The Battle Over Adult Swim’s Alt-Right TV Show
The future of the sketch series Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace has become a political flashpoint for the subversive network.
At a glance, Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace seems like typical fare for Adult Swim, the alternative, late-night comedy channel that airs on the Cartoon Network after 9 p.m. One of a coterie of bizarre series on the channel, the show lurches from one surreal, sometimes violent, sketch to the next, and describes itself as being set in an “almost present-day, post-apocalyptic nightmare world.” But Million Dollar Extreme, which premiered in August, is also from the mind of Sam Hyde, an unapologetic member of the alt-right. Hyde crafts his comedy with the goal of shocking his young, liberal, Millennial audience while simultaneously appealing to like-minded members of a white-nationalist movement that generally supports Donald Trump.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Million Dollar Extreme has become a cultural battleground for its network since it launched. Though the show is currently off the air and awaiting a second-season renewal, some of Adult Swim’s other stars are demanding the show’s cancellation. Others are drawing attention to the network’s generally poor record on diversity, particularly with regards to promoting female comedians. Though the controversy over Million Dollar Extreme had been roiling before Trump’s Election Day victory, in its aftermath, the debate has become even more charged in the last week. Put simply: Watching Million Dollar Extreme sometimes feels like peering inside the mind of a far-right Twitter troll, as does looking at Hyde’s own feed. The question for Adult Swim is whether that’s enough to justify the show’s cancellation.
Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein has reported on Million Dollar Extreme since it premiered. Bernstein drew attention to some of Hyde’s worst Twitter behavior (calling Lena Dunham a “fat pig,” mocking Black Lives Matter, and predicting the impending death of Hillary Clinton), and pointed out the TV show’s popularity with extreme alt-right communities like My Posting Career. Hyde’s past as a comedian includes an “anti-comedic” set where he read homophobic pseudo-science to a Williamsburg crowd and called them “faggots,” then posted a video delighting in their horrified reactions.
“Anti-comedy” is intrinsic to Adult Swim’s brand—that is, humor that seems to make a deliberate effort to not provoke laughs, to make its audience uncomfortable, and to challenge them with horrifying imagery and themes. Some of the network’s biggest hits, like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Eric Andre Show, and Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! are masterpieces of anti-comedy.* Million Dollar Extreme borrows tropes from each of them—it’s abrasive, crammed with strange graphics and inter-titles, and its sketches careen from one weird theme to the next. There’s a political edge to much of the show, but its meaning is often intentionally oblique. Beyond that, of course, the whole enterprise seems cloaked in irony, which makes it easier for Hyde to dismiss any obvious connection to the white supremacy and extreme nationalism of the alt-right. (When Buzzfeed asked about his alt-right connections, Hyde replied, “Is that some sort of indie bookstore?”)
Still, there are plenty of sketches in Million Dollar Extreme that seem to exist only to shock and offend. In one, a man trips a woman and sends her flying head-first into a glass table, covering her face in blood— simply because he deems her too unattractive to marry his brother. In another, Hyde appears in blackface, screaming at a woman in exaggerated vernacular. In another, kids and puppets perform a song called “Jews Rock!” while executives watch, bored, from behind the stage. It’s easy to criticize comedy in isolation, and plenty of comedians from all over the political spectrum have faced ad hominem attacks where the media takes their jokes out of context. But Million Dollar Extreme seems crafted with intent. According to Bernstein, Adult Swim’s standards department have repeatedly found coded racial messages (including swastikas) in the show that they then removed. There’s also a groundswell of pushback within the network urging the executive Mike Lazzo to cancel the show.
Brett Gelman, a brilliant and abrasive comic who has done work with Adult Swim in the past, announced this week that he was cutting ties with the network. In a series of tweets, he said that he was leaving out of disgust with Million Dollar Extreme, as well as the network’s poor record of working with women (all 47 listed creators on the network’s new and returning shows this summer were men). Tim Heidecker, the enormously influential comedian behind Adult Swim classics like Tom Goes to the Mayor and Tim and Eric, has voiced his support for Gelman’s decision.
The network’s official statement on the matter has remained consistent—every time Buzzfeed has questioned them about Million Dollar Extreme, the response has been the same: “Adult Swim’s reputation and success with its audience has always been based on strong and unique comedic voices. Million Dollar Extreme’s comedy is known for being provocative with commentary on societal tropes, and though not a show for everyone, the company serves a multitude of audiences and supports the mission that is specific to Adult Swim and its fans.”
According to Bernstein, Lazzo is iconoclastic enough not to care about the public pressure. Million Dollar Extreme is a relative hit for the network, drawing more than a million viewers in its late-night slot, and along with its passionate online fandom, perhaps that will be enough to keep it around. Still, this is a show where alt-right Reddit groups debate the coded references to the former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke that they notice in the show. The longer it stays on the network, the more toxic its presence will be to other creators and comedians—and the more the show will seem like a strange bellwether for the current moment in culture, where extremism looks to force its way into the mainstream. Million Dollar Extreme will never be a widely watched show. But after Trump’s surprising win, it’s clear that many comedians are no longer willing to hold their nose and ignore what they once had dismissed as a radical fringe.
* This article originally stated that Wonder Showzen was a show that appeared on the Adult Swim network; it aired on MTV. We regret the error.