When we recorded the Jaspers episode with Paul Provenza I had the good fortune to be in his home of Los Angeles. I was able to meet up with him and his assistant for the recording and along with my wife we met for a meal several days later. I had been re-reading his book ¡Satiristas! and he and I got into a spirited discussion of whether comics, specifically the satirist, have any kind of obligation to their audience or their art. I had trouble formulating an argument in favor of my vague intuition that they do and we parted before I articulated anything to my satisfaction. This is an attempt to do so.
¡Satiristas! is a series of interviews with comic performers and writers with some degree of satirical bent. The main question Paul poses in the book is whether satirical comedy is meant to simply entertain (get a laugh) or to change people’s minds (or more broadly change the world). Typically he puts the question at first positively to the particular individual – ‘Do you try to change minds or entertain?’ and follows with a broader normative version – ‘Should satirical comedy try and change minds or just entertain?’ Surprising to me, a majority of the comics profess to solely be interested in getting a laugh. Something about that just doesn’t sit well with me.
The dictionary.com entry on satire reads:
See irony. burlesque, caricature, parody, travesty. Satire, lampoon refer to literary forms in which vices or follies are ridiculed. Satire, the general term, often emphasizes the weakness more than the weak person, and usually implies moral judgment and corrective purpose
This dictionary of literary devices posits a more explicitly normative structure:
Satire is a technique employed by writers to expose and criticize foolishness and corruption of an individual or a society by using humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule. It intends to improve humanity by criticizing its follies and foibles. A writer in a satire uses fictional characters, which stand for real people, to expose and condemn their corruption.
A writer may point a satire toward a person, a country or even the entire world. Usually, a satire is a comical piece of writing which makes fun of an individual or a society to expose its stupidity and shortcomings. In addition, he hopes that those he criticizes will improve their characters by overcoming their weaknesses. [emphasis mine]
Perhaps a more credible and I think more useful source is A Glossary of Literary Terms, 9th Edition. Ed. M.H. Abrams. Thomson Wadsworth. There are two entries of interest: the first is under “Comedy” and the second is the entry on “Satire” itself.
(2) Satiric comedy ridicules political policies or philosophical doctrines, or else attacks deviations from the social order by making ridiculous the violators of its standards of morals or manners. (See satire.)
Satire can be described as the literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation. It differs from the comic in that comedy evokes laughter mainly as an end in itself, while satire derides; that is, it uses laughter as a weapon, and against a butt that exists outside the work itself. That butt may be an individual (in “personal satire”), or a type of person, a class, an institution, a nation, or even…the entire human race.
The role of satire is to ridicule or criticize those vices in the society, which the writer considers a threat to civilization. The writer considers it his obligation to expose these vices for the betterment of humanity. Therefore, the function of satire is not to make others laugh at persons or ideas they make fun of. It intends to warn the public and to change their opinions about the prevailing corruption/conditions in society. [emphasis mine]
There is a lot of interesting stuff in here to unpack. Let’s begin with the notion that laughter can be an end-in-itself or be used as a weapon. The presumption is that laughter used as a weapon – satiric derision – intends to cause harm to the target. How would that harm be caused exactly? In the case of an individual it would be shame or embarrassment that causes emotional or mental anguish. In the case of a class, institution, society or race – what? How would any of those things be harmed? I contend that they would only be harmed insofar as the individuals who constitute those groups were harmed; that is, only to the extent that the relevant individuals were embarrassed or shamed. Which of course becomes problematic when individual(s) don’t feel either in the face of satire.
At another level satire can be intended to produce change for the better or improvement. A prerequisite for this to function properly is that a) the subject of the satire can change and b) the subject itself is (at least by the standards of the group or society) immoral, corrupt, depraved, etc. or minimally foolish or absurd. Something that cannot be changed is structurally incapable of moral value and to make fun of it is simply cruelty. Consider the difference between satirizing a person’s attitude and their physical handicap. The mechanism for betterment of the individual or the society is in pointing out the thing that is considered ‘bad’ by the standards of the group and motivating personal behavioral change through shame/embarrassment or social change through opinion that impacts legislation, policy or behavior. This again is problematic if the target or audience for the satire doesn’t see the subject as bad or change as possible.
These address the structure and target of satire. The other side of the equation involves the satirist. First, there is the question of authorial (comedic) intention. It seems to me that there are a number of possible levels of intention, none exclusive of any other.
- Egocentric – desire to get a laugh to fulfill a personal need such as validation
- Altruistic – desire to make others laugh for relief, amusement or entertainment
- Critical – desire to use satire to make an intellectual or conceptual point about the status quo
- Moral – desire to use laughter to change other’s opinions and by extension the society or world
The latter two are related though I see a difference between the last two in that the moral motivation adds an emotional component to the critical motivation to inspire action, whereas the critical by itself could stand as social commentary without the suggestion of change. I’m not so firm on this that I would disagree with the view that they are really two aspects of the same thing.
In ¡Satiristas! the fallback response for the comedians who claim not to be motivated by critical or moral concerns is the altruistic motivation. Some explicitly acknowledge the egocentric motivation and based on the vast body of interviews of comedians I’ve read and heard I’m sure most have it. The question in my mind is whether someone who claims to be doing satire can meaningfully hold the line at altruism. There is a value decision in the comic’s decision of both subject and approach which I think implies at least the critical motivation and, in my view, the moral.
On numerous occasions I have heard smart, thoughtful comics complain about hack comics that aren’t invested in their material making lame points about banal subjects. Their attitude towards the hackery I heard most elegantly stated by Patton Oswalt (though I’m sure others have said the same) as ‘Really? That’s what you’re angry about?’ The implication is that a comic who is serious about her craft and invested in the art form makes conscious choices in material and is motivated emotionally or intellectually. It is this type of choice that I claim has a normative component that entails – necessarily – the critical and moral motivation.
This is perhaps a bit strong. There are plenty of smart, thoughtful comics who are not obviously motivated by anger (or similar feeling). Think Jim Gaffigan or Brian Regan. Those comics, however, are not satirists. Satire is something one engages in when one is at least vexed and more likely angry about a subject. So motivated the satirist takes at least a critical and, I claim, a moral stance towards her subject. To claim otherwise is a form of false consciousness in the most genuinely existential, philosophical sense.
Another aspect of satire that highlights the moral component is the necessity of an unequal power relation between the satirist and her subject. This is rarely explicit but always present. Satire is a tool of the weak against the strong. When the powerful satirize the weak it is cruelty. I think it is this more than anything that contributes to the false consciousness I mentioned above. Aristophanes may have been the first satirical comic but the paradigm for modern satire is the court jester. The jester was the definition of powerless – the lowest ranking member of the court permitted to speak. Derided, scorned and existing outside of the political and social hierarchy, the jester could have no meaningful impact on the functioning of the court. It was precisely this position that empowered the jester to be the only public critic of the monarch. He was powerless ergo he was permitted to be critical of the monarch – but only satirically.
The legacy that only the truly powerless are permitted to satirize power informs the modern view that satirists have no real power and so are just in it for a laugh. The view that ‘I’m just a comic’ is a call back to the function of the jester. This view is undermined, however, when one realizes that the social and political structure that made the jester-monarch relationship possible no longer exists. Choosing satire as a medium and choosing powerful individuals, organizations or structures as targets entails responsibility for that choice.
The comedian as satirist can simultaneously claim a moral position and the desire for change while entertaining. Denial – false consciousness – is a defense mechanism against the extreme difficulty of holding that position. It is hard to remain funny and poignant while being outraged. Holding the line between satire and indignant criticism or political activism is a balancing act with real consequences for failure. One might cease to be a comic and become a part of the power structure (Al Franken, Dennis Miller). One might be pilloried and marginalized (Janeane Garofalo). One can be driven to extreme behavior, drugs or mental illness (Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce). Few survive and excel (Chris Rock, Lewis Black).
I’ll leave the topic here though I think there is something to be said about the special and exceptional case of satire as performance exemplified by Stephen Colbert. Perhaps another post. My argument can be summarized as follows: satire by design has a normative component. Satirists highlight things that they believe should be different. That ‘should’ entails a desire for change or action that goes beyond simple entertainment or self-gratification. Any satirist who denies this is denying something essential about her work.
Let me close by talking about the need and purpose of satire in the world today. In Friedrich Hölderlin’s elegy Bread and Wine he asks ‘What are poets for in destitute times?’ (“Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?”). Dürftig indicates a scarcity or a lack – in a harvest metaphor one might say ‘lean’ or ‘meager’ years. In Bread and Wine, the scarcity is holiness which poets must recover and to which they must testify. Our time is scarce in informed criticism, shame, openness to changing beliefs, gratitude and compassion. It has an overabundance of fear, anger, meanness, inequity and selfishness. It is the job of the satirist to testify to this dire state of affairs.
In making the connection between the comic as satirist and Hölderlin’s poet as divine messenger I also recall our episode on Lynda Walsh’s Scientists as Prophets. Walsh makes a convincing case that a key if not the key function of prophets is to call the community back to shared covenant values and bring about social or political consensus in times of crises. Her focus is on scientists as political advisers and I think some part of her analysis is valid for satirists as well. Humor is a rhetorical device that can make difficult or painful subjects palatable for contemplation. The satirist is using humor to create a form of consensus through the experience of laughter to remind us of shared, human values that are not exemplified by the target of the satire – but should be.