All posts by Will Rice

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.

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.