the ups and downs of satire

Whenever I need a good example of satire for my students, I turn to Canadian comic Rick Mercer.  This sketch on the same-sex marriage debate demonstrates all the key features of effective satire:

First, we have an invitation to identify straightforwardly with the speaker’s persona.  We don’t realize, right off the bat (except for our prior experience with Mercer, of course) that this conservative gentleman isn’t meant to be taken at face value.  Briefly, we give him the benefit of the doubt.  This is satire’s ironic persona: there is an important gap between what he means to us superficially, or initially, and what we’ll come to understand him to mean, moments later.

It’s as though the narrator is wearing a mask–of normality, niceness, credibility.  But very shortly into a satirical narrative the mask slips, allowing us an all-at-once glimpse at the face behind it.  That first, crucial slip is designed to shock us–Mercer’s tacked-on phrase, “…of the same race” makes us laugh–because that’s when we first realize that we can’t identify with the narrator after all.

The shock is integral to satire, because it jolts us out of our complacency and prompts us to recognize the issue or attitude being targeted, through humor, in the narrative.  What sets satire apart from other forms of comedy is its critical or corrective function.  Satire doesn’t just spoof something for fun; it exposes some sort of hypocrisy or falsehood in its subject.

In the “traditional values” sketch above, Mercer is demonstrating the hypocrisy of arguing for traditional values in a country that has systematically overturned its “traditions” of inequality to achieve constitutional human rights of which we’re extremely proud.  Satire is a more effective vehicle for this argument than, say, a letter to the editor, because it sneaks around our defenses, seduces us through the pleasures of laughter and of “getting” the joke–i.e., being part of the in-group who laughs at the folly of others.

But although satire can be confrontational and risque, it still has to share a basic code of values with its audience.  Canadian audiences, whether liberal or conservative, agree with 99% of what Mercer stands for.  If they didn’t–if this video were aired in a country lacking women’s rights and so on–the humor would fall flat and the argument would be unintelligible.  Audiences might even take the ironic persona seriously from start to finish.

This is why the Romans cautioned that satire was the most dangerous of the four literary genres (the others were romance, comedy, tragedy).  Its dependence on context makes it vulnerable to misreading and therefore potentially inflammatory.

Satire always risks perpetuating the problem it’s trying to correct.  Apparently, comedian Dave Chappelle left stand-up after a white audience member laughed particularly loud and long at one of his “black pixie” jokes.  Chappelle’s discomfort led him to wonder whether his satire was encouraging racism rather than exposing it.

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