There’s a growing push to have celebrities who have ever made dark jokes about pedophilia face major consequences for their past humor. Since Disney’s firing of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn over tweets Gunn wrote several years ago, the right-wing internet mob that brought about his dismissal has moved on to other figures.
Most notably, Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon deleted his Twitter account entirely after Daryl, a short parody pilot he made almost a decade ago, was seized upon as further evidence of many people in the entertainment industry using comedy to mask their underground support of pedophilia.
Harmon made Daryl in 2009 as a pilot for Channel 101, an “untelevised TV network” he co-founded with his former writing partner Rob Schrab in 2002. The “network” takes the form of a monthly screening event in Los Angeles where five-minute TV pilots are shown to a live audience, and viewers vote on whether they want to see more episodes at the next month’s event.
The shows that are “picked up” produce additional episodes, as you can see by observing one of Channel 101’s longer-running titles, Harmon’s own Laser Fart. The project’s programming typically skews toward comedy — and often dark comedy — but isn’t always comedic in nature.
Which brings us back to Daryl. Harmon removed the pilot from the Channel 101 website a long time ago, perhaps realizing it wasn’t his finest hour, but you can still see the page for it. It’s a spoof of TV shows about vigilante justice, most notably Dexter, the Showtime series about a serial killer who kills serial killers that ran from 2006 to 2013 and was at the height of its popularity in 2009, when Daryl was made. Where Dexter’s title character killed killers, Daryl’s raped children to prevent them from becoming murderers.
It’s not really funny (Harmon — who’s stated before that he disliked these sorts of “murder reconfigured as entertainment” shows — would later parody them in more fruitful fashion in an episode of his 2009-2015 sitcom Community). But regardless of whether you think Daryl (which you can still watch on the surely reputable site “BitChute”) is brilliantly hilarious or stomach-churning and horrifying, it’s hard to imagine interpreting it as being in support of horrific sexual abuse of children.
Yet this is exactly the argument being advanced against Daryl in 2018. against Gunn’s tweets, against comments from so many other comedians with long, successful careers. (A tweet currently being used to pillory Patton Oswalt is one the comedian deliberately constructed to seem as if he was supportive of pedophiles, but only if taken completely out of context, which makes the head spin.) It’s a bad-faith argument, spun up by people who manipulate other people’s words and conjure some of the darkest behaviors humans are capable of to score cheap political points against those who criticize Donald Trump.
Perhaps the most ironic thing about it is that you can draw a direct line between the shock humor culture that produced Daryl and other edgy jokes, and the rise of the alt-right itself. But let’s start somewhere else: How did this strategy of trying to take down celebrities by weaponizing jokes they made a very long time ago come to be?
The modern right-wing internet mob got its start in old-school trolling
What has happened to Gunn, Harmon, and other public figures of late reflects a convergence of old-school trolling and organized attacks. The right-wing folks going after them are working from a scattered set of ambivalent and contradictory goals and motivations — but they’re using highly organized, systematic, and well-oiled tactics to carry out their disruptive work.
It’s crucial to understand that for many of the people involved in the quest to “take down” and delegitimize public figures like Gunn and Harmon, the whole endeavor is a giant joke. That’s because there’s rarely a singular motivation behind any given right-wing crusade, including this one, and why people seem to be angry isn’t the point. The point is to manufacture outrage, both to score victory points against the opposition and to sweep other bystanders into the fray.
This approach is essentially built atop a foundation of old-school trolling — the kind that originated in the forums of Something Awful in the early 2000s, spread to 4chan users, and ultimately made the leap, mainly through the Gamergate movement, to modern social media platforms.
Old-school trolling is absurdist artifice at heart, but it also covers a broad spectrum of sincerity and irony. The result is that no matter the topic at hand, some members of the modern internet mob will be arguing seriously and straightforwardly because they believe the argument.
Some will be making the argument as a total joke, because they think the argument itself is funny.
Some will be making the argument ironically, such that their performative outrage becomes the joke, regardless of what the actual argument is.
Some will say they are making the argument ironically, even though they secretly or not-so-secretly believe the argument is true.
And some will start out making the argument ironically, only to eventually start to believe it.
What’s more, many of the people making the argument for any of the reasons listed above also sincerely want other people to take them seriously — either so those people will join in the outrage ironically, thus contributing to the lulz, or so they’ll join in the outrage sincerely, thus creating the appearance that this socially constructed performance is authentic. In both cases, the result is that very real messages begin to spread with or without the “irony” still attached. This can lead to extreme harassment of whoever’s being targeted, often with serious, harmful, and even deadly consequences.
The Gamergate movement turned trolls into organized activists
The most famous example of a modern post-trolling internet mob is probably the Gamergate movement, as its “success” gave many on the extreme right a template for how to attack their perceived enemies. Gamergate began in 2014 as a backlash against feminist game developer Zoe Quinn and a Kotaku journalist with whom she had a personal relationship. It then evolved into a widespread movement aimed at targeting feminist gamers and progressive gaming journalism at large.
Members of Gamergate worked under the guise of restoring “ethics in journalism” — but really, they used that so-called mission as an excuse to intensely harass individual feminists and journalists. They also used it to appeal to companies that advertised on websites that wrote critically about their behavior, in occasionally successful attempts to get the advertisers to withdraw their financial support.
The spark that lit the powder keg of Gamergate involved a blog post written by Quinn’s ex-boyfriend — and it deployed a tactic that would ultimately become a standard form of trolling used by the alt-right. He basically publicized a litany of private details about their lives in an attempt to paint Quinn as a manipulative abuser, citing “evidence” culled from private chats, texts, and emails. Context was stripped away from the exchanges, twisting their meaning to build a specific narrative around Quinn.
This shaming of Quinn was soon labeled “Gamergate,” and rapidly coalesced into a much bigger movement that started among the gamers who initially rallied around Quinn’s ex. They used the private details shared in his blog post as an excuse to harass Quinn, her supporters, and the aforementioned Kotaku writer — because simply being connected to Quinn, in the eyes of Gamergate, made the writer an unethical journalist whose bias toward Quinn and feminists like her was indicative of the broader corruption of games journalism at large.
The actual content of the so-called “damning evidence” against Quinn didn’t matter; what mattered was that it gave the mob a reason to harass her. They saw her as a “social justice warrior” who advocated for progressive politics, feminism, and diversity in gaming; by crying corruption and trying to ruin her career, their intent was to stop what they perceived as a threat to game culture.
The methods deployed in this ground-zero Gamergate event have since become standard practice for internet mobs wishing to attack seemingly anyone they believe to be a foe. We saw then with Quinn, as we’re seeing with Gunn and Harmon and other figures now, that the larger context of whatever “incendiary” material is on offer — be it a private text message or an old tweet — has been stripped away. And in the minds of the mob, it’s irrelevant anyway, because the outrage is performative rather than sincere.
Essentially, Gamergate systematized a form of online harassment that involved close-reading ancient chats and private messages, as well as public content and social media activity, in search of anything that could be used as fodder for righteous indignation.
Since 2014, this “manufactured outrage” approach has led to the firing of multiple game developers and staffers at game companies (with the latest example happening just a few weeks ago). It’s simultaneously diabolical and simple: Greatly exaggerate your enemies’ behavior while removing, distorting, or ignoring the context surrounding it.
And there’s an ironic twist to the way this tactic is being used today against the alt-right’s chosen enemies. The thing the group is now being performatively outraged about — shock humor — is arguably the foundation of its entire culture.
The shock humor that’s being weaponized now arose out of a 1990s culture pushing back against “political correctness.” But so did the alt-right.
In 2017, as the Comedy Central series South Park turned 20 years old, writer Sean O’Neal pondered whether the show had inadvertently created a generation of trolls. Wrote O’Neal at the A.V. Club:
To these acolytes, Parker and Stone have spent two decades preaching a philosophy of pragmatic self-reliance, a distrust of elitism, in all its compartmentalized forms, and a virulent dislike of anything that smacks of dogma, be it organized religion, the way society polices itself, or whatever George Clooney is on his high horse about. Theirs can be a tricky ideology to pin down: “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals,” Stone said once, a quote that has reverberated across the scores of articles, books, and message-board forums spent trying to parse the duo’s politics, arguing over which side can rightfully claim South Park as its own. Nominally, Parker and Stone are libertarians, professing a straight-down-the-middle empathy for the little guy who just wants to be left alone by meddling political and cultural forces. But their only true allegiance is to whatever is funniest; their only tenet is that everything and everyone has the potential to suck equally. More than anything, they’ve taught their most devoted followers that taking anything too seriously is hella lame.
O’Neal was careful to distinguish between what South Park does — which at least has a comedic ethos behind it — and the rise of online, meme-driven alt-right humor, which mostly seems designed to shock people as much as possible. He was also careful (as he should have been) not to claim that South Park somehow created the alt-right, which arose from a wide variety of influences and took its humor style from 4chan and similar forums, where eliciting a shocked reaction is often the best thing you can possibly do.
But it’s not hard to draw parallels anyway, and to do so requires evaluating South Park as one of a whole bunch of jokesters who set out to lampoon American society by poking it in the eye, and then smiling. Most of these jokesters were late baby boomers and Gen X-ers, people who were raised by television and pop culture and could see all the seams.
Therefore, they often engaged in irony-drenched deconstruction of the tropes of that pop culture — via programs that seem tame now but were shocking then (like The Simpsons, which pulled apart the myths of the perfect sitcom family), or programs that pointed to the very artificiality of television (like David Letterman’s early talk show or Garry Shandling’s ’80s sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show), or programs that traded in crude, politically incorrect humor intended to provoke a reaction (this is where South Park comes in).
Many of these programs and comedians are still around, still making jokes today. Some, like Sarah Silverman — whose earliest work was steeped in ironic racism — have mostly abandoned that sort of humor. Some, like Bill Maher — who built a whole career out of seeming to tell things like they were — now seem like relics. And some, like South Park and Family Guy, manage to evade much notice of just how out of time their comedy can feel because their animated trappings allow for some degree of detachment and distance.
But when it was more in vogue, this style of “Who can shock whom more?” humor became well established online, and the late 2000s and early 2010s saw plenty of it permeate Twitter and YouTube — two sites that are still around, still easily searchable, and still just sitting there waiting to sabotage the career of any famous person who doesn’t go back and do a hasty purge. (Someone like Gunn, who seemed to have left his own bad tweets intact as evidence of his later personal growth, apparently learned the wrong lesson from our age of weaponized social media histories.)
The act of dredging up and passing judgment on someone’s past social media posts is not new. You can look back as recently as 2015 to witness something similar happen to Trevor Noah before he took over The Daily Show — even if that particular instance of outrage was spurred much more by those on the left, who took issue with lazy, hacky jokes the comedian had made based on several awful stereotypes.
Still, Noah’s experience reflects a subtle but notable shift that occurred in the short period of time between Harmon’s Daryl (made in 2009) and most of Noah’s tweets (which were made just a few years later, in 2011 and 2012): At a certain point, ironic, shock-driven humor stopped being a cool way to get noticed, as more people realized it was an easy way to smuggle actual racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice into the discourse.
That’s because shock humor didn’t only reside on Twitter and YouTube. It also resided on 4chan and the other forums that gave rise to the alt-right, and it was too often expressed as, essentially, a kind of racist or sexist or [take your pick of any prejudice you like, really] gag that still said what everybody really thought. The key difference was that a great comedian could find a way to twist ironic racism so that the punchline was aimed at the ironic racist — an approach that had its pitfalls but was miles more nuanced than the slew of genuinely anti-Semitic images and other horrible “jokes” that spew out of various alt-right depositories.
And such “jokes” are the defining element of chan culture, where if you care, then you’ve lost and everybody can laugh at you. The idea is provocation for its own sake, but when you stew in that provocation long enough, it becomes extremely easy to forget where the jokes end, as described in this recent BuzzFeed article about an alt-right rising star who murdered his own father after accusing him of being a leftist pedophile.
The thing about Daryl or South Park or even James Gunn’s tweets is that even if you don’t think the jokes work, even if you believe they’re couching truly terrible things in irony while failing to consider the potential irresponsibility of those tactics, they’re all, on some level, coming from a place of thought and craft. They’re all trying to say something — about modern society, or about how ingrained horrible ideas are in our culture, or just about the TV show Dexter.
The great irony of this bad-faith war on comedians and other Hollywood figures by right-wing internet mobs is that the right-wing internet mobs are ultimately just as steeped in shock comedy culture as anybody else. But they’ve never understood what that culture intended, what its context was, or why some people found it funny. They only heard the racism and never the irony, and maybe that’s as perfect a parable for how we got to now as anything else.