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The Politics Of Satire
Does Satire Change Your Views?
You could probably trace the origins of satire to the first moments of man's ability to communicate with one another. It seems to be an inherent nature within humans to take in information and satirize it as it filters through our own personal beliefs. Satire appears in Egyptian texts and finds refinement in many examples of Greek literature. Throughout the ages, satire has been a method used to point out the foibles and failings of humanity utilizing sarcasm, double entendres, parody and juxtaposition to illustrate the points of contention in an exaggerated manner. Often humorous in nature, satire was one of the founding principles of burlesque and, in our current time, a method of political commentary.
Here's is a compilation of three separate interviews I have conducted with Lewis Black, Auggie Smith, Costaki Economopoulus and Paul Mecurio, the common thread of each being the nature of satire as it applies to our modern world.
“I think there are people who have forgotten that it is our job to be anti-establishment. It is the comedian's job to comment on the government and it is a comedian's job to have a problem with the powers that be and we've become so aligned with our various political parties that we do not see the humor in them anymore.” Auggie Smith goes on to say that, “The problem with satire is that we're losing our ability to spot it anymore. We're losing our ability to…the point of satire is overstating one point to make the opposite point...that's is what it is. So hopefully when people come to a comedy show, at this point, they're understanding that what you're saying is satire, but you'd be amazed at how much they don't. You'd be amazed at how many people get offended!”
With traditional news organizations taking on the traits of the entertainment industry, it is truly difficult anymore to trust that a broadcaster or a newspaper purporting to report the unbiased facts about a given subject are not, themselves, dipping into the deep well of satire.
“There'll be a moderator and there'll be two people giving their opinions, and the point is that that's not news. Two people having an argument and framing the facts in the way that best suits their argument is not news.” Auggie Smith said. “So instead of taking in information and disseminating it ourselves, we're given our opinion by the so-called news. When you go see a comic who has an opinion inside of a joke, you don't hear the joke, you only hear the opinion, and you quickly rush to the defense of whatever your belief is, so it's all in the way you frame it. Personally, I may have particular views and vote for particular people and I don't care and I don't expect people to have my political opinions when I'm on stage.”
Paul Mecurio, Emmy and Peabody Award winning comedian and writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart echoes and elaborates on these sentiments. Out of curiosity, I also asked him if he felt that a lot of the divisiveness within the medias was contrived.
“Well, of course it is! I go on a lot of these political talk shows...CNN, Fox News, MSNBC...where they have an issue. They're like, 'Hey! We're going to talk about stem cell research today! On the right, we have Democratic strategist John Smith and on the left, we have Republican consultant Joan Jones and, also with us, is comedian and satirist, Paul Mecurio.' Well, the person from the right…it's like there's a big factory somewhere, like there's a big warehouse and they have all these people in dark suits and white shirts and red ties and they just send them out with a message. They put a chip in their neck and send the person from the right out with a message and they do the same thing with the person from the left. It almost doesn’t matter who the person is. If you read a transcript of what all these people on the right and people on the left say, it's pretty much a mantra.” Mecurio goes on to explain his role in the political triangle. “They have me in the middle because I'm the guy that hopefully will not just be funny, but will call it as I see it and bring the truth. Because the guy on the right is going to say exactly what you'd expect him to say and the woman on the left is going to say exactly what you'd expect her to say and there's no new dialogue that is moving things forward. It's just a re-hash of the same message, even by the people who aren't running the politics.”
With the prevalence of satirical comedy as of late, like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, The Onion, et al, was it possible that satire could affect a change in the social conscious of America? Mecurio's answer was somewhat disheartening, but not totally unexpected.
“I don't think there is now because people are too overwhelmed and there are too many messages from too many forms of media. It think in the day of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl or, if you're lucky, someone would put on a Lenny Bruce record. You would hear something that would stand out.” But I don't think in this day, if you're a political satirist or a commentator, that I'm going to or any group of us will be able to really affect a major change with it. I think you might be kidding yourself because there is so much information coming at us right now. Basic cable, cable, the Internet, over your phone, over your I-Pod...I think we're just inundated and it's hard to stand out.” Mecurio did add that, “That's not to say that it shouldn't be done and that's not to say that I won't do it and that's not to say that it can't happen. But, I think that it would have to be somebody really huge with a regular pulpit. I think it can help sway people in a certain direction, but I don't think that you can point to it directly and say, 'This is definitely going to affect change.' It's really hard now, but I think it's necessary and still should be done, you know?”
I asked Costaki Economopoulos the same question and his answer held predominantly the same view and followed the same reasoning as Mecurio's.
“You know, my master's thesis was kind of on that subject. I wrote about the influence of political satire on the government…this was many years ago. This was during the election cycle with Perot and Bush, so it's been a while, but my study showed that people really didn’t change their opinions very much after being exposed to lopsided political satire. I think people generally come to the table with their thoughts in tow and they leave generally with those same thoughts. It takes a lot of exposure to a particular point of view to change someone's mind about something. It's not inconceivable. I think, over the long run, the nature of political satire is negative about its subject…that was the theory of my paper. It satire's nature. You make fun of Perot…he's got big ears and he's lunatic. Clinton's a philanderer and Bush can't speak. The angle of those messages are negative. Over and over again, you hear messages that are negative about politics. So my theory is, that over time, that will hurt people's feelings about the government. That doesn't mean that there won't be some effect eventually over a period of time. You've got your Colbert. You've got your Leno. You've got your Daily Show. All those things, I think, add up and over time, I think they do have an effect.” Costaki went on to describe the potential mechanics for satire to have a cumulative effect on people's opinions. “I think, anecdotally, if you come to me and you feel "X" about something, and my joke states that "X" is stupid, you're not likely to give up on "X" after the show. You're not going to go, 'Ah, yeah! He was right!' But, over time, if enough points re made about "X" being not such a good idea, I think you might come to rethink "X". I don’t think it happens in any one show that I'm telling jokes or that Jon Stewart kicks the president, you know. But over time, over many years, these ideas that have been courted around in a satirical way, I think that they have an effect eventually.”
During a telephone interview from his New York home, I asked Lewis Black whether he thought that political satire helped people form their outlook about certain issues.
“I think it plays a very minor role only in the sense that it might catch somebody's eye and gives them a way to look at something differently.” Black went on by saying, “I think the role it really plays, to be honest, is it allows people to stand back ten feet from what the hell they're yelling about for five minutes and take a look at it...and then they're right back into it. I also think it's a release of frustration.”
Black, known primarily for his social and political commentaries, surprised me with the revelation about his views on politics.
“I'm not so much interested in politics...it's like nauseating. What I find intriguing about it is the way that it effects people and what it really means. Because they (the politicians) puff and they run their mouth, but while they're doing it, there's millions of people who are being screwed by their nonsense. I generally try to go and take a look at what that means.” Returning to the previous question, Black ended his thought by saying, “I think that may be where political satire leads. It allows people to look at it in human terms and not big, broad strokes.”