Charlie Sheen commentary via The Onion.
Charlie Sheen commentary via The Onion.
Now we are back to satire and our mentor: P.G. Wodehouse.
During WWII many British citizens were in direct danger — in the bombings of London like our recent mentor Virginia Woolf, and those abroad in Europe when Germany came a-knockin’. Like our current mentor P.G. Wodehouse, who was in France when the Nazis rolled through. Wodehouse and his wife were rounded up, separated, and put through various prisons (camps).
Right after his release, Wodehouse accepted an invitation to broadcast to his fans that he was okay. He proceeded to make a few broadcasts, on Berlin’s airwaves — and was immediately villified.
Why? Because Wodehouse didn’t sit down at the microphone and condemn the Nazis, at least not in a direct way–he was on German broadcasts, after all. In his typical fashion, Wodehouse broadcasted satirically. As we’ve already seen with our New Yorker example, satire walks a fine line. While an election year may seem a pretty powder-keg moment to today’s audience, imagine a time of war. And not only war: World War II. The biggest war the world has ever seen. The most dangerous time for millions.
I’m speaking pretty generally here. Anything that might remotely be construed to make fun of such tragedy is questionable, at the very least. Off the top of my head I can think of maybe one other topic that’s still super off limits–the exploitation of children. (Earlier this year I thought that rape was off the table too–but the Daily Show went to town on the re-definition of rape and apparently some sensitive subjects can be made funny with the right touch….)
Okay, deep breath. Politics will be mentioned today but I want to be very clear that I’m only talking politics insofar as its relationship with satire.
We’ve established that satire is generally presented as a ludicrous solution to a real social problem. The difficulty lies in the fact that different people consider different things ludicrous. The basis for the satire must be popularly ridiculous–otherwise the arguments presented hit too close to home and there’s the potential for really BIG, OFFENDED reactions. This occurs mainly in the realm of politics.
The history of satire and politics is a long one. We’ve already talked Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal and that was way back in the 1700s day. Time to bring the satire issue more up to date:
The most popular recent satirical ‘event’ occured over The New Yorker’s controversial cover showing then-presidential-hopeful Obama fist bumping his wife Michelle while wearing a turban, toting guns, and burning the American flag in the Oval Office, by cartoonist Barry Blitt. If this doesn’t ring a bell, take a peek at About.com’s sum-up-tion here.
This is the best illustration that I can think of to show that there is a super-fine line between a satirical argument and an offensive argument. The reason that the cartoon (and it was a cartoon, people) drew so much fire was that the definition of ridiculous wasn’t as clear. Obama had drawn real anti-American accusations, and real distrust as far as religious views were concerned.
The idea was that the cartoon would show people how ill-founded those fears were. The goal was to say “Look! See how ridiculous this idea is? Of course a presidential hopeful, any presidential hopeful would never, never do this.” (In fact, here’s Blitt’s reaction, which includes his intent.) And I think a lot of people understood that. But there were just as many who did not. After all, I remember a woman going off about how Obama was like Hitler because he’d written an autobiography. There was no satire for her. So on one side you’ve got a group whose worst fears are now given representation.
And, on the other side, you’ve got the group who is supposedly being defended by the satirical representation. Unfortunately, they didn’t get that memo. Obama’s people issued statements saying how offended they were. It was viewed as insulting rather than ridiculous.
How to hit on just the right satirical note? Tricky, yes? Mostly, it’s about considering your audience. Sometimes it’s uber-hard to read your audience or anticipate what will be thought ridiculous. Part of the issue with the New Yorker audience is that it’s soooo huge–someone was gonna sound off on it. I think history will be far more gentle with the New Yorker cover than its contemporary audience. After all, everyone was offended with Swift’s A Modest Proposal when it came out too. When you talk about real issues, you get real responses, whether the intent is serious or not.
Which brings us to Wodehouse, WWII, concentration camps, and radio broadcasts on Friday. In the meantime, what satirical presentations have offended? Can you think of any subject that is not okay to make fun of? Or is everything fair game if handled right? Any ideas on how to talk about politics in a humorous way without alienating?
When we’re talking about a guy like Wodehouse, humorist extraordinaire, it’s impossible not to talk about satire. So we’re going to pause our regularly scheduled programming to talk less about our mentor directly (don’t worry, it’ll come back around) and talk in more general terms about satire itself–which we’ll define as a comeuppance to society via witty repartee or sarcastic/exaggerated presentation. I like Wikipedia’s definition of satire, found in full here.
The thing with satire, though, especially in literature, is that it’s tricky to pull off in just the right manner. The idea is to take something socially important (a problem) and then present a ludicrous solution as a viable option.
For example: proposing cannibalism (ludicrous solution) as an effective method to fight over-population (social problem). It’s ridiculous, right? Especially if it’s all about eating children. Which is exactly what Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels fame, did in his essay A Modest Proposal.
Let’s hear the full title:
A Modest Proposal: For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being Aburden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public
Sounds like something reasonable, right?
Ireland, 1729: Poor children are a social burden. How can the poor afford to raise these children? Abortions and child mortality rates are on the rise. Here are a bunch of beggar kids ripping around the streets of Dublin, stealing and consuming valuable resources.
Anything to make them beneficial, right? Well, according to this essay, the children are most beneficial in a nutritional capacity: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”~Swift, A Modest Proposal
The goal of satire is pretty much to offend the world in order to wake it up. Swift’s essay is meant to draw attention to the fact that it was a pretty bad time in Ireland, but the Irish (suffering badly from prejudices and foul treatment) are human and are therefore due human rights and dignities.
And how does Swift point this out? By pissing be off through sarcasm. In a letter to Alexander Pope Swift said: “the chief end I propose to my self in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it.”
To vex the world. To make the world think.
We’re going to go into the pitfalls of satire on Wednesday, but what do you guys think about this? Can you think of contemporary satires that have been effective?
As an example of the thought process involved in satirical rhetoric, check out this clip on the thought process behind The Daily Show’s rally.