once the episode ended around 12:11AM, our jaws dropped upon unexpectedly seeing our good friends Ovlov rocking super hard in a commercial for the show they had told us about months prior. We were totally caught off guard but were so proud in that moment.

The commercial reminded us of their recent adventure: In Spring 2016, they unexpectedly broke from an extended band hiatus and drove from Connecticut to Georgia after being asked to play the song "Really Bees" in a sketch. Not long after the show taping, Ovlov considered themselves reunited throughout the remainder of 2016, citing the [adult swim] opportunity as the sole reason for their reformation.

I don't think I'm even sort of exaggerating when I say that any band who is at the level of Chastity Belt or Ovlov should rightfully get excited at the idea of appearing on a new Friday night [adult swim] series - essentially the modern cable TV equivalent of having your band's video debut on 120 Minutes in 1996. For an indie band, it represents the hope of future opportunity and one step closer towards possibly making your band into a long-term career. And considering that nothing else on [adult swim] had ever reached nearly as far into neo-con territory, the requests all seemed relatively innocent.

When the bands were asked for track-syncs or a performance, MDE sent a vague, confusing show description. To the show staff, this may have been a way to describe their humor without having to directly address their social and political agenda.

From Chastity Belt's Facebook post:

"Before signing on to perform for the episode, all we knew about the show was how the Deadline announcement described it, as “satirizing the current political climate…. [it] will “unlock your closeted bigoted imagination, toss your inherent racism into the burning trash and cleanse your intolerant spirit with pure unapologetic American funny_com.”

And in a way, this is actually the perfect description for what we saw. It's a vague and confusing type of show with profuse indirect hatefulness. Instead of coming right out and blatantly vomiting hate speech, they sucker people into not realizing what they're watching.

Since it conveniently appeared after Eric Andre, and thanks to our excitement for our friends' eventual appearance on the show, we wound up viewing almost the entire series.

We'll give credit where it's due: The pilot episode was actually thoroughly hilarious. We don't remember which sketches appeared, but it included a lot of warped, shock-based humor. We expected Ovlov to appear at the end of the pilot (since the preceding commercial included their likeness), but instead the episode concluded with the goth-influenced and staunchly feminist 4-piece Chastity Belt playing their droney, catchy song with the repeated refrain "he was just another man / try'na teach me somethin'." (We had to look this one up. The song is actually called "Drone!")

Chastity Belt's inclusion within the pilot's final 20 seconds initially seemed like a PC Liberal exclamation point. From our viewpoint, it made the show seem confusing, but confusing in a politically balanced way.

However, thinking about it now, it wouldn't surprise us to learn that Chastity Belt's song was chosen ironically. The lyrics challenge patriarchal bullshit in a way that angers the show creators. We could be wrong though. It's also entirely possible that MDE genuinely love that song and support its message but are unable to fully disclose these thoughts out of fear of losing their core audience of 4chan users. So MDE prefers to remain warped and cryptic. Granted, the manliness quotient makes more sense to us.

This is all in hindsight though. As far as we knew, MDE maintained the nihilistic approach. Any obvious red flags didn't register on our radar. We knew our friends were involved, and we wanted the show to succeed for that reason. Plus, we are suckers who often assume that funny, creative people are inherently good.

The show continued over the next few weeks, but no other episodes were as funny as the pilot. A decent amount of the sketches weren't ideologically terrible, and a few of them were pretty funny. But one out of every 3 or 4 skits would include something horribly misogynist or racist. A few sketches included black face with no context suggesting anything other than racist intentions. Others depicted the physical assault of women.

Within the following months, another good friend of ours ended up becoming a fan of MDE's online videos, unbeknownst to their alt-right agenda. In one video, they walked around York Square nearby the campus of Yale University holding "All Lives Matter" picket signs that were allegedly found in a nearby dumpster. They walked around the block provoking anyone who took them seriously, and later carried the signs into retail stores that resembled American Apparel or Urban Outfitters uncomfortably confronting black store employees.

It can sometimes be hard to judge when comedy crosses the line past an attempt at humor into the "horribly offensive" zone. We would be hypocrites calling out MDE while remaining fans of other comedians or comedy groups whose topics or tropes aligned. But there's a discernible difference. We all know trolling when we see it. The difference lies in the intentions.

The line itself was probably best demonstrated by Andy Kaufman. His nightclub act as Tony Clifton may have provided the world with its first notorious troll. By the time Tony became one of his most famous characters, fans already recognized Andy as decent human whose comedic cred was not earned by appealing to the baser instincts of hate groups. It was just one out of dozens of wide-ranging personas.

Within a specific context, uncomfortable situations can be effectively used as the topic of a joke. That's the whole point of offensive humor. The laughs we receive after an initial shock can help people understand more about a particular subject and about ourselves. Understandably, not everyone with an easily-offended PC-liberal bias will agree, especially those who aren't fans of a broad range of comedy.

But if a joke is purely rooted in hatred, then its writer is contributing to a problem. It's as simple as that. Discomfort for the sake of discomfort isn't a joke. Triggering for the sake of triggering is not a fucking joke. That's not comedy; that's bullying bullshit.

We aren't saying MDE should give up on their craft. They're obviously funny guys with very misguided intentions, and it was a bad idea for [adult swim] to give them a show. Many artists and performers would kill for that type of opportunity, and they used it for something disgusting and evil. But we think they should keep going. They should keep learning and creating. It's possible that in due time, they might grow up a little and figure out how to use their gift for something other than trolly bullshit.

Bear in mind that even after we saw these uncomfortable moments on MDE's show, they confused us more than anything else. Because of our friends' association, we didn't want the show to be hateful. We tried to convince ourselves otherwise. This continued until about October, when we saw an online article which included the first time we had ever seen the phrase "alt-right." And within that article, Million Dollar Extreme Presents World Peace was officially outed as [adult swim]'s alt-right sketch series. It took until a week or two later to understand that "alt-right" was far scarier than simply a millennial reaction to the neo-con movement.


Earlier in December, not long after the show's cancellation, a few headlines on music blogs decided to use the circumstances to their advantage. Unsurprisingly, Stereogum used some pretty irresponsible language in their headline: [Bands] Explain How Their Music Ended Up In White Supremacist's Adult Swim Show. It just goes to show how low music blogs are willing to go for post-election clickbait and ad revenue, trying to use these bands and the unfortunate circumstances to their advantage, not to mention that the show creators were never once labelled as white supremacists - only that their show's humor might appeal to those types of people. Hugely irresponsible. Seriously, FUCK Stereogum.

Pitchfork's sub-headline reads: "[Bands] explain their involvement with the sketch comedy accused of racism, sexism, and bigotry. See how much nicer that reads? Not a huge Pitchfork fan, but at least a handful of their writers can construct headlines properly.

A handful of the bands' Facebook messages said something to the affect of "We should have done our homework a little better." The reaction from the bands who appeared on the show all seem aligned as far as expressing a desire to distance themselves from hate. And of course, that's a responsible thing to say for any band who performs in DIY safe spaces (a.k.a. everyone involved). But if that's the case, really [adult swim] should be blamed for funding the show's creation and promotion.

Of course, it would have only taken a few seconds for any of these bands to Google "Are Million Dollar Extreme associated with the alt-right?" prior to making a show appearance. Except who the fuck would actually think to do that? And how many of these people had actually heard the phrase "alt-right" during Spring 2016? We're gonna guess not many.

It seems very weird that the risk of an extreme affiliation would have ever existed. If you're in a band, it could have been you. It could have been any of us. I doubt anyone could blame them for jumping at what seemed like a potentially awesome opportunity.

It shouldn't have to be any band's or artist's responsibility to research the political affiliation of a show when its channel is typically apolitical, neutral or left-leaning. It's not like they were being asked to perform on a show hosted by Trevor Noah or Tomi Lahren. The show was completely uncharacteristic of anything that had been on [adult swim] in the past. Don't make the bands feel guilty. The mess is in no way their fault. Blame Million Dollar Extreme and [adult swim].

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