Monday, 23 June 2014

On Comedy: What Is Satire?

A tip of my jaunty beret to Nate Winchester who mentioned in an e-mail that an online critic called Paul Verhoeven a "master of satire" due to Robocop and Starship Troopers, and how it got me thinking about what constitutes satire and what constitutes what I consider real satire.

Let's look at what the dictionary says:

SATIRE (noun): The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

So I guess Verhoeven's films might count as satire, if you go with a broad interpretation of that definition. His films do use irony, tons of exaggeration, and heaps tons of ridicule on their targets.

However, are they good satires, and is Verhoeven a master of the art form?

No, not really.

In fact, I think it's easier to find hen's teeth than decent satire, especially over the last few decades, and even more so from Hollywood.

So let's take a look at what ingredients make good satire, and why so many attempts at satire fail:

1. CHOICE OF SUBJECT MATTER: Usually the subject matter is in the mind of the wannabe satirist before they consciously decide to satirize. It's usually something that annoys or angers the satirist.

That's something shared by both the good and the failed satirist.

2. KNOWLEDGE OF SUBJECT MATTER: The good satirist makes a point to know as much as they can about the subject they intend to satirize. It's like being an impressionist, you must learn the tiny details and nuances to get your schtick right.

The good satirist must fully understand their target. Where bad satirists, like Verhoeven, fail is that they just gloss over a few surface concepts and base their satire on a total misunderstanding of the subject matter.

Take Starship Troopers for example. Verhoeven saw that the future society of Heinlein's original novel was a democracy where only those who do a minimum of two years of "Federal Service" are allowed to vote. The term "Federal Service" covers work in the military, natch, or work in civil or charitable services.

Now Heinlein intended the concept as a satire of people who vote to get things from the government, while being unwilling to do anything for the greater good of society as being inherently destructive. So Heinlein posited that in order to qualify for suffrage you had to prove that you're willing to sacrifice and suffer for the greater good. Everyone is given a chance to attempt to earn suffrage, but then must endure physical and mental trials, as well as an intense education, if not indoctrination, that teaches them that their role in society was to serve, and not be served. They're taught that unless they're  100% dedicated to making the world a better place, then they shouldn't be in a position to decide the fates of others.

Verhoeven saw the surface, assumed it was an endorsement of fascism, Aryanized the book's multi-ethnic cast, dressed everyone up from the Hugo Boss Wermacht collection, and called it "satire."

Nope, it wasn't even a good science fiction film.

3. PRESENTATION OF SATIRE: Whether broad or subtle presentation is key to good satire. This is where a lot of TV political humour fails for me is that their idea of "taking down" or "destroying" a target is to just mug at the camera and go "Ooooh, aren't they a bunch of stupid evil stupid Hitler assholes!"

It's worse in movies where targets are presented as horrid grotesque gargoyles incapable of reason or morality at best, downright insane and evil at worst.

There's no reason for this.
Satire, like any comedy or drama, works better if even the people being mocked can be understood as being humans with lives and agendas of their own, not grimacing puppets. 

Now we take a look at two ingredients missing from most modern satire:

4. ELEMENT OF DANGER: Let's face it, most modern "satirists" in Hollywood are masters of playing it safe while pretending to be "risky" or "edgy." 

This is because Hollywood is an extremely predictable place when it comes to likes and dislikes. Those likes and dislikes are, especially when it comes to politics, and they are usually the inverse of the likes and dislikes of the general American audience. So while insulting and attacking the sensibilities of the general audience while granting immunity to the sensibilities of those in power in Hollywood.

Now Hollywood will say that there's an element of danger in attacking the audience, and there is, it's called "low ratings" or "poor box office." However, insulting the audience may result in failure, but that failure does not preclude getting work in the future where their salaries are usually not commensurate with their audience. 

5. INTELLECTUAL HONESTY: "A plague on both your houses" is not a line one would associate with comedy, since it comes from Shakespeare's most famous romantic tragedy, but it holds true.

The audience is smart, it knows that both sides of any issue have their own quirks, and fumbles because they're human beings.

A classic example is Monty Python's heretical classic Life of Brian. In that film the religious authorities were portrayed as obsessed with rules over morality, the imperialist Romans were thuggish and oppressive, while the "freedom fighters" of the People's Front of Judea are portrayed as addle brained wannabe revolutionaries more comfortable debating over ideological minutiae rather than doing anything constructive or even destructive.

All engaged in nonsensical behaviour, all missed the point of what they were supposed to be doing, and that film became a classic that can be watched again, decades after it was made, and it still holds up.

You see, what Monty Python engaged in was a bit of intellectual honesty. Unlike a lot of modern Hollywood "satirists" they accepted that all sides call for ridicule, and delivered.

Too many satirists these days feel they must present one side as saintly, and the other side as satanic because too many of them consider themselves more political/social activist than comedian. That leaves audiences feeling unsatisfied and their material weak and very quickly dated.

Anyway, that's what I think.


  1. Uh excuse me but I believe you mean the "Judean People's Front" my good sir!

    I wonder also: is another measure of satire in how predictive it is? Like, I know Robocop is supposed to be satire about the American Jesus and all but in the long run, pretty much every prediction made by it has failed to pass except in the most generic, broad manner (the sort of "it will rain someday" style). Meanwhile something like Better off Ted or the IT Crowd seem to be practically prophets in their predictions. (no. Really)

  2. Rainforest Giant24/6/14 1:00 am

    "So other than roads, wine, just laws and public sanitation, what have the Roman's done for us?"