Saturday, July 19, 2008

Thoughts on Satire

In February This American Life aired an episode that included a fascinating peek into the writers room for The Onion (it can be streamed for free or downloaded for a buck here).  The way they parse the jokes made me so geekily jealous.  I do a fair amount of joke-parsing myself, and sometimes get it wrong when I post regularly on the “blog”.  I even started a twitter account because I wanted to see how often I could be clever in less than 140 characters (hit and miss).

Meanwhile, I can’t stop writing mediocre papers for classes about satire and irony.  Is satire persuasive?  Is irony always cruel?  Bakhtin on laughter has been really helpful in this regard, I think I’ll come back to it later, but these questions fascinate me.

Since I’m in love with serious talk about hilarity, I’m both crazy about and perplexed by the recent discussion about humor in the presidential campaign.  The controversial New Yorker cover spurned quite a bit of discussion about what kinds of jokes, if any, are acceptable to make about Obama.  My favorite is Andy Borowitz’s list of acceptable jokes, including this one: “A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Why the long face?’ Barack Obama replies, ‘His jockey just lost his health insurance, which should be the right of all Americans.’”

There also has been some discussion with differing levels of condescending about whether everyone will get the joke.  And, indeed, a recent pew survey found that 12% of Americans do think Obama is a muslim – they lack the shared sense of reality that is necessary to get the joke.

This leads me to my complaint about satire as a way to make arguments.  If your audience does not already agree with you, not only is satire unpersuasive, it goes right over the audience’s head.  Making fun of people is not the best way to make them come around to your side.  It is a good way to move undecided’s or energize those who agree with you, but that’s it.  

Of course, this isn’t quite that clean and easy (see Larknews or A Prairie Home Companion for a good example of people laughing at their own foibles) but I think it’s something we should be careful of.  Also, Cara Finnegan makes a good point that in the case of the New Yorker cover, the subject of the satire isn’t included in the image itself.  Moreover, the image bothers me because it helps keep these kinds of imaginings about the Obamas in circulation, adding to the general feeling of otherness that is being attached to them, which will affect undecided voters who go with their gut feeling on election day.

In other words, I love a good satire, but I didn’t think this was a particularly well-executed joke.  But the excessive coverage of it (my own blog now is complicit in this I suppose) is way more damaging than the cover image itself.


Bob K said...

Good post, Bethany. My gripe about the cover is the people who say something about taking it in the context of the article within the magazine. I may have even heard the editor say that. A magazine cover is, by it's very nature, out of context so I thought that the cover was a bad idea.

scrivener said...

I disagree about a couple of things, though you make some excellent points. First, I sincerely doubt that very many of that 12% is likely to have seen the New Yorker cover at all if the pundits had not been running out of interesting things to say about the election. Ask any of these 12% what was on the cover of any other issue within the past six months and you'll see what I mean. I bring this up because a magazine's editorial staff keeps its audience in mind first when selecting a cover. It seems highly unlikely that the cover keeps these kinds of imaginings in circulation otherwise. How could anyone have predicted the maelstrom that emerged? Should magazine covers be selected based on what MIGHT happen if the talking heads decide to make a big deal of them?

Second, I don't think it's as critical for the audience to agree with you as it is for you (the satirist) to have some kind of sense of the audience's field of experience. The gentle ribbing that A Prairie Home Companion aims at its audience works much better for people who've experienced the northern Midwest. Similarly, the audience of the New Yorker will typically have the memory of fifty covers every year. This Politics of Fear cover should reasonably have been expected to find its mark because its target audience understands the character of this, one in a long line of covers.

I agree with bob k about covers already being removed from the content of the magazine, but I do not think they are necessarily removed from the context of a history of covers. New Yorker covers are never in-your-face satirical; most play at gentle irony at their most pointed, which is how I saw the cover and how, I imagine, other readers of the New Yorker probably saw the cover.

bethany said...

scrivener, you make a good point. The media frenzy about the cover was several orders of magnitude stupider than the mediocre joke in the beginning. In fact, I don't even blame the editors for it. You can't be brilliant every time. I still think that covers, as the thing you see on newsstands (although probably most grocery stores don't stock the New Yorker next to their People and Cosmopolitan) should be considered for a somewhat wider audience.