Arts & Culture

When the Going Gets Tough, Satire Gets Going

Is satire over? I’ve been thinking about that since the election finally ended. Both the publisher and the critics called my first novel, The Bones, a satire. It is about the relationship between a self-destructive comedian whose "scabrous" (thank you, … Read More

By / December 11, 2008

Is satire over? I’ve been thinking about that since the election finally ended. Both the publisher and the critics called my first novel, The Bones, a satire. It is about the relationship between a self-destructive comedian whose "scabrous" (thank you, Janet Maslin) personality keeps him from the success his talent warrants, and a wildly successful comedy writer whose career triumphs are not congruent with his abilities. I was trying to write about a life I knew well, one of outsized personalities, aberrant behavior, and malign intent. It wasn’t non-fiction, of course; but it was very real. Or so I thought. Until I was informed that it was satire. I guess that makes me a satirist. The same thing happened with my second novel, Shining City. The story of a middle-class suburban couple that gets caught up in the prostitution racket, it was, as I mentioned in an earlier Jewcy blog, inspired by actual events (I added the bar mitzvah). This, too, was called a satire by many of their viewers. My fate, it seems, is sealed. There are worse things to be.

So what does a satirist do when the Republican Party puts Sarah Palin on the ticket? Bear with me. I know this is old news and Governor Palin, other than a brief trip back to the spotlight to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey while a poultry holocaust was occurring right behind her, is now lurking somewhere on the tundra eagerly awaiting an opening so she can re-insert her particular brand of dangerous comedy into the national conversation. But she is Exhibit A in my point, which is this: American culture has long had a carnival aspect. How else to explain the ascendancy of Paris Hilton and her fellow celebritards, or the career of Flavor Flav? But until recently, these people and their antics had been a diversion, something to be glanced at in a dog-eared magazine at the dentist’s office, or to be glimpsed on a teenager’s laptop. Not anymore. With the advent of the Palin Family – the abstinence only parents with a pregnant teenaged daughter, the reluctant son-in-law-to-be who announced on his MySpace page he didn’t want a child, the special needs baby that functioned as a piece of campaign paraphernalia ("How much Benedryl did they give that kid?" my wife would always ask, whenever we saw the preternaturally quiescent little fellow on television), the hunky First Dude who raced "snow machines," and the son who, rumor had it, was given a choice of jail or the army – reality took a turn that must make all practitioners of satire quake in our boots. If this is what truth offers, our audience would do well to ask, then who needs comedy?

How to compete in a world where Jon Stewart can read Wolf Blitzer’s script, lift an eyebrow, and get a laugh without changing a word? Frankly, I don’t know the answer. I hope when Bush leaves Washington the level of pitch black comedy will come down a bit. I am thinking particularly of the tape he made in the Oval Office for a black-tie Washington dinner a few years ago. The Decider (again, how do you compete with that?) was crawling around the office on his hands and knees looking for WMDs. The level of moral depravity that his "gag" suggested was off-the-charts, yet the media, for the most part, didn’t blink. They did, however, laugh. Alas, it was the wrong kind of laughter – forced, congealed, complicit. If the President is a buffoon whose policies have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people and the pampered White House press plays along with his "comedy" at a fancy dinner, how does one mock this? It is so utterly Strangelovian the only response is silence.

The financial services industry is being propped up. Detroit is getting a massive infusion of cash. I want to be the first to ask this of President-elect Obama: The satire business is in free-fall, sir. Where is our bailout?

Seth Greenland, author of Shining City, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week. Stay tuned.