Five Observations on Satire
As a former editor of a humor magazine, I cringe every time somebody says something horrible and others defend it by saying, “It was just satire.” (See, e.g., apparently everything that was said at or about the Oscars last night.) It’s a bit like saying, “But it was gramatically correct!” Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. But that has little bearing on whether it was an okay thing to say.
Satire is specific type of humor that shines a light on human vice, nominally with the intent of spurring action or reflection on that vice. It does not encompass all humor. The Jerry Seinfeld observational humor is not satire. Nor is Scary Movie-style parody. Nor is the shock-jock humor that seeks to ellicit uncomfortable laughter from people seeking to persuade themselves that they too are sufficiently worldly to be in on the joke. This isn’t to put humor in some sort of hierarchy. It’s just that you don’t look very clever saying, “It’s satire, stupid,” when the joke at issue isn’t satire.
Some jokes suck. Some jokes hurt. And some jokes make the world a worse place. when your pun flops, people groan. When your misogynistic one-liner targetting a child flops, you’ve made the world a more hostile place. And nobody laughed. As a humorist, it’s your job to make other people laugh. Sometimes you can get away with poking some sacred cows—but you don’t get a blanket pass on the general rules of humanity. And calling yourself a comedian doesn’t make you a Special Butterfly that everybody has to pretend is hilarious.
Humor has always had an uncomfortable relationship with social boundaries. This does not mean that comedians can or should simply ignore them. On one hand, there’s a long and important tradition of speaking truth to power, laying bare hypocrisy, and pushing for more radical change than more traditional discourse can do. On the other hand, nobody goes to a comedy club to be hurt or verbally assaulted. Comedy can be a refuge and a safe way to discuss extremely sensitive issues. There are two types of people who stick fingers in open wounds. One type is doctors. The other type is assholes. Don’t be an asshole.
The spirit in which something is intended is relevant. If you say something horribly mysogynistic because you hate women, I guess that speaks for itself. If you say something horribly mysogynistic because you think hating women is funny, that speaks for itself as well. If you said something horrible and mysogynistic because the world is horrible and mysogynistic and your statement laid bare the hypocrisy and pretense and forced your listners to confront inner demons they did not know they had, you have successfully created satire. And if you try to do that last one and either blow it because you suck at communicating so much that you fail to get across both the point you were trying to make and the spirit in which it was intended, that speaks for itself and I hope you didn’t quit your day job.
Sometimes you get it wrong. You appologize. Make amends. Do what you can to fix the harm you did. Do better in the future. Others get to decide whether they accept the apology and move on—or whether something more is required.