The Blog

The Satiric Instrument, Bigger and Sharper

What is satire? Two authors recently tried to better define the word—one by broadening its meaning, the other by sharpening it.

Aaron Hanlon argues in a recent Salon article that, historically, satire hasn’t needed to be clever, or even funny. To Hanlon, satire is protest, and sometimes that’s best registered with anger instead of wit. He defends Jon Stewart against critics who claim the “Daily Show” host too often resorts to angry rants—including bleeped obscenities—rather than well-crafted irony in his frequent segments about Fox News.

When the offense to reason and sensibility is severe enough, sometimes rage is the best approach, Hanlon says, citing no less an authority than the classical Roman satirist Juvenal. He also notes that Jonathon Swift’s famous “Modest Proposal” that poverty in Ireland be addressed by eating Irish babies was hardly a knee-slapping essay, but satire nonetheless (indeed, among the most illustrious examples).

While Hanlon seeks to include more pointed prose under the banner of satire, another author, Remy Maisel, wants to exclude unworthy examples. Writing in Politico, Maisel takes an unconventional perspective on the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Most commentators, understandably saddened and angry about the slaughter of satirical journalists at the French publication, emphasized the need to uphold the Western tradition of free speech, without judging—or thinking it appropriate to judge—the nature of that speech in this case.

While in no way justifying the attack or seeking to deny the publication the right to publish what it wants, Maisel asserts that what the Paris magazine produces is
not truly satire—a form of political expression that he greatly prizes. Maisel credits true satire with successfully challenging both arbitrary authority and conventional thinking; of changing conversations, minds and laws.

What Charlie Hebdo creates with its provocative cartoons, Maisel argues, is mere mockery. While pegged to political ideas and leaders like satire is, mockery—or “pseudo-satire”—consists of empty, cynical joking. Instead of inspiring outrage and action like real satire can, mockery instills passive apathy. When the premise of every joke in an apolitical late-night comedian’s monologue is that all politicians are stupid, lazy crooks, the audience gains nothing but an easy laugh.

Also unlike true satirists, Maisel notes, the artists and authors of Hebdo don’t always “punch up” at powerful figures, but often “punched down” at the relatively weak and voiceless.

As an aspiring satirist, I applaud both authors for examining the art form closely and grappling with its definition. I agree with Maisel that pointless and mean-spirited political foolery does not merit the label. And I believe Hanlon is right to award the title to a broader range of impassioned expression.

But I think the real definitional expansion inherent in Hanlon’s argument is not of satire, but of humor. He’s right that not all satire has to produce laughs, but I’ll make my own bold assertion: neither does all comedy.

The twin bases of humor are the polar reactions of surprise and recognition, usually working in tandem. Babies laugh at jingling keys because they make a surprising but unalarming sound; we laugh at celebrity impressions because familiar voices are emerging from unexpected places. The proportion of surprise to recognition varies with the comic piece.

The satirical basis of Swift’s proposing cannibalism as public policy is almost entirely surprise. Jon Stewart’s swearing at Fox News isn’t surprising (after the first time), but is still satisfyingly familiar: it resonates with our own frustration—it comes from a clearly recognizable and shared state of mind.

By these revised definitions, not all comedy is satire, but all satire is comedy. We hope our lighthearted LightJab videos will always be easily identifiable as both.

Introducing The One Percent News Network

“Giving more money to people who already have a lot.”

Will Rice reports from K Street, the seat of political power in Washington DC. (Photo by Eric Byler)

If you strike just the right tone, stating the economic agenda of the 1% is actually kind of funny.

And that’s what most inspires me about the launch of The One Percent News Network — LightJab Productions’ satirical frame for exploring organizations and causes seeking economic and social justice. Media experts say that the ideological right will always have a lock on the emotions of fear and resentment, and, that the rest of America will always enjoy a similar monopoly on satire and humor. If this is true, then we should make it our goal to engage as many Americans as possible in the latter, while luring as many as possible away from the former. We’ve observed over the past 30 years how  hate-based political content can turn its consumers into reliable voters, activists, and opinion makers. The makers of humorous and satirical political content should do the same.

With the launch of The 1% News Network, Will Rice and I hope to do our part.

In our 1%NN videos, on the 1%NN Twitter feed, on the 1%NN Facebook page, and on the upcoming website, we plan to keep our game face on (which has already gotten us into trouble a few times). But here on this website, which represents the production company behind 1%NN, we will openly acknowledge our satirical approach. So, here’s how I see it….

Will and I are, as you might guess, inspired by the persona that Stephen Colbert perfected to enormous effect — nailing the pseudo-journalistic posturing of cable news hosts like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and their co-stars on Fox News. As we develop 1%NN, we plan to distinguish ourselves from The Colbert Report by building an ensemble cast around our “senior correspondent” Will Rice — the “experts,” the wall flowers, and token people of color we so often see on Fox — and by doing more reporting out in the field. Will and our future correspondents will also present a friendlier persona than Colbert’s — throwing fewer sharp elbows and more clueless questions, more baffled than mean.

Don Kusler, Executive Director for Americans for Democratic Action
Don Kusler, Executive Director for Americans for Democratic Action.  (Photo by Eric Byler)

The idea for The One Percent News Network was offered to us by Don Kusler, the executive director of Americans for Democratic Action, when we sought his advice on how best to use humor and satire to re-engage an American public that has come to see politics as impossibly corrupt. Less than a month later, we were in production, with Don and his ADA cohorts among the first “victims” of our investigative reporting.

Will prepares diligently for our production days, writing jokes and making props, for instance, while my preparation consists mainly of making sure all the batteries are charged.

I approached the filming of the ADA exposé without expectations. I knew that Will would be portraying an affable aristocrat, curious, but largely unfazed by the efforts of ordinary citizens to have impact on our plutocracy. I knew that our interview subjects would be doing their best to answer his zany questions without laughing or losing their temper, and somewhere in the chaos a story would emerge. I didn’t realize how much I would learn and come to admire about ADA’s organizers and leaders, both past and present.

On our first day of shooting, Will said, “I want to make fun of that walking-and-pretending-to-talk shot they always do in every single news magazine interview, which drives me crazy.” Laughing, I recalled dozens if not hundreds of cutaway shots from 60 Minutes, 48 Hours, and Dateline, and said, “Yeah, we have to do that.” After filming an interview in which Will made fun of the cramped office that ADA rents on K Street, we decided that the walk-through shot should include a bottleneck in the narrow hallway, which turned out to be a hilarious moment that we used in two of our ADA videos.

Mary von Euler, a leader with Americans for Democratic Action since 1947. (photo by Eric Byler)
Mary von Euler, a leader with Americans for Democratic action since 1947. (Photo by Eric Byler)

My favorite day of filming was the day we spent with Mary von Euler, who had a rich personal history to share, one that taught me a great deal about American history, and inspired me to do my own research about the historic figures she talked about with firsthand knowledge. Will was really on his game, both with his prepared questions and his improvisations.

I also enjoyed working with Will on the K Street standups (a standup is when a television reporter directly addresses the camera to narrate part of a story). For some strange reason we decided that Will needed to get hit by a bus, but that’s a story for another blog….

Funny You Should Say That

Worthy causes fall short when they fail to engage a wary and weary public. Comedy helps—draw attention, create interest, transmit knowledge, even build trust.

Humorous online videos can grab and hold an audience for important public messages. The first and most obvious virtue of a funny video is that it entertains: viewers enjoy watching it and share it with their friends. They’re grateful to the sponsoring organization for brightening their day, are predisposed to approve the group’s purpose, and look forward to more messages.

Facts are better received and last longer in the viewer’s mind when presented in a lighthearted way. It’s much easier to remember that bananas are a principal export of Honduras, or that they are a good source of potassium, or even that workers are exploited and rain forests despoiled by the banana industry; if as part of that message you’ve just seen someone slip and fall acrobatically on a peel.

But comedy done well is more than just a spoonful of sugar to help the message go down. Humor done right is an integral part of the message—exposing absurdities, highlighting truths, crystallizing feelings, confirming beliefs, finding commonalities.

This last point is especially important. Audiences don’t trust a message (however heartfelt or sound) until they trust the messenger. Messengers, in turn, earn that trust by proving that they are inside the viewer’s sphere of experience and perception—that they “get it.”

How better to demonstrate a shared understanding of the world than to share a joke?

Not all messages lend themselves to humor, nor need it. Other human emotions—pity, outrage, anger—can buoy a cause. The best candidate for the comic cure is an issue that’s very important, but very unemotional, daunting and dull. Think tax policy. Humor can demystify and deconstruct, freeing up basic elements of the story and connecting them to the audience’s everyday experiences and values.

Halfhearted and half-baked humor is worse than none at all. A tentative, uneven or simply unfunny comic approach weakens and distracts from the message rather than bolstering it.

But crafted with care by skilled practitioners (all wearing Groucho glasses), a funny video can send the audience rushing, laughing, to the desired “Contribute Now” buttons, online petition signature pages and rowdy outdoor demonstrations. And that’s no joke.