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.