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OPINION: The Downfall of the Kings of Clapter

Comedy shows and movies can gain ratings and sell tickets by avoiding their devotion to woke politics

Today’s politics has wrecked comedy. Media companies only appear willing to back projects that appeal to a subset of American audiences; projects that end up spectacularly failing in the ratings. Meanwhile, shows and movies that have broader appeal get canceled because studios are overly responsive to the negative feedback they attain on social media. In a 2008 interview, former Saturday Night Live anchor Tina Fey defined “clapter” as: “when you do a political joke and people go, ‘Woo-hoo.’ It means they sort of approve but didn’t really like it that much.” Fey added that Seth Meyers, now the host of a late night talk show on NBC, was the one who coined the term. Chasing clapter has yielded disaster for both shows and movies released in the past decade.

For better or for worse, “clapter” has taken over comedy in several Anglophone countries, to the chagrin of everyone from British comedian Simon Evans to American actor-rapper-writer Donald Glover. Glover stated the following regarding his cable series Atlanta in a 2016 interview: “The No. 1 thing we kept coming back to is that it needs to be funny first and foremost…I never wanted this show to be about diversity…There’s a lot of clapter going on…they’re just clapping and laughing to be on the right side of history.”

Hollywood’s obsession with politics may be a part of why none of the top-grossing films released in the past few years have been original comedies. The year 1990 stands out as the most recent year in which an original comedy without fantastical or science fiction elements, Home Alone, was the highest grossing film measured by in-year releases. Then, 2009 was the last year in which an original comedy that wasn’t part of another genre – The Hangover – made the top ten box office successes. Even comedies based on well-received franchises and heavy-handed political messaging have failed spectacularly – 2016’s Ghostbusters and 2019’s Charlie’s Angels come to mind.

It also might explain the departure of Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee from their cable shows and the flagging ratings of the Big Three late night talk shows. Probably the main things people can remember about Full Frontal With Samantha Bee was when Bee mocked a cancer patient and used vulgar language to attack Ivanka Trump. Then again, Pete Davidson did the same thing on SNL when he made fun of Congressman Dan Crenshaw’s injury as the result of his service in Afghanistan. When they experienced backlash, both ended up apologizing in some way. Mainstream comedy in the late 2010s and early 2020s looks less like satire and more like bullying – something people on the left purportedly oppose.

The triumph of Gutfeld! on FOX News over the other series suggests that Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Seth Meyers aren’t the titans they have been portrayed as. Only Colbert’s show on CBS comes close to Gutfeld! in the ratings – with an average of 2.1 million viewers for Colbert this year versus an average of 2.2 to 2.4 million for Greg Gutfeld’s show – and that might be more of a function of CBS’ greater overall viewership than the other two networks. 

Some established comics have pushed back on the prevalence of cancel culture. In an Oct. 21, 2022 interview with Buzzfeed, Marlon Wayans noted: “I don’t know what planet we’re on, where you think people don’t need laughter, and that people need to be censored and canceled. If a joke is gonna get me canceled, thank you for doing me that favor. It’s sad that society is in this place where we can’t laugh anymore.”

Wayans expressed his dedication to making comedy and remaining loyal to his audience:

I’m still gonna tell my jokes the way I tell them. And if you want to make some money, jump on board. And if not, then I’ll find a way to do it myself. I know my audience. My audience comes to my shows every weekend and they leave feeling great and laughing. One thing about the Wayans, we’ve always told the worst joke the best way.

Comedy shows and movies can gain ratings and sell tickets by avoiding their devotion to woke politics and breaking up with social media-driven online mobs. Gutfeld! illustrates the appeal to eschewing wokeness in late night comedy. Dave Chappelle’s success despite criticism from wokesters could help inspire more outside-the-box approaches in future comedic works.

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