Meet Russia Today’s All-American Satirist
Comedian Lee Camp scoffs at allegations that his show is Kremlin propaganda
- Washington D.C.
There were no seats, so the audience had to stand or settle for the floor. Those of us on our feet had been warned not to bump into the giant camera around which we were huddled.
“You guys feel comfortable? No? Excellent!” shouted correspondent Naomi Karavani.
Then, the much-anticipated entrance: Our host, comedian Lee Camp, 36, with his asymmetric middle-part and Jesus beard, appeared abruptly through the door and traversed the small crowd. Raucous cheers and applause greeted him as he reached his desk and began to hover over his chair. While a production assistant hooked a cable up to his ear, Camp spread the lapels of his blazer and rotated his body, slowly, so all could see that his t-shirt bore a logo for Ingsoc, the ruling party from George Orwell’s “1984.”
It was nine days after the U.S. election, and we were in the Washington, D.C. studios of the Kremlin-funded TV network Russia Today, branded RT America in the U.S.
For more than two years, Lee Camp has hosted RT’s satiric weekly “Redacted Tonight.” It’s a show in the spirit of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” That means punchy comedic riffs, plus displays of outrage, news clips and crudely photoshopped collages. Camp’s own style is dense and preachy, and he expresses himself in a flat, nasal shout. But his anger is authentic.
“Outward anger is a representation of an internal anger that’s real, about our situation,” Camp told me.
By “our situation,” he means an unchallenged corporate kleptocracy that, he claims, controls mainstream American media, rigs elections and marginalizes dissent. Camp is a left-wing populist in the tradition of Occupy Wall Street, and his show is a sustained critique of American neoliberalism or, more broadly, the “system.”
He thinks of “Redacted Tonight” as an activist collective. “You know you’re part of a sentiment, a passion, an energy that grows in the country,” he said.
When I visited the show in November, the audience was a ragtag assemblage of contrarians across the age spectrum. Some were longtime Camp fans, others were first-timers, attracted by the promise of a grittier Jon Stewart.
There were Diane and Danash, both 31. They looked hip, dressed in muted colors and no logos. They had followed election night on RT America. “[CNN] is like a big show, a production, with no substance. No substance,” Danash said. “But RT, they were actually talking about the issues,” Diane, his companion, added.
Did the channel’s Russian funding bother them? “I don’t know,” Diane said. “If I started seeing things that are obviously propaganda, then I would be bothered. But it seemed very objective to me.” Danash compared RT to Voice of America, a US-government-financed global media organization. “America funds all kinds of stuff,” he said.
Lee Camp began to perform stand-up comedy at 17, with dreams of becoming a TV comedian like Jerry Seinfeld. But as his career progressed, so did his political consciousness.
“I wanted to be talking about something important,” he said. “I wanted to at least leave a little something in the mind of the audience that wasn’t just laughter.”
According to Camp, his political views killed his chances of landing a TV gig. “It became pretty clear that I couldn’t be on a network who is funded by advertisement because they don’t want you really attacking corporations,” he said.
As he performed stand-up, he channeled his TV dreams into a YouTube channel, which included a news-commentary series called “Moments of Clarity.” The series had low production values, but its weekly schedule got him in the habit of writing political comedy quickly and consistently. It became the prototype for “Redacted Tonight.”
RT first started inviting him as a commentator on other shows. Then, the network saw the potential for something more.
“They came to me and they said, ‘Can you create a comedy show?’ and I basically said, ‘Let’s do it!’” Camp recalled.
There are no signs that the Russian-government funding bothers him. When asked about it, he lambasted mainstream American media, which he claimed is so dependent on advertising that criticizing corporations is taboo. He said RT’s reliable Russian funding allows him to criticize everything other networks can’t, and called allegations that he is a Russian propagandist “hilarious.”
“I have immense freedom to say the same things I’ve been saying since long before I came to RT. ‘Moments of Clarity’ went for three years and three-hundred-some episodes and it’s all the same stuff that I’m doing now,” he said.
Camp sees hypocrisy in media outlets’ tendency to question his ties to Russia, but not mainstream media personalities’ ties to corporations.
“What I find truly insane is that we all know that NBC or CNN, etc. are largely funded by and supported by weapons-manufacturers and the military industrial complex,” he said, citing, for example, weapons-contractor GE’s co-ownership of NBC. “Yet never is an NBC anchor asked why they work for a company that helps blow up children on a daily basis.”
On an early episode of “Redacted Tonight,” Camp defended his choice to work for RT in simple terms: It was the only outlet that would give him a platform. In the segment, he implied that his choice to work for RT was like an environmentalist flying on an airplane—a necessary sacrifice toward a larger goal. There is little reason to doubt his sincerity.
Camp almost never mentions international politics, but that doesn’t mean his show doesn’t benefit his sponsors, the Russian government. In some ways, the relationship between “Redacted Tonight” and the RT propaganda machine best resembles the relationship between a television show and its advertisers.
Few people will turn on their television just to watch advertisements, so corporate networks create shows that trick audiences into watching commercials. Similarly, almost nobody wants to watch propaganda, so a propaganda channel like RT has to create compelling content—bells and whistles—that will attract audiences to its brand. And those bells and whistles need not necessarily be propaganda themselves.
Leeds University scholar Ilya Yablokov, who has researched Russia Today, points out that, most of the time, the channel operates just like a normal television network, trying to build as big an audience as possible.
“When there is no sharp conflict between Russia and the West, [RT] covers anything which would appeal to a potential audience,” he said. “And who is this audience? Who cares! Maybe that’s their strategy.”
When Russian propaganda does happen, it happens mostly in RT’s news programs. Camp told me as much, referring to a kind of separation of powers.
“RT America has kind of two sides to it,” he said. “It’s got the news and it’s got the opinions side. And you know the news is the news side, and if you look on their website they say RT News is the Russian perspective of news events in the world. The opinion side is our own shows.”
Still, “Redacted Tonight’s” avoidance of international politics and its anti-establishment bent fit comfortably within RT’s overall politics. The network’s slogan—”Question More”—reflects its embrace of fringe views as a matter of policy. While Camp is not a conspiracy theorist per se, he often veers into a level of skepticism that puts him at the fringes of accepted discourse.
In a 2015 paper, Yablokov warned that conspiracy theory is central to Russia Today’s political mission.
“The populist, anti-elitist claim of conspiracy theorists in RT’s programmes aims at uniting the imagined global community of ‘the people’ against the dangerous ‘Other,’ represented by the US establishment,” he wrote.
At the bar where Camp socializes with his audience after each show, I met Hristo, a jovial “Redacted Tonight” fan who told me he thought RT doesn’t go far enough for fear of being called conspiracy theorists. A local IBM employee who looked to be in his thirties, Hristo said he was one of only two people in his 56-person workplace who predicted Trump’s victory. I asked him what he thought RT and “Redacted Tonight” would do now that they could no longer cover the election, during which the show saw its YouTube engagement soar.
“I think they will continue pounding the Democrats,” Hristo said, with some satisfaction.
Last week, on December 16, Camp hosted his fourth show since the election; it criticized Trump’s climate plans, Texas’s new abortion law, and Nestlé. But it began with the election, which Camp believes was rigged.
“No, there’s no proof it was Russians,” Camp said, rolling his eyes. But then he considered the possibility. A photo appeared behind him, depicting fictional Russian boxer Ivan Drago from the movie Rocky IV punching an elderly voter. As Camp pantomimed Drago destroying ballots, he joked that he wished it had been the Russians.
“Look, I have a comedy show!” he shouted, turning his palms toward the camera as if pleading for understanding. “If the world’s gonna be shitty, I want it to be shitty in, like, a crazy way.”
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