Satire: more kicks and more pricks

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What a strange and wonderful beast comedy is. Unfortunately, it’s not always well adapted to the yoke of literature. The presence of mind required by reading is different than that of film or television or theatre, and the wordy rigid structure of a book can do serious damage to the sort of spontaneity and vivaciousness comedy demands. I’m being very vague here.

I will say though that while comedy is not outside the purview of literature, it hasn’t got comedy completely under its thumb. But satire is clenched pretty tightly.

For those of you with only a passing familiarity with satire, it’s essentially making fun of things like vices and pratfalls—be they on an individual or societal level, aesthetic or political and etc.—through things like parody and hyperbole.

Of course, you’re probably familiar with satire already. You watch “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” You’ve got the one friend who keeps his/her friends in check by sporadically posting stories from “The Onion” with the caveat, “but seriously.” You’ve been through “Monty Python” at least once, haven’t you?

Those, of course, are just a few of the hallmarks—and the few reliable manifestations of my impoverished knowledge—but you’ve got an idea.

Literary satire covers a wide array of realms. Societal satire, military satire, political satire, religious satire, moral satire and even satirical satire.

Now, what makes satire satirical? I’ll say first that satire needs a focus, a target. The aforementioned Stewart and Colbert make American politics the main focus of their satire. Dickens wrote satirically about Victorian England in most of his novels. Hell, society as a whole is the general hub of satire. Anything big, really.

And with that target comes the methods of hitting it. Satire thrives on structures, types and formulas, making it very susceptible, even inviting, to clichés. Satire that isn’t sure what it’s satirizing trips itself up. Like, ever tried spitting off a cruise ship and having the wind blow it back into your face? It’s not fun.

Of course, satire doesn’t need to be funny, but it helps. It helps immensely, in fact; the satirist who eviscerates with a smile is often better received than the scowling miserly one. That’s another thing. Satire that is meant to be funny can be a sort of benign funny, or it can be cuttingly funny. And cuttingly funny satire, if it’s not going for the kill, will try and leave a few scars at least. Bloodsports and all.

But if a satire can get by without a few jokes or some other balderdash, it can’t get by without morality.

To anyone ready to chime in with, “Morality? What’s morality got to do something as dumb and harmless as comedy?” please humbly check yourself, and cock your cochleae for this transmission: all satire is driven by some iteration of morality—a personal morality, a religious morality, a political morality, an economic morality, an ecological morality and etc.—it’s the file to the spear point, the whetstone to the knife.

If you’ve ever read “Catch-22” you’d know how moral satire could be. Between the laughs and the absurdity, you start to think deeply about what’s going on. Did Milo Minderbinder actually say that? What a horrifying bind Doc Daneeka found himself in. Jesus Christ, Aarfy. Have I ever been in a catch-22? Snowden, you poor bastard.

Or consider “Dead Souls” by Nikolai Gogol. The “hero” of the book is a crass man who wants to rise in rank by buying off all the dead serfs of his neighbors. It’s deuced funny even when you start to contemplate real, living people being traded around like stocks. Hee hee ha ha.

We don’t usually think of comedy as being conscionable (although satire has always been a self-serious form of comedic literature) but it’s something to remember whenever you think that comedy is just some benign fancy or distraction from serious work. We may stoically distance ourselves from a tragedy, but comedy can’t help but draw us into a scene, even if it takes a conscientious knife prick from behind.

Ever been pricked by satire? Let Sean know at sreichard@wisc.edu.

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