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Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Once again on satire

I've been thinking some more about the New Yorker cover and the question of satire. Long-time readers may recall that we've had disagreements here over Stephen Colbert, whose "satire" I have claimed is often not (although I feel that less so recently than I did a year or two ago).

Expanding on things I've written before, here's my working definition, which applies to Colbert and the New Yorker: if the only thing that distinguishes alleged "satire" from an original is the source, it isn't satire, it's "imitation." It may or may not be funny, but it isn't satire.

If you could take a transcript of a Colbert interview, hand it to Bill O'Reilly, and have him read it without batting an eye, then it wasn't satire - it was imitation.

Likewise, imagine if the Obama cover had appeared not in the New Yorker but in "Ku Klux Klan Monthly." Would it be satire then? Hardly. People would immediately brand it as scurrilous racist trash. How about a more "respectable" (and actually existing) magazine like National Review? Same deal. I doubt people would just be talking about how it was "tasteless." Nor would they be claiming with a straight face it was "satire."

Satire has to be distinguishable in some way, if only with a wink (but preferably with a lot more), from the original or the imagined original or it isn't satire. Take the New Yorker cover. Most people will be familiar with the famous "a New Yorker's view of the world" which shows an utterly distorted view of the country from the point of view of a New York-centric person. It's obviously exaggerated, and funny (well, it was the first time). The Obama cover could have been done as "a right wingers view of Obama" as both a parody of the "New Yorker's view of the world" and a satire on ludicrous right-wing views of Obama, with a cover making it clear that the object of the satire wasn't Obama, but the ridiculous rumor-mongers. It didn't do that, though.

Real satire is both over the top and, and the same time...not. Stephen Colbert's talk at the White House Correspondent's dinner in 2006 was one of the best examples ever, a nuclear bomb of satire, so powerful that, to mix metaphors a bit, it went over like a lead balloon with the crowd and the corporate media because it hit too close to home. The New Yorker cover, as is, could never be that, because something that corresponds too closely to something actually believed by far too many people couldn't possibly be over the top.

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