On the Limits of #Lulz: Niche Taste and the Implosion of Satire

Curator's Note

Co-authored by Matthew Thomas Payne

In December 2016, pressure from talent, executives, and audiences led Adult Swim to cancel Million Dollar Extreme: World Peace (MDE) shortly after the end of its initial 6-episode season. From the hyperbolic title and garish on-screen graphics to the gross-out gags and anti-humor, the series seemed a natural fit with the network’s live action offerings. However, commentators noted that MDE infused its work with overt racist and misogynist elements, where satiric jabs were not aimed at the powerful (“punching up”) but at the cultural excesses of political correctness.

This is evident in the accompanying clip, which attempts to create comic incongruity by being nonchalant about domestic abuse, something that, though once a staple, is now verboten in mainstream media.

Anti-political correctness humor functions as a justified (if not acceptable to some on the right) means of “punching down.” The perceived excesses of PC culture mix with the semiotic ambiguity of satire, giving anti-humorists cover for producing noxious work aimed at sociohistorically marginalized peoples. MDE capitalizes on the semiotic messiness of Adult Swim’s programming brand. However, while Adult Swim skirts the edges of a sort of nihilism, they typically avoid embracing this emptiness by imbuing comedy with self-deprecating humanity. MDE has no such commitments. Instead, MDE breaks cultural taboos by aiming squarely at disempowered populations. This tack speaks to the show’s other major influence—4chan’s alt-right nihilism—with “doing it for the lulz” as a trolling mantra that excuses any provocation by celebrating its reactions.

Fueled by showrunner Sam Hyde’s alt-right affiliation, MDE courts a niche audience that is both emboldened in and blasé about their racism and misogyny by cloaking it in rhetoric of freedom of expression and by pitching it as a crusade against social justice warriors who they see as protecting real evils (e.g., “radical Islam,” gender equality, etc.) of the postmodern world. Although MDE’s ratings protected it for a time, it generated enough blowback to warrant its cancellation, thereby driving it back to the internet where anonymous attacks against minorities can earn plenty of #lulz.

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