Humor is something that is often more enjoyable in a collective way; this is due, in part, to the fact that effective comedy comments on truths that most of us have experienced. Some of the most successful comedians have been people who are good at observing the weirdness of the world we live in. Yet this is not satire. Typically, satire is the use of exaggeration or irony in order to comment on real-world issues. I’m giving the definition because it seems as if our understanding of satire has been muddled in recent years. Normally this wouldn’t be that much of an issue, but with our current political climate it seems as if many people need a reminder on both what satire is and what it is not. It can be easy to call any form of political comedy satire, but when we do this we drain the form of its potency.
Contrary to what’s insinuated in every high school English class, Johnathan Swift did not invent satire. The form has been used across time periods in civilizations like Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, and the Medieval Islamic world. Though the types of satire vary it’s not difficult to see why, at the very least, the desire to critique the systems around us (whether societal or governmental) has persevered. Swift’s A Modest Proposal is often used because not only is it effective, it’s also a modern use of the form. Swift’s call for the English gentry to start eating poor Irish children (essentially commenting that their derision wasn’t any different than that) is something that we’re not comfortable with even today, as it’s easy to forget the banality of evil. Exposing overlooked beliefs that have a large propensity to harm should not make you comfortable, it should make you think.
Effective satire usually can’t be mistaken for the thing that it mocks, yet even when it is explicit this can be an issue. In one of the episodes of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, he examined the satire paradox. This is a phenomenon where even the most explicit satire is taken seriously by some, depending on their political beliefs. Most satire is left-leaning because that viewpoint is one which is rooted in avocation for progress or societal change. The closest I found to conservative satire was South Park (but even then it’s pretty weak because of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s libertarian views) and I’ll be examining this more later. The point of the podcast was that our own biases color how we view satire. The main example Gladwell used was a character created by British comedian Henry Enfield in the 80’s named Loadsamoney.
The point of the character was to critique Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal policies which prioritized the free market and money over everything else. Loadsamoney often carried around a wad of cash, bragged about how much money he had, and seemed to be unaware of his own lack of intelligence. Enfield explained that the inspiration for the character came from construction workers he’d often see at the bar who would flaunt the amount of money they had. He went on to note how both liberals and conservatives loved the character but for different reasons. Liberals saw the obvious exaggerated message while conservatives thought that the character was great because he had so much money (something they looked up to). The point of this is to highlight that it can be dangerously easy to placate both sides even if satire is explicit. If it’s too obvious, then it’s not clever, but if it’s not obvious enough that’s when you get South Park.
Created in 1997 by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, South Park is mostly known for its crude language and offensive content. For many, this is the appeal, since they view it as edgy and claim that the show makes us rethink what’s socially acceptable. This is exactly what popular video essayist Kristian Williams argues in his video essay on the show, claiming that it’s virtuous that the show has expanded society’s boundaries when it comes to displaying the profane.
Now, many have an issue with the show because of what Williams cites as righteous. I’ve found that most conservative people don’t like the show because of its profanity and obscene nature (and I know this is nothing new). I don’t agree with writing off a piece of media just because it might have crude elements, as I prefer to judge it as a whole. That being said, South Park has issues because it wants to be offensive and simultaneously call itself satire so that it can resist critique. Supporters will argue that it’s supposed to be shocking so if you find it offensive then you’re stupid. Yet satire is about dismantling unjust power structures, not upholding them. Stone and Parker’s view seems to be that effective satire is whatever happens to be the most repugnant. They would assume that Swift wrote A Modest Proposal solely to shock the English gentry, rather than to highlight a systemic social issue. In a recent interview on the Bill Simmons podcast, Stone and Parker said, “The only difference between us and trolls is that we’re actually funny” and “There is something…I recognize a piece of myself in that (internet culture) the pushing buttons piece.” It’s problematic if the creators of a highly influential show identify with a faceless culture that is rooted in provocation. Both also mention how the content of the show is made up of whatever they were angry with that week, citing the new Ghostbusters movie as an example. In some ways it seems as if they’re disgruntled frat boys who were given a platform.
Near the end of his video essay Williams says, “With no boundaries there’s no one to offend” which is not a good philosophy for any show because most people have boundaries. Dr. Jason Steed wrote his dissertation on the social function of humor and had this to say about it, “You’re never “just joking.” Nobody is ever “just joking.” Humor is a social act that performs a social function, always. Humor is a way we relate and interact with others. Which is to say, humor is a way we construct identity—who we are in relation to others. We use humor to form groups and to find our place in or out of those groups. In short, humor is one tool by which we assimilate or alienate.” Issues that South Park mocks (racism, sexism, and homophobia) are things that real people have experienced and continue to struggle against. Belittling actual issues for the sake of being edgy is a remarkably privileged thing to do. It’s also the opposite of what true satire does. Williams thinks it’s virtuous that Stone and Parker criticize every viewpoint. Yet the message you come away with is that if you care about anything then that’s the worst thing you can do. If you leave the show offended and not apathetic, then fuck you. You cannot create powerful satire while holding the view that “both sides are dumb and everything is meaningless”. And this is why, even after 20 years, the implications of South Park need to be discussed.
I think it would be safe to say that the demographic of the show is largely made up of kids and teenagers, mainly because their parents don’t want them watching it in the first place. You don’t often hear adults talking about it because it’s a show that most people have grown out of. Now, sometimes the show is genuinely funny and clever, but when that’s mixed with insulting content and a thin sheen of satire, kids aren’t going to know the difference. Generally I think that kids are smarter than we give them credit for, but growing up on a show that desensitizes violence, sexism, and racism while preaching “nothing matters” makes for a generation that’s uniquely cynical and cold-hearted. One that laughs at politicians rather than listens to what they’re actually saying. One that’s attracted to YouTube “rationalists” who support anti-feminism and might dip into white nationalism from time to time. One that demands spectacle over change. One that attacks “those damn PC SJWs with their safe spaces” because why would they listen to someone who thinks that they need to care about other people?
That’s what it comes down to ultimately: caring. A lot of shows in the 90’s and early 2000’s had a nihilistic edge because they were a reaction to sickeningly sweet sitcoms, South Park included. Many like Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia were rightly praised for defying convention. The issue with this is that it’s not original anymore and it’s also not what we need. I suspect a large part of why Wonder Woman was so popular this summer was because people needed to hear that love and justice can prevail. Living with an unhinged President doesn’t make indifference attractive anymore. Film Crit Hulk did a great piece in 2011 about South Park that echoes my sentiments, one with more direct examples from the show (Douche and Turd, Bloody Mary). Yet he structured his essay as if the show had reached a beneficial turning point, one that hasn’t really been recognized.
I will readily admit that part of what inspired me to write this was Lindsay Ellis’s brilliant video essay “Mel Brooks, The Producers and the Ethics of Satire about N@zis” in which she uses the works of Mel Brooks to highlight how effective satire has intent and boundaries. Brooks knew that there were certain lines that shouldn’t be crossed; he wouldn’t show a black man being lynched or Jewish people in concentration camps. Ellis expresses that, “There is no such this as equal opportunity offensive because not all groups exist on equal footing.” She also highlights how the point of The Producers was to show how silly and melodramatic fascism can be and through making it comedic it couldn’t be adopted by real fascists. After what happened in Charlottesville last week, this is something that we have to be aware of more than ever. I’ve seen people share pithy sayings like “Love wins” and “we’re all human” but frankly, waving off blatant white supremacy is harmful. I’m not going to find common ground with someone who advocates for genocide and this is exactly why centrism is damaging. Not only does it keep harmful existing power structures intact, that view also makes complex arguments and seeing both sides more important than morality. This is why, at its core, South Park is bad satire.
Now, in many ways this show may seem like the complete opposite of South Park. Saturday Night Live is regarded as a distinctly liberal show that has been known for its political satire in recent years. Most people laughed at Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin as they impersonated Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump respectively. During the election it was relatively amusing because many figured that Clinton would win, therefore it was funny to watch Trump flounder during debates. Once the election was over we weren’t laughing anymore, but the heads at SNL had seen how popular the Trump impersonation was and figured that they now had a golden opportunity to continue it. As this continued, the impersonation and the president himself became more and more indistinguishable.
As this excellent Salon article highlights, most of us realized that we needed to start being serious about a president that was just as inept as SNL portrayed him. With the recently launched Weekend Update show, it doesn’t seem as if they’ve gotten the hint. But the reason that SNL can’t really do satire well is that it has to be popular and this results in it often taking shots at people on both sides of the political spectrum. The core premise of the show revolves around commenting on pop culture and while sometimes this can be funny and clever, rarely is it truly satirical. This quote from the Salon article emphasizes this, “SNL isn’t a political comedy show. Saturday Night Live is the Coneheads, Eddie Murphy’s Mister Robinson Neighborhood, Digital Shorts’ Dick In A Box, Kristen Wiig’s Target Lady, Chris Farley “living in a van down by the river!”, Belushi’s Samurai, Celebrity Jeopardy, and Baldwin’s Schweddy Balls.” Although some may be laughing at SNL, it’s not (and never was) the biting satire that it desperately wants to be.
So what is satire then? If both South Park and SNL aren’t examples of good satire, then what is? At the beginning I said that satire exposes overlooked beliefs that have a large propensity to harm and often makes us uncomfortable. I don’t think there was a person who did that better than Terry Pratchett.
Terry Pratchett wrote the highly popular Discworld series that satirized everything from extremism to opera, all set in a fantasy world on top of a turtle. Pratchett wasn’t afraid of being honest about how we operate, “Always remember that the crowd that applauds at your coronation is the same crowd that will applaud your beheading. People like a show.” But he didn’t criticize just for the sake of it, he acerbically tackled issues that he was angry about. Things like religious intolerance, racial prejudice, exploitative labor, and greed. In a Guardian article a couple years ago, his friend and co-writer Neil Gaiman explained what made him such a great satirist, “There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing: it’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld.” Yet in the end, there’s always heart and hope in the series. Although Pratchett’s writing was cynical, he didn’t stop believing that we could strive toward change.
It should be noted that although the Discworld series has been just as successful as Twilight and Harry Potter, it has largely resisted adaptation because the material makes people uncomfortable. It doesn’t tell audiences what they want to hear. This economist article outlines how, even after multiple attempts, the novels were not adapted to film. A recurring theme seemed to be that people misunderstood the source material, “In 1992, Pratchett was approached by an American production company about his novel “Mort”, a dark comedy about the skeletal, scythe-wielding figure of Death taking on an intern. “We’ve been doing market research and the skeleton bit doesn’t work for us, it’s a bit of a downer,” Pratchett recalled the producers saying, “We love it, it’s high concept—just lose the Death angle.” The film went no further.” Douglas Adams’ The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy series has had a similar problem. Although a mediocre movie was made in 2005 that covered the first novel, it was obvious that Adams’ penchant for critiquing things like science fiction, philosophy, and religion were not that popular among general audiences.
I wrote this because I love comedy, but even more because I love comedy that makes us question what’s true. Right now, many of us are scared about what’s going on with the world and it can be tempting to shut down and ignore it. But that makes us susceptible to thinking that blubbering Alec Baldwin is speaking truth to power. Or that Cartman doing the Nazi salute is actually subversive. But with real white supremacists marching it makes a person wonder how much our media influenced them. Now, more than ever, we need biting satire, but we also need to critically examine the media that labels itself as such.
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance. –Terry Pratchett