The Rise of “Clapter” Comedy

eichner-difficult-peopleWhen news broke last week that FX’s critically acclaimed comedy Atlanta would finally be returning for its second season, I marked the occasion by rereading one of my favorite profiles of Donald Glover, which was published back in August 2016. Speaking to Vulture about the show’s creative priorities, Glover said the following:

“The No. 1 thing we kept coming back to is that it needs to be funny first and foremost. I never wanted this shit to be important. I never wanted this show to be about diversity; all that shit is wack to me. There’s a lot of clapter going on. A lot of n−−−−− be like …” — Glover started clapping exaggeratedly — “‘So true, yes, so, so true.’ But what you did isn’t funny; they’re just clapping and laughing to be on the right side of history.”

Revisiting this interview this past weekend, I was struck by the perceptiveness of Glover’s comments. Despite not paying much attention to his usage of the term “clapter” on my first read-through, reading it again, I was immediately able to pinpoint the phenomenon he was referring to. Glover was using this portmanteau—evidently coined by Seth Meyers over a decade ago— to bemoan an identifiable strain of message-driven comedy that inadvertently prioritizes political pandering above comedic merit.

Subconsciously, I was primed to home in on this passage this time around, because usage of the term “clapter” has become increasingly widespread since this profile was initially published. In an era marked by incredibly boring and shortsighted conversations about whether Donald Trump is indeed good for comedy, I’ve seen this term pop up everywhere, from podcast discussions to Reddit threads to an episode of the now-canceled Hulu sitcom Difficult People, where Billy Eichner’s character gets a job as a warmup comic and is instructed to win over the crowd with prewritten “clapter” talking points, like “Osama bin Laden is still dead” and “How many of you here hate AIDS?”

Given all of this conversation about “clapter,” it would seem misguided to deny that there is unquestionably some evidence that this phenomenon is adversely affecting the art form. Signs of these effects can be seen almost nightly on the plethora of late night talk shows that attempt to satirize Trump but are unable to do so as effectively as he does himself. Monologue segments have turned into a series of repetitive jokes, middling impressions, and verbatim tweet recitals, but they nonetheless continue to elicit enthusiastic reactions from crowds, who can relate broadly to the overarching sentiment of “Holy shit, our president is bad.”

It’s telling, then, that one of the highest-profile examples of this phenomenon took place during Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue the weekend immediately following Trump’s election. “America has done it; we’ve actually elected an internet troll as our president,” Chappelle said, parroting a well-wrought observation that had been made thousands of times leading up to the election. Even accounting for his comedy chops, it was a tepid and unoriginal joke that had every reason to fall flat. The crowd nonetheless laughed heartily, evidently looking for anything to latch their very palpable Trump resentment onto.

Considering how much the upswing in “clapter” can be tied to the rise of Trump, it would seem tempting for those who believe that comedy is being ruined by an excess of liberal oversensitivity to point to “clapter” as proof of this claim. The fact that even the great Dave Chappelle isn’t immune to this trap, however, is instructive. There are many examples of comedians like Chappelle—who aren’t exactly known for being excessively politically correct—trafficking in “clapter,” just as there are many examples of boundary-pushing comedy routines that are sympathetic to social justice issues. Undoubtedly, it would be easier to track this phenomenon if this weren’t the case, but “clapter” exists as its own beast, entirely distinct from the exceedingly dull conversation about the impact of political correctness on comedy.

That said, if it seems that the majority of “clapter” material happens to lean liberal, it’s only because conservative comedy is a virtually non-existent niche. With the exception of Dennis Miller, there are very few comedians who openly identify as conservative, and those who do rarely discuss these viewpoints on stage. They may sidestep the topic of politics altogether, or mine material from what they perceive to be hypocrisy amongst liberals, but rarely will they stand on stage and deliver unironic jokes about being pro-life or anti-immigration. I don’t particularly lament this, but it seems almost like a wasted opportunity. In the current political landscape, there would almost certainly be a lucrative market for this type of performance.

I say this with some degree of confidence, because I’ve seen clips of Andrew Dice Clay performing at the height of his popularity in the late ‘80s. If Clay was indeed playing an irreverent caricature on stage—as he claims to have been—it would seem that this nuance was lost on the raucous audiences of his shows, who packed into stadiums to recite his misogynistic nursery rhymes from memory and clap enthusiastically at racist rants about “urine-colored” immigrants. Watching these clips, the mood of the audience feels less like that of a crowd watching a comedy show and more like that of a crowd attending a rally. It’s undoubtedly more insidious, but on paper, the reaction of this crowd is not entirely dissimilar to that which you’d see at a W. Kamau Bell show. Admittedly, this is a bit of an exaggerated false equivalency (I vastly prefer Bell’s comedy to Clay’s), but I make this point to illustrate that “clapter” is not a partisan trend.

As far as a cross-section of comedians go, Chappelle, Clay, and Bell represent a fairly dissimilar group. And yet, if all three of them have been guilty of eliciting “clapter” to some extent, it calls into question the very notion that any one of them is deliberately employing tactics to produce this response. The common denominator between the “clapter” provoked by these three comics is not their styles, perspectives, or politics, but rather the mob mentality of their audiences. When people congregate in groups, they act in unison in a way that is not always conducive to the creation of inspired comedy. They laugh at jokes they wouldn’t ordinarily laugh at, but for the contagious nature of the laughter around them, and they clap at things they wouldn’t ordinarily clap at because it feels rude not to join in. In and of itself, this is not a particularly challenging problem, and it can be combated easily enough through adequate repetition and stage time.

Unfortunately, this problem has been compounded by the fact that consumers are increasingly turning to comedy, somewhat indistinguishably from our informational echo chambers, as a means to stoke and reinforce our personal perspectives. We inform ourselves by watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, look to comedians to serve as the mouthpieces for our internal monologues, and take cues from standups about whether it’s okay to harbor some of the darker thoughts we possess. In theory, this sounds mostly harmless, but in practice, it serves to reinforce the herdlike quality of the audiences who attend comedy shows. The people who pay to see Hari Kondabolu are not simply a collection of disparate individuals who like his jokes, but rather a homogeneous group of like-minded bodies who possess the same values and reference points. No one shows up to a Kondabolu show needing to hear his humorous perspective on why it’s misguided to use “all lives matter” rhetoric. They get it already. They wouldn’t have shown up if this weren’t the case.

Watching the performances of comedians who are particularly prone to fostering these types of audiences, though, it’s often evident that they’re the ones who are most frustrated by it. They’re well aware that their ultimate job on stage is to be funny and, oftentimes, you can see them recoil when they can barely get through a politically focused setup without an entire room of people bursting into uproarious applause. You can see it in this clip of Kondabolu, where the momentum of one of his jokes is disrupted by applause, so he’s forced to say “Thanks choir!” in order to re-establish himself. The same can be said of Seth Meyers, who makes it a point to talk over audiences until they stop clapping during his politically charged “Closer Look” segments. Along the same lines is the British comedian Stewart Lee, who once sarcastically mocked a response of “clapter” by saying: “Hear that applause? That’s what I like. I’m not interested in laughs. I prefer applause. […] What I’m aiming for is a temporary mass liberal consensus.”

As long as comics continue to take creative approaches like these to avoid inspiring “clapter,” the problem will probably never balloon out of control. As of right now, though, I’d argue that the phenomenon has been a tad overstated. For all of this article’s dedicated analysis, we’ve still yet to see a comedian break into the mainstream strictly on the merits of their political beliefs. Ensuring that this continues to be the case will be one of the challenges faced by comedians as we proceed further in this era of hyper-politicization. It’s not practical to expect all comedians to be as committed to combating this problem as Bell—who, at one point, actively sought to cultivate a more diverse audience by offering two-for-one tickets to anyone who attended his shows with a member of a different race—but comedians should certainly continue making an effort to be conscientious of “clapter” by observing when it happens and doubling down on strong joke writing. Thinking diligently about this and being vigilant is how we avoid a dystopian reality where I’m forced to log in to Netflix and watch a new standup hour by the panelists of MSNBC.

Hershal Pandya is a writer based in Toronto, whose writing has appeared on popular websites like Pigeons & PlanesPacific Standard, and The Hill.

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