How did Saturday Night Live greet the second inauguration of President Obama?
See for yourself: a sketch of Obama meeting the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr., with the famed civil-rights leader being strangely obsessed about Beyoncé. “I had to keep pinching myself. I thought I was having one of my famous dreams!”
Outrageous? Offensive? Whatever your thoughts on it, it was . . . odd, and by the historical standards of Saturday Night Live, not all that funny.
It also says something that at that moment, less than a week after the Inauguration, Saturday Night Live chose King, rambling on about Michelle Obama’s bangs, the sitcom New Girl, and Twitter hashtags, to be the sketch’s punch-line, and for Obama to be the straight man.
Skip past the tired discussion of whether Saturday Night Live is afraid to mock Obama too harshly and the claim that the show is past its prime, a conversation that’s been going on since the late 1970s. Let us widen our scope and consider that this recent bizarre creative choice by the writers, producers, and cast of SNL illuminates the dire state of satire at the midpoint of the Obama presidency.
Satire is ridicule, and we find ourselves at a moment where our most eminent satirists are having a tough time either finding good targets to ridicule, or bringing themselves to ridicule public figures they support, like Obama.
Satire requires a deserving target, and that target is ideally someone who is prominent (there’s no point in mocking someone no one has ever heard of) and perceived to be highly regarded, but who is in fact widely disliked. If you mock someone who is genuinely highly regarded, and/or perceived as vulnerable — wounded veterans, charities, children — the audience will hate you, and with good reason.
Of course, if you mock someone who is genuinely and deeply disliked, even hated, by the public, the jokes may or may not work. Could you ridicule a serial killer? Bernie Madoff? Bashar Assad slaughtering his own people in Syria? The genuinely detested figures in public life are safe from satire, because their actions are too dire to be a subject of mockery.
(You could imagine, say, a Sasha Baron Cohen sketch of Assad — fake blood all over his clothing and dripping from his hands — addressing the United Nations, speaking heatedly about Syria’s bright future. “Don’t let anyone tell you that people are afraid to invest in my country! My staff tells me that every time they walk around Damascus, everywhere they go, things are BOOMING!” But in that scenario, the real target of the satire is the United Nations, all too comfortable with treating ruthless dictators as legitimate sovereign leaders and averting its eyes from horrible truths.)
So the ideal target for satire is someone whom the audience doesn’t respect, but believes that other people respect. In that case, they’re not offended by the satire, and they in fact feel good that the subject is finally getting the mockery he deserves.
You can see why comedians latch onto Republicans as targets of satire. The comedians don’t respect them, they’re fairly confident their audiences doesn’t respect them, but they believe they’ll get some points for daring or edginess by mocking them and suggesting that they don’t deserve respect. Of course, mocking a Republican on a major network show is just about the safest joke imaginable; the only problem is that the satirist can easily find jokes about a target he detests funnier than they actually are.
The liberal inclinations of most comedians and comedy writers means that roughly half of the figures on the national scene can’t really be satirical targets. Any strong partisan or ideologue believes that the political scene is full of heroes and villains, and the satiric worldview doesn’t have room for heroes. The only way a satirist can salute people he perceives as heroic or noble or worthy of public esteem is by ignoring them.
The web site TV Tropes, which obsessively dissects and categorizes various types of fiction, summarizes the satiric worldview with the term “comedic Crapsack World.” Cleaning up the site’s language a bit, they define this as a world “made up of idiots, larger-than-life jerks, hapless losers who are victimized by life’s circumstances with metronomic regularity, characters whose lives are an endless Olympics of slapstick violence, and the occasional last sane man in an insane world.” They note that in fictional worlds that depict this — today’s best examples are The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park — the consequences of all the insanity and misfortune and chaos are not long-lasting; by the beginning of the next episode, the characters’ lives have returned to normal, and a new round of shenanigans is about to begin.
The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park — there isn’t really room for a genuinely heroic or noble character in those worlds. A storyline can’t include Mother Teresa or a Medal of Honor recipient or Dr. Benjamin Carson working miracles with pediatric neurosurgery — unless, say, the protagonists had just claimed to be noble and virtuous, and the genuinely heroic figures appeared in order to make the protagonists appear pitiful by contrast. The true heroes of the real world aren’t particularly funny (that is, their heroic acts aren’t funny, however wry or witty the individuals may be personally), and recurring appearances of people of that sort in the worlds of The Simpsons, Family Guy, or South Park would suddenly make the protagonists’ flaws and foibles much less endearing. The Simpson family, the Griffins, and Stan and Kyle are about as good and moral folks as you’re going to find in their fictional universes.
And perhaps the world depicted by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Saturday Night Live is a “comedic Crapsack World.” If a public figure is not the butt of the jokes in a Saturday Night Live sketch, then either he is an innocent bystander (the reporter asking generic questions in a presidential-press-conference sketch) or he strikes the pose of the last sane man in an insane world (Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis in the 1988 debate sketch, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy”).
There are some folks on the left who see the Stewart-Colbert-SNL worldview as a threat, or at least competition, to the liberal worldview.
In a 2006 op-ed in the Boston Globe, Michael Kalin argued that Stewart’s constant mockery of the political world persuaded young people that no one in his right mind would seek to participate in it, much less see it as a way to make the world a better place.
Stewart’s daily dose of political parody characterized by asinine alliteration leads to a “’holier than art thou” attitude toward our national leaders. People who possess the wit, intelligence, and self-awareness of viewers of The Daily Show would never choose to enter the political fray full of “buffoons and idiots.” Content to remain perched atop their Olympian ivory towers, these bright leaders head straight for the private sector.
He was echoing an earlier complaint from Jedidiah Purdy, who is now an assistant professor at law at Duke University and an affiliated scholar at the liberal Center for American Progress. In 1999, Purdy wrote a book entitled For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today. As the New York Times’s Christopher Lehmann-Haupt summarizes his argument,
The ironic man, whom Purdy personifies as the sitcom character Jerry Seinfeld, “irony incarnate,” is an outright menace.
With his “style of speech and behavior that avoids all appearance of naïveté — of naïve devotion, belief, or hope,” the individual armored in the irony so prevalent among young people today has withdrawn from the political arena just when it needs him most.
Of course, to be a political true believer, you need a certain amount of naïveté, or at least an ability to overlook the practice of politics throughout human history, with its self-interested deals, special favors for donors, rank hypocrisy, megalomania, banging the interns, and so on.
In the comedic Crapsack World depicted by Stewart and the rest, there’s no point in rooting for one figure or side, or getting particularly attached to any of them, or even getting involved at all — and that’s a terrifying thought to those who believe the ills of society are best addressed by doing everything possible to ensure the election of enlightened leaders who will tear down the old order and build a new one in its place.
But by flourishing and triumphing everywhere, satire may have somehow proven itself increasingly irrelevant. In the introduction to Spy: The Funny Years, a combination of anthology and the story of the magazine’s rise and fall, Spy’s founding editors, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, write:
If you worked at Spy, you can’t help seeing its memes everywhere these days, in print, on the Internet, on television. And Spy’s editorial spores and sensibility live on not only in obvious heirs like The Onion and The Daily Show but in publications from Entertainment Weekly to Maxim to Time and the [New York] Times itself, and on cable channels like VH1 and Nickelodeon and shows like Punk’d.
As we’re seeing with Senator Marco Rubio and his now-famous water bottle, political figures don’t get much time on the national scene before some quirk is identified and used to define them. (Paul Ryan got the same drinks-a-lot-of-water joke during Saturday Night Live’s debate parody.) The prominence bar for being satire-worthy seems to sink lower each year; the conservative contributor to MSNBC, S. E. Cupp, warranted an impression on the program earlier this year. Any conservative politics junkie knows and likes Cupp, but how many SNL viewers knew who she was? The fact that the actress tried to portray Cupp as a ditz with nothing to say suggests that perhaps even the SNL writers weren’t that familiar with her.
When everybody’s getting mocked, there’s not much consequence to the mockery. The audience becomes conditioned to just letting the microwave-worthy instant satire wash over them and moving on to the next topic, because they intuitively sense that the figure wasn’t chosen for any particular trait that deserves the mockery.
The older notion of satire as a tool for addressing some wrongdoing or social ill may be falling apart before us. We don’t hold many of our national political or cultural leaders in high regard, and yet somehow they keep on with business as usual. Some of the egos attracted to political power have proven that no amount of ridicule can deter them.
New Jersey senator Bob Menendez just keeps his head down and hopes the jokes about underage prostitution will go away. Idaho senator Larry Craig rescinded his resignation and served out his term after the humiliating details of his arrest for l ewd conduct in an airport restroom. Then there’s former congressman Anthony Weiner, talking up a political comeback. Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who left the state to meet his mistress in Argentina, is attempting a comeback now. Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer has hosted two talk shows since his embarrassing revelations that he used the services of prostitutes. How can you satirize figures who are already unbelievably ridiculous?
Google indicates that it can find 476,000 online uses of the phrase, “Life imitates the Onion.” Note that in the exaggerated, ludicrous, comedic alternative universe depicted by the Onion, there is no Onion.
In a real world that increasingly resembles the Onion’s satires, the Onion is superfluous.
― Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.