Sunday, February 18, 2007

The conservative satire gap

Quick! What do the members of this list have in common?
  • the left
  • the far left
  • anyone standing to the left
  • gay penguins
  • lawyers
  • the ACLU
  • anyone with ACLU in their name
  • Democrats
  • people who voted for Democrats
  • people who know Democrats
  • gay penguins

Answer: They're groups warned by this Fox News Channel promo that it "may offend" them with the new program, "The 1/2 Hour News Hour."

Oh dear. The bright lights at Fox apparently have been watching Jon Stewart zestfully skewering both Democrats and Republicans, but noticed only that the overall political slant of the show is leftward. They watched Stephen Colbert's conservative pundit manqué setting his sights on out-O'Reilly-ing O'Reilly, and failed to observe that he drags every conservative figure who appears on the show down into the mud by encouraging them to think of him as a fellow right-wing shill. They watched Olbermann's ratings climb (and Himself get a lucrative contract renewal), and concluded only that heavy-handedness sells, regardless of content.

Yes, friends, I'm afraid it's time for another essay by the right into the tricky business of satire. Obviously they learned nothing from the experience of P.J. O'Rourke; Dennis Miller's descent into unfunny hell didn't catch their notice. But surely they've noticed that Mallard Fillmore can't buy a laugh, even from humor-starved readers of the Indianapolis Star-News. Nevertheless, they're casting their some small part of their fates to the winds of humor again. As Samuel Johnson said, it's not done well, but you're surprised to see it done at all.

Here's where they go wrong:

The elements of satire are a tone of irony and a taste of anger. It's true that, to the extent that irony could be described in its elemental form as "professing A while meaning not-A," I suppose we'd have to agree that the right has the discursive fundamentals of this well within their grasp. (One could call that a Burkean reading of the job of White House Press Secretary, in fact.) And as for anger--well, who better the Fox-powered right?

And I suppose that, as regards the basic tool kit of the of satirist--personification, reversal, parallelism, verisimilitude, the rule of three, and so on-- any yutz can at least pick up a hammer and whack something with it, although driving a nail straight and clean is another matter altogether. (Notice, for example, in the promo above, the ascending groups of three, and the repetition of the "anyone" and "gay penguins" lines. Like the Jack Russell terrier struggling on its haunches, you can see they're genuinely trying. But honestly--"gay penguins?" Does anyone still remember what that's a reference to? I suppose it's meant to be a bank-shot, carrying the idea of the fundamental rightness of offending anyone/thing gay, even flightless waterfowl, and lacing it with a little poke at Gorean save-the-ice-shelf-ism. So perhaps it gets some points for cleverness, in a Republican dog whistle kind of way, but does that make it noticeably funny?)

The fatal problem arises, though, when we consider the satiric stance. I'll defer to a Jedi master of the art:
There are two kinds of humor. One kind that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity -- like what Garrison Keillor does. The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule -- that's what I do. Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel -- it's vulgar.

Satire adores an unfair fight--but only in the sense that the more powerful its target, the better.

Here is where "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" is apt to run into trouble: Given that its idea of "equal opportunity offense" is offending the left, Democrats--and again, somewhat inexplicably, gay penguins--its sense of "equal opportunity" is a tad stunted. Until they start running harder with jokes about Ann Coulter's Adam's apple or Rush Limbaugh's chemical problems than even TBogg or Digby do (and they won't--conservative humor, like conservative blogging, is a driven-from-the-top business), when they go after their political opponents they won't get anywhere near the level Stewart and Colbert hit on their worst days.

The results, likely enough, will be vulgar.


jason said...

I think conservatives' satire problem comes from their anger. They want to shoot at targets directly, instead of looking for what's funny. It reminds me of Ted Rall, a liberal who is also too angry to be funny. His strips, like this new Fox News show, are simply too malicious to be clever.

Oaktown Girl said...

Hey Noth!
I like the look of your blog. (It's probably not new, but it's new to me!) Very easy on the eyes (easy to read), so thank you!

I just got off the graveyard shift a couple of weeks ago and am just now re-entering a "normal" day/night lifestyle. I even got to go to DL Oakland last Thursday night and had a blast!

Hope you are doing well.