For the free exchange of ideas
October 2017 issue
America's satire problem
How a nation's sense of humor was stolen
By Justin Henry
America is in a satire crisis. The Onion wrote straightforward polemics against the president, Kathy Griffin photographed herself holding the president’s bloodied head and even Christopher Buckley broke off from satire to write historical fiction. The role of satirist has been usurped by President Donald Trump who devotes mind and body, Daniel Day Lewis-style, to political
You can see the president try to continue his schtick of trolling the establishment well into his presidency. In an interview with John Dickerson of CNN’s “Face the Nation,” he mocked the respected journalist to his face, renaming his program “Deface the Nation”.
Throughout history, satire has been society’s court jester, the subversive voice able to get away with criticizing authority by ironically embracing the thing it satirizes. For the jaded, disenchanted Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, Trump is this court jester, taking on politics while undermining political norms. But what happens when the court jester becomes king and his subversive trolling becomes law? Since this absurdist comedy reached the height of political office, the nation’s satirists have turned to polemicists.
Four decades ago, the political spectacle of Trumpism was safely restricted to a half-hour block of a television program called “All in the Family," the first prime time show to explicitly address racism, sexism and other -isms.
“Our whole world has come crumbling down!” Archie said upon learning the Jeffersons, a black family, were moving in next door. “The coons are coming!”
The most progressive viewers identified with Michael “Meathead” Stivic, Archie’s son in law, for his pro-union, pro-civil rights stances. Progressives agreed with TV critics like John J. O’Connor that the show blew the whistle on domesticated bigotry through satire.
However, this rapier-wit was lost on the Wallace dixiecrats, an alt-right coalition for its time who identified with Archie’s resistance to a progressing world. Writing for The New York Times, cultural critic Laura Hobson said Carol O’Connor’s performance as Archie Bunker inadvertently condoned bigotry.
How can it be that, according to a Newsweek article from the same year the show premiered, CBS received letters of praise from both the reactionary right and the progressive left?
Satire assumes the role of whatever it satirizes; it ridicules by embracing its subject rather than dissociating from it like an editorial or straightforward polemic. How else could CBS have aired a show where the central character say “the coons are coming” on their airwaves without a knowing wink at the audience? Through the show’s perpetual state of self-awareness, the audience does not feel ashamed laughing at such a thing because they are in on the joke.
But by embracing racism, the show appealed to genuine racists as well. Audience perception is based on the audience’s preconceived political leanings, according to the 1974 paper “Archie Bunker’s racism: a study in selective perception and exposure,” written by Neil Vidmar, Duke University Russell M. Robinson II Professor Emeritus of Law, and Milton Rokeach, professor of psychology at Michigan State University.
Their study found something disheartening, that more survey respondents identified with Bunker’s racist attitudes than with Stivic’s rejection of them.
“The Colbert Report” was a case study in the paradox of satire. Stephen Colbert’s sarcastic homage to Bill O'Reilly was a delight for liberals to see right-wing TV personalities be properly skewered for their vindictive and prejudice attitudes.
“So...you’re a communist, right?” Colbert fires at left-wing journalist Amy Goodman.
It was equally comical for conservatives to see Colbert identify Goodman as communist.
Heather LaMarre, associate professor of communication and social Influence, media & communication at Temple University, focused on Colbert’s show in her study “The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the motivation to see what You Want in the Colbert Report”. While there was no difference in the likeliness that both conservatives and liberals would find the show funny, LaMarre found their explanation of why it was funny drastically different.
“[Conservatives] were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements,” LaMarre wrote in the abstract.
The reason for satire’s flexibility is that it works with the viewer’s preconceived leanings since any decisive political stance is obscured by levels of irony and sarcasm. The profundity of satire, according to Northrop Frye’s paper “The Nature of Satire”, lies in its ability to produce mutually exclusive interpretations, rather than the politics projected onto it by the reader.
“Satire, in short, is the completion of the logical process known as the reductio ad absurdum, and that is not designed to 'hold one in perpetual captivity, but to bring one to the point at which one cannot escape from an incorrect procedure,” Frye wrote.
Satire in the Age of Trump
Christopher Buckley is a political satirist famous for his book “Thank You for Not Smoking” and a Wall Street Journal column from 1999 in which he drafts an inaugural address from a then-hypothetical President Trump.
However, after a multi-decade career of establishing himself as one of America’s most prolific satirical writers, Buckley wrote a historical novel in 2016. In a December 2016 interview on CSNBC’s Morning Joe, Buckley said American politics have become sufficiently self-satirizing.
Donald Trump began his campaign of satirizing the establishment when he courted the attention of Tea Party Republicans in 2009 by questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship, a trend of undermining Obama’s leadership that continued throughout his presidency. For left of center news outlets and pundits, he was a living, breathing exposé of right wing bigotry, just like Archie Bunker.
After reporting his announcement that Trump considered running for presidency on a 2013 episode of “The Daily Show”, correspondent John Oliver was still making jokes.
“Do it,” Oliver said with sarcastic earnest, staring at Trump through the camera. “I will personally write you a campaign check now on behalf of this country which does not want you to be president but which badly wants you to run.”
Three years later, when Trump was only months away from winning the election, Oliver’s tone changed drastically when on his own show, “Last Week Tonight”, he let loose a polemic against the Republican nominee’s tirade against the Kahn family.
“We may be on the brink of electing such a damaged, sociopathic, narcissist that comforting the families of fallen soldiers may actually be beyond his capabilities,” Oliver said.
Since the rise of Trumpism as a political force, the stakes of political issues has been raised substantially. Ku Klux Klan members march unmasked across the country, the President of the United States struggles to denounce nazis and North Korea tested a ballistic missile over Japan on Aug. 29. It is no longer enough for political comedy to please both sides of the political spectrum, just as journalists have shirked any conventional principles of nonpartisanship, as Mitchell Stephens wrote for POLITICO magazine.
Similarly, after transitioning from the satirical “The Colbert Report” to the straightforward “The Late Show”, Colbert sometimes trades his comic wit for direct crudeness when addressing Trump.
“The only thing you’re mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s c--k-holdster!” Colbert shouted at the camera.
The audience didn’t laugh. They cheered.
America’s age of plaintiff satire was challenged in Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel “The Sellout”, a recipient of the Man Booker Prize in October 2016 marking the first time it was won by an American author. It was originally marketed as a biting satire that would reinvigorate a conversation about race in Obama’s America which thought it had reached a point of color-blindness.
A quote from The Los Angeles Times is among the many featured on the book’s cover, depicting it as a book that speaks truth to power about race politics in the U.S.
“‘The Sellout,’ while riding beneath terrifying waves of American racial terror and heteropatriarchy, is among the most important and difficult American novels written in the 21st century,” wrote the Los Angeles Times.
The one person who disavowed any hyper-politicized reading of the book was Beatty himself. In an interview with PBS News Hour, he expressed a surprisingly cavalier view of his own work.
“I’m just kind of responding to myself, I guess,” Beatty said laughing. “I think I read something where someone was like, ‘Oh, black people were better off during segregation,’ and I just thought it would be so fun to see how segregation would work now.”
In an age where political neutrality is decried as complying with an oppressive system, Beatty plays with themes like police brutality and the aftermath of slavery for fun.
The greatest satirists in history like Voltaire and Jonathan Swift, Frye pointed out in his paper, did not just lampoon a given ideology, but the way its adherents proselytized it in public. For example, at the Grand Academy of Lagado in Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, the scientists shirk religious faith only to submit themselves to the dogma of their science.
“There is a great deal of hypocrisy and corruption in any church, and a great deal of superstition in popular worship,” Frye wrote. “Any really devout person would welcome a satirist who cauterized such infections as an ally of true religion. But once a hypocrite who sounds exactly like a good man is sufficiently blackened, the good man himself may begin to seem a little dingier than he was.”
The way preconceived ideas determine the view of a satirical work is called motivational cognition, according to LaMarre’s analysis, and it makes the satirical work a kind of political mood-ring, revealing the political leanings of the viewer.
But without this kind of satire, criticisms by Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee rob us of our cognitive participation, instead confirming our preconcieved biases with no self-awareness. However, Beatty’s book, “The Colbert Report” and “All in the Family” offer the chance for differently-minded people to laugh at the same thing and bridge their divides through humor. “The Daily Show”, “Last Week Tonight” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” embody the very political convictions ridiculed by their predecessors.
The punch-line of “Trumpism” was encapsulated by a viral video published a few days after Trump’s win by a YouTube channel called Predo. It was a montage of progressive comedians and pundits ensuring us that Trump was unelectable while laughing at his subversive political fanfare. Set to Edvard Grieg’s quickening “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, the montage ends with election night and CNN’s electoral map filling with red states and the sound of leftist candidates eating their own shoe.