Every month we will be inviting our readers to pitch us articles on a theme revealed in our regular newsletter. This month’s theme was The Future of Satire and we picked Jessica Aszkenasy’s pitch which looks forward and back on satire, who used it then and who uses it now…
The Oxford English Dictionary defines satire as follows: “A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, especially as a form of social or political commentary. Frequently with on, of, against.”
Society has needed satire to wrestle governments and corporations into social reform. Historically, it was a literary weapon used to poke fun at the king and his court, wielded by a rebellious few (who sported a not too shabby upper-middle-class upbringing of their own, for the most part, #notallsatirists) to defend the ‘less fortunate’ (ie. everyone else). Voltaire, Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes: the original #edgelords.
In 2020, power is arguably as much in the hands of the media than it is in those of politicians. Similarly to journalism, the end goal of satire is to hold power to account, throw in a dick joke or two. And what happens when journalism gets it wrong? Well, cue Twitter. Cue comedians. Cue literally anyone with a podcast.
Today anyone with a smartphone can be a satirist in 280 characters. All you need is a Twitter account and some low-level Photoshop skills (if you really want to push the boat out) to turn whichever buffoon is holding court at Number 10 into a meme, at fairly minimal risk. Thanks to social media, diffusing satire at a mass scale is more accessible than ever. A very Voltaire-approved outcome IMO (but sacré bleu, he’d want you to know it was his idea first).
But if everyone’s a satirist, who’s left to satirise the masses? US comedians are particularly nimble at finding the balance between highlighting where society needs to improve and staying true to their position as court jesters. Michelle Wolf’s hosting of the Correspondents’ Dinner at the White House in 2018 was a perfect example of satire taking aim at everyone, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum.
Wolf opened her set by saying: “Just a reminder to everyone, I’m here to make jokes, I have no agenda, I’m not trying to get anything accomplished. So, everyone that’s here from Congress, you should feel right at home.” She stuck to her word, taking aim at Republicans, Democrats, CNN, Fox News, and of course the President, skewering every single one in just under twenty minutes.
Taking on both satire and journalism in one fell swoop, US comedians Corinne Fisher and Joe DeRosa started the Without A Country podcast at the beginning of the year. The hosts look at the way news stories from the passing week are reported on by media outlets from the far left and the far right. The aim is to find some common ground somewhere in between the two extremes (while pointing out some fairly ludicrous reporting). Instead of tackling The Issues head-on, the angle they take is that of “Ha! Isn’t this so fucked?!” rather than IMBIBE YOURSELF IN MY ALMIGHTY RHETORIC MERE MORTALS OF THE AUDIENCE.
That’s not to say comedy that conveys a message is necessarily preachy. Dave Chapelle talking about racism in the US is a great example of this. His “White People’s Weaknesses” joke on Netflix’s Youtube channel released in January looks at why white people getting upset about NFL players taking the knee is absurd. It’s pure storytelling. Chapelle builds the joke up with a panorama of historical events and references to Michael Jackson and Barack Obama, without a hint of condescension or hostility in sight.
The nature of the comedy mentioned above is less confessional, which is the avenue many comedians take in the UK. Storytelling is the method many great UK comics use as a vehicle to slip in political critique. And many do so brilliantly.
Where the waters become murky is when critique is soaked in unhealed trauma. When the joke is coming from a place of pain, rather than a place of lightness. The goal of satire is to present new ideas to people under the guise of entertainment. But when trauma takes centre stage, jokes turn into shouting, laughter dwindles and the conversation becomes one-sided. And just how receptive can an audience be to an idea when they are being shouted at?
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