On a recent episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, world renowned professional liar Penn Jillette spoke about a Sid Vicious slot machine in the Hard Rock which read over its entrance, “The only notes that count are the ones that come in wads.” From this he deduced, “Satire is dead.”
I’ll give the entertaining misdirector his due as later in the podcast he walked back this statement reciting an Onion headline about the death of Steve Jobs, yet I must disagree on a fundamental level with Penn. (This hurts a bit for how much I love his work and respect him, but that’s where the fun’s at so there’s no serious weighing of any morals here.)
Satire, like all comedy, evolves with the time and place it’s conceived. Sometimes it’s universal, other times the joke has a 24 hour shelf life. Often, I’ve found, satire depends heavily on the knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of the subject critiqued.
If you’ve ever listened to comedian Bill Burr’s Monday Morning podcast, you’d be familiar with his pension for what I’ll call “base satire.” Put on a mocking voice and turn up the most prevalent aspects of the subject parodied into a caricature. I’d call this too simplistic but he throws in the meaningful self-deprecating admittance, “I don’t know what I’m talking about. Why would you listen to me?”
Indeed, satire is often an abstract of the subject created from an inability to understand. Rap as a music genre to the uninformed is about money, drugs, hoes, crime, etc. So the parody music video shows a man weighed down with jewelry to such an extent he has to snort coke for the strength to lift enough money from his pockets to pay his underling to lift his ring hand (the hand with the most rings) and smack his bitch with it. Completely uninspired drivel. (And yes I’m the one who came up with such a lazy concept which came about disconcertingly fast for my liking.)
But when the satirist has extensive knowledge of the subject they can parody to a focused degree for maximum effect. Take Bill Burr’s Netflix show F is for Family where Bill, fan of rock and roll, created a parody band to Led Zeppelin. The easy way out, for the uninformed, would be to call the parody band Carbon Dirigible and have them play Escalator to the Afterlife with a seven minute guitar solo. But Bill took Zeppelin’s history of being sued for copyright infringement and married it to the sexual aspects of Robert Plant’s singing and stage performance to create the tight pants wearing Lifted Rifts who sing the lyric, “Lick my pickle.” (And yes, I’m leaving the difficult task of clever and thoughtful commentary to the experts.)
I’ve little success with satire in my writings. I fall for turning the caricature up to eleven and bludgeoning the audience in the face with the joke. I can do commentary but that subtle screw-turn into comedy escapes me. Sometimes the whole joke eludes me causing much doubt over my abilities.
Possibly a high set bar, I find myself trying to replicate the satire in Frank Zappa’s music. When it comes to his album long Church of Scientology parody and mockery of the idolized 50’s drive in movie experience I get the jokes, partly, but some others feel outside my time. His first album with Mothers of Invention had a cover ripped from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band titled We’re Only in it for the Money. It was released only a year after the Beatles’ record and whatever aspects of their financial ambitions that were roasted are lost on me. I know the Beatles released Beatles for Sale a few years prior but that doesn’t help me any.
But that’s just it, the joke wasn’t meant for me. Satire is a time capsule.
One of my favorite example s of this is in A Christmas Carol of all places. In the story, set in 1840’s England, there’s a side track where Dickens has dutiful Protestants demand business owners turn off their ovens on Sunday, intent on having poor people go to church.
This makes little sense nowadays without the context that business owners would often leave their shops’ ovens on and their doors unlocked on Sundays so the poor could make warm and cook a hot meal. This would often be the only day of the week the poor could enjoy such luxuries. However, this meant they weren’t in church on Sunday. So Dickens has the religious peoples practice the Christian virtue of getting the downtrodden to attend mass and hear God’s word by depriving them of their only hot meal they’ll have in the whole week. Perfect satire that goes right over my head.
If you showed me the South Park episode Chinpokomon from 1999 I could point out every joke and sly reference because I was a kid who heavily played Pokémon Blue on the Game Boy. Parental confusion at the phenomenon, the desire to reenact the TV show with my friends; I lived it. But, you don’t have to get all those references to like the episode. Those things are universal.
You don’t have to know the history of disaster movies to get a laugh out of Airplane. You don’t have to live in 1840’s England to understand the hypocrisy of the religious harming the poor in their Lord’s name. But to get the joke, to be with it… well, that’s self-explanatory.
What am I missing when I talk to my young cousin about video games and he finds little outrageous about the prevalence of micro-transactions? That’s normal in his experience.
For me, I try to not mention specific examples of things the audience might recognize and clap for when they read it. Satirize the themes, morals, character archetypes, or things in the world that repeat themselves constantly and your story won’t go out of style anytime soon like 80,000 football fans buying overpriced hotdogs at a game while homeless people starve outside the stadium.