September 13, 2017

No laughing matter

The following contains information which some readers may interpret in a political sense. That isn't the case; as you'll see, there's really nothing political about what follows, but if your name is Ray G., or if you just don't want to take the chance, come on back Friday for our ideology-free look around the dial - I won't be offended. I promise. Not much, that is.

Anyway, what you've just read is an example - perhaps not a very good one, but an example nonetheless - of satire. The dictionary (or one of them, anyway) defines satire as "the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues." That sounds about right. However, nowhere in this definition does it say anything about the ultimate goal of satire, whether or not it has any purpose, anything its purveyor hopes to accomplish, other than the aforementioned exposure or criticism. We'll get to that in a moment, since it's the heart of the discussion.

For just about as long as television has been around, so has satire. In fact, as this brilliant radio bit by Stan Freberg shows, the first satirist came on the scene not long after the first event worth satirizing. And not long after the first satirist came the first nervous network executive, worried about the effect the satire would have on the show's advertisers. Sic semper erat, et sic semper erit. Throughout the years television has provided a fertile opportunity for satirists to ply their trade, as guests on variety and talk shows, in comedy sketches, and on sitcoms.

This isn't intended to be a history of satire, though, and you probably could get a better one from the always-reliable Wikipedia; what got me thinking in this direction was an episode of Malcolm Gladwell's podcast called "The Satire Paradox." I'm not going to describe it at any length - you can and should check it out for yourself. But if you know anything about Gladwell, then you know he often goes about poking holes in popularly-held beliefs, so it should come as no surprise that there is indeed a paradox when it comes to satire, that is: satire has no effect on the things it satirizes.

The focus of Gladwell's study is on the British comedian Harry Enfield, who during the Margaret Thatcher years became enormously popular for a satiric character he called Loadsamoney. It was a vicious attack on Thatcher's England, symbolizing everything that liberals felt was wrong with conservative policies. And yet, when all was said and done, and Gladwell asked Enfield what the character had accomplished, how it had changed things, he was surprised by the answer: nothing. And, Gladwell continues, this shouldn't be a surprise, because all down the line, that has been the answer with satire: it has changed nothing. I've written about All in the Family before; a goodly number of the show's fans actually agreed with Archie Bunker's opinions, and Gladwell mentions that the show's ultimate effect was to reinforce the prejudices of its viewers.

Taking a look at a more recent program, Comedy Central's Colbert Report, a similar study showed that both liberals and conservatives felt Stephen Colbert's fake conservative news character was telling it like it was: liberals naturally saw in his O'Reilly spoof an obvious satire on conservative politics; conservatives, on the other hand, didn't actually believe Colbert's character was genuine, but what they did believe was that buried in his broad humor was, as is so often the case, a kernel of truth. Heather Lamarre, co-author of a study on Cobert's humor, was I think, somewhat surprised by this, but she shouldn't have been, for I think we've always known that buried somewhere in the funniest situations is the truth, whether it's intentional or not.*

*This was part of Colbert's genius - the ability to appeal to liberals and conservatives alike - which is what ultimately made his selection to succeed Letterman such a bad choice by CBS. Unless they could have bought the "Colbert character" from Comedy Central, Colbert would be forced to play himself, and eventually he'd be forced to alienate half of his audience, as indeed I think he has, by clearly becoming a partisan. Of course, your mileage may vary, and there's nothing wrong with this if it makes money for the network.

In discussing Tina Fey's portrayal of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, Gladwell attempts to get to the heart of the matter: Fey's satire was too funny, too good at drawing laughs, to be truly effective satire, and this "toothless satire" tends to be emblematic of what appears on American television. Now, I'm not sure I agree with this rationale, but after thinking about it for awhile I think I understand what Gladwell's point is. Does the satirist simply hope to gain laughs from the audience, or does that person actually hope to use satire to point out the awfulness of something in an attempt to get people to think seriously about it?

One of Gladwell's sources referred to satire as, and I'm paraphrasing here, the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down - or, in this case, the harsh reality that people are too reluctant to face head-on otherwise. And it's true that humor can be a great way of facing uncomfortable truths. But that's assuming that facing the truth is what you want to accomplish, and not just getting a cheap laugh at someone else's expense.

I think the problem with effective satire today is that too much of it is preaching to the choir. Think about it for a moment: how many politically conservative people do you know who watch Saturday Night Live? A few, maybe, but probably not a lot. I myself haven't watched it in probably 30 years. And because Gladwell finds both Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert funny in a way that I don't, he might not agree with, or even think of, where I'm going with this. But it seems a reasonable assumption that most of the people who do watch SNL already agree with the show's political agenda (in a way that might not have been true with The Colbert Report), and therefore the savage humor that the show produces week after week is largely falling on deaf ears. It's not meant to illuminate or educate people, to get them to change their minds or even consider another point of view. No, in reality what it does is serve to reinforce the opinions already held by its core audience. And there's nothing wrong with that - my purpose isn't to criticize SNL for left-of-center humor, just to suggest that if you really want to get people to think about something, to take your satire seriously, perhaps you might try being less antagonistic, less obvious, more subtle.

There's another problem with satire, something that Jonathan Coe suggests in another article to which Gladwell refers, and that is that satire can cause people to cease to take anything or anyone seriously, a particularly dangerous attitude in this day and time. Rather than being moved to take action, satire eventually overwhelms a listener to the point that they become a cynic, seeing any type of reaction as useless. Or, what could be even worse, it allows for a kind of "plausible deniability," an opportunity for the viewer to, as Michael Frayn put it, "disclaim with laughter any responsibility for this situation, and so relieve their consciences without actually voting for anything which might have reduced their privileges." In other words, satire provides an audience already predisposed to agreeing with the point of view of the satirist with the opportunity to signal their approval through laughter. It is, in a way, a kind of "virtue signaling," to use an in-vogue term. Referring to a sketch by the famed British comedian Peter Cook on the show Beyond the Fringe, Coe concludes that "The sketch makes it clear that laughter is not just ineffectual as a form of protest, but that it actually replaces protest."

That single line, I think, is what unites these two theories that I have, a unity that Gladwell may hint at but doesn't necessarily voice himself. Today's satire is ineffective because it is, on the one hand, not really interested in creating a dialogue or raising someone's consciousness, the way really effective satire can. On the other hand, because it performs to people who already "get" its truth, it eventually becomes a surrogate, a substitute, for doing anything useful. No matter which way you take it, the satirist fails if his hope was to generate any kind of real awareness or change. At best, he (or she) has to be satisfied with laughs and boatloads of money. If that's all you're after, then that's fine.

Ultimately, I don't know what all this proves. As long as ratings and sponsor dollars are important, satire on television is always going to pull its punches one way or another. Either it will become toothless in an attempt not to offend, or it substitutes approval for a call to action. It's been that way since television started, and those who've tried to practice it have complained about it ever since. As it turns out, though, perhaps it was much ado about nothing, because it seems as if that skit that got everyone so worked up, or that series that gave people fits, or those jokes that outraged one side or the other - well, in the end, none of it mattered at all.

Someone ought to write a bit about that. It would have to be satire, of course.


  1. While I like your article I think their is a confusion between parody and satire. Parody makes fun of things in a humorous way, a burlesque. Satire skewer's the thing with a sharp sword. Satire does not have to be funny. Satire should be uncomfortable because it skewers even if it is humorous. Take Stan Freberg as an example. He considered what he was doing on his 45s as satire. What he didn't like he satirized. But everybody laughed along because it was satire that most people agreed with. That pop music was stupid and Lawerence Welk was silly. Then came Green Christma$ which hurt because the satire was thought to be directed at Christmas. When it was really directed at consumerism. Though the radio stations who wouldn't play the records knew it was directed at them and the commercials they played. That ended the satire 45s. Leaving Freberg an Ad Man who subtly satirized the commercial form within the commercial.

  2. Mitchell

    Your article was thought provoking. However, I wonder, is satire more a genre for liberals then conservatives? I notice this genre is popular with liberals but I notice few conservatives seem to go in for it. Is that a true perception?

    George Everson


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!