The topic I want to learn about and discuss in class is the concept of satire, specifically satire of popular culture. One definition of satire is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” Coupled with the idea of popular culture, one might think of satire as a mocking of certain ideas or expressions that are present in whichever piece of culture being targeted. Another important aspect of satire that is particularly relevant for our class is the ways in which it can analyse or criticize aspects of a society. All cultures have differing forms and acceptance of satire, and these have of course changed over time, but for this paper I’ll be focusing on satire on and in American culture today. Being a society that cherishes free speech, thought, and expression, satire has an extreme amount of freedom and protection in this country. Sometimes satire is even protected from other seemingly important laws, such as is the case for song parodies, which essentially have immunity to copyright laws. Although satire is often meant to be humorous, it is important to remember that not all satire is funny, nor are all funny things satire. However, I am particularly interested in the role that comedy plays in satire, so the things I’ll be discussing all have a central theme of comedy.
Ever since it’s introduction into American society, television has been an extremely relevant aspect of our culture. Millions upon millions of people in this country alone watch TV every day, to varying degrees. Being such an immensely popular medium, it is only natural that satire has found a home there. One of the more popular current satirical programs, and also one of the most controversial, is South Park. I may be a bit biased when discussing South Park since it is by far one of my favorite shows, but it is undeniable that it has been a constant source of intelligent social commentary for many years, regardless of whether or not you personally agree with the statements or conclusions drawn. Over the years, Matt Parker and Trey Stone have parodied countless groups of people and aspects of our own society and those of the entire world. With episodes tackling anti-Semitism, homophobia, corporate culture, politics, language, religion, and even atheism, Matt and Trey have proven time and time again that there is no issue protected from being examined under the light of satire, even if others may view it as too culturally taboo. One of the biggest examples of this was their decision in a 2006 episode to include an image of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Anyone who knows about the Muslim belief will know that depicting the prophet is absolutely forbidden, and among the controversy there were various threats of violence and even death towards Stone and Parker, and against the Comedy Central network itself. In response to the controversy, Comedy Central, in an extremely rare move, forced Matt and Trey to censor or otherwise change the episode. Begrudgingly, the South Park creators were essentially forced to curb their own freedom of expression due to a conflict that arose from differing cultures.
Another popular form of satire with intent to provide social commentary are TV shows that parody the news while taking on the form of news itself. There are many programs like this, but my favorites are The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Especially when viewed back to back, these shows offer a unique perspective on the news, often using various means to point out the absurdity or hypocrisy of recent political happenings. One popular sort of segment on The Daily Show to accomplish this is when the “correspondents” meet with politicians, spokespeople for political organizations, etc. and humorously poke holes in the logic of their views. Stephen Colbert, a previous Daily Show correspondent, takes his role as a social commentator to another level by assuming the persona of an overzealous “right-winger,” although he does not only satirize Republican views and political beliefs. In a 2005 interview in The New York Times, Colbert described his character as “a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot” (The New York Times, 2005). Being comedic and entertaining in nature, shows such as these two are a unique way of staying informed with national politics. I’ve personally found that their humorous analogies explain what is happening in an easy to understand way, and the fact that they are funny help the points they raise cement in my mind. In fact, studies by the Pew Research Study have shown that viewers of The Daily Show and Colbert Report are among the highest informed consumers of news, beating notable “real news” channels such as Fox News, and are among the most educated as well (Thinkprogress, SURVEY: Daily Show/Colbert Viewers Most Knowledgable, Fox News Viewers Rank Lowest).
So far I have only discussed television shows, but satire can take the form of any medium. A particularly popular form of entertainment that tends to have high levels of cultural commentary, one might even argue that it is purely social commentary, is stand-up comedy. Comics enjoy an even greater amount of artistic freedom of expression than the previously discussed shows, as they aren’t limited by what views a network is willing to allow. Comics have widely varying views of politics, culture, and society, and most comics have certain topics they tend to joke about – a specialty if you will. The late George Carlin was a particularly well known and respected comic who focused on political and social criticism. Louis C.K., a comic who has has grown in popularity within the past few years, often discusses socially taboo subjects in an attempt to question why some things are acceptable and others not, and how it can sometimes seem hypocritical or arbitrary. In his 2008 stand-up special, Louis C.K. begins, most likely with the intention of adding emphasis to his message, with a bit about the word “faggot.” He says that he “misses the word,” referring to its relatively recent shift towards being an unaccepted and politically incorrect word. He continues by stating, “When I was a kid… faggot didn’t mean gay. When I was a kid you called someone a faggot because they’re being a faggot, you know?” He then clarifies that he would never use the word purely as a description for a homosexual, and that he doesn’t even have any particular problem with someone being gay. To me this is a statement about how the “meaning” of a word is in no way a concrete thing, but rather a fluid idea that varies between people and time periods, regardless of how some people might want to control or limit its use, which only serves to institutionalize its use as a hateful word. In a similar fashion, in his 2011 special comedian Ralphie May discussed hate and hateful language saying, “Hating anyone is stupid. Hating anybody just for the sake of hate is dumb.” He urges everybody to stop hating others because “it’s not going to make you any richer, it’s not going to give you more time with your children, you’re not going to live longer.” Towards the end of his special he begins discussing hateful language, particularly about white and black people, joking “I called you crackers all night long, how come nobody got mad? Because crackers are delicious! They’re great.” Then in a joking manner, but with some real validity to the idea, he says “That’s how we get rid of the [hateful] words… we make them into delicious cookies.” He proposes “we make the world’s most delicious cookie… and we call that cookie ‘niggers’” It’s an absurd idea sure, but it also has some truth to it – words only mean what we make them mean. This is the type of social commentary and criticism that comics are allowed to make; they can raise points in a shocking manner that wouldn’t be otherwise acceptable, not with the intention of harming or hurting anybody, but instead with the intention of providing a better alternative.