- On Trolling as Comedic Method
For evidence of the reinflamed American culture wars, look no further than the cancellation of popular television comedies. Well before ABC's much-debated termination of the Roseanne (ABC, 2018) reboot season, Adult Swim caused a stir when it axed the sketch-comedy series Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace (Cartoon Network, 2016) in late 2016. Both shows were charged with advancing a specifically Trumpian ideological agenda, prompting counterprotests of liberal intolerance. World Peace, which aired after midnight on Cartoon Network's niche Adult Swim programming block, simply advanced its ideology to a smaller audience than Roseanne. Its relatively marginal position is significant: if Roseanne exemplified the mainstreaming of Trump's vulgar revanchism, then World Peace represented the aesthetic and political vanguard credited with shaping that style in the first place. This vanguard, described by Angela Nagle as disparate factions "joined under the banner of a bursting [End Page 154] forth of anti-PC cultural politics," is widely known as the alt-right and originated within the proudly antisocial internet subculture of trolling.1 This essay examines the intersection of comedy, politics, and trolling at a historical moment when, as Maggie Hennefeld puts it, "laughter has become the lingua franca of the escalating culture wars."2 World Peace represents an emblematic case study of the migration of digital trolling sensibilities into "old media" contexts. Trolls' sudden omnipresence in today's political landscape, where they embody a perceived lapse into "post-truth," makes trolling conceptually useful for the interpretation of contemporary political comedy. Because the trolling ethos demands a terminal irony in pursuit of tendentious laughter, its ability to function as political satire is diminished. Trolling, as a comedic method, harnesses political language yet repeatedly fails to promote a coherent politics.
But first, what is trolling? The term's current ubiquity obscures its more specific reference to targeted antagonism in online spaces, antagonism meant to disrupt, offend, and exasperate. Sometimes this disruption is achieved by inundating targets with crude or inane content, or "shit posting." Other times trolls commit to elaborate bad faith arguments. Either way, as an online subculture primarily interested in upsetting and alienating as many people as possible, trolls have cultivated a lexicon that combines shocking pornographic imagery and hateful, bigoted tropes with digital aesthetic sophistication and arcane nerd-culture in-jokes. Million Dollar Extreme (MDE), the New England art collective behind World Peace, developed its following in this subculture by reflecting back to trolls their lived experience of being "extremely online," of having one's brain pickled in the audiovisual sewage of the outlaw internet. Early vertical videos depicted MDE mastermind Sam Hyde as a pallid, pimply "neckbeard," unemployed, living with his mother, and perusing feminist Tumblr accounts with vocal disdain. Later, more sophisticated videos deploy a troll lexicon of conspiracy theories, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), hentai, and police violence—often compiled in manic collage patterns. MDE's fans demonstrated their love in proper troll fashion, using a photo of Hyde with a semiautomatic rifle to convince multiple media outlets of his involvement in numerous mass shootings.3 World Peace is more polished and accessible than MDE's earlier work, but references to online shit-posting culture still abound.
Once confined to niche digital spaces such as the early Usenet newsgroup alt. tasteless and 4chan's /b/ and /pol/ boards, trolls now permeate comment threads and social media platforms. Indeed, trolling has become so pervasive and widely recognized that, according to Whitney Phillips, the term has definitionally expanded nearly beyond usefulness to include myriad aggressive behaviors online and off.4 Hence the use of "troll" as a catchall accusation of bad faith; Lars von Trier, Slavoj Žižek, Armond [End Page 155] White, and Camille Paglia, once contrarians and gadflies, are now routinely cast as trolls.5 Hence also the widespread conception of Trump as troll in chief. His unfiltered misogyny and racism together with his willingness to promote conspiracy theories expanded from his Twitter account to the national stage, where he happily courts spectacle and take inconsistent, ad hoc positions.
Nevertheless, online trolls have become antagonists in an accelerating epistemic crisis. By demoralizing adherents of "legitimate" political...