Oh, You’re Not Laughing? That’s Because It’s Satire.

When Sundiata Keita became king of his province in the 13th century, and started a family business that would later be known as the Mali Empire, he elevated the position of the Jeliya, or Griots, a caste of musicians, to somewhere about that of professional tradesmen.  Griots preserved and sang songs that explained a family’s genealogy, or recounted military adventures, and their breadth of knowledge in such matters sometimes allowed them to settle disputes. 

They were also, importantly, the only people who could criticise their king.  They sang stories of governmental folly, with the names changed, in front of an audience who were the song’s targets, including a king who might have them imprisoned or killed if the song cut too close to the bone.

That was satire.

In present day Burma, the comic Zarganar, and others in the same profession, might tell a joke like this:

A Burmese man goes across the border, to visit a dentist in India.  “Don’t you have dentists in Burma?” asks the Indian.  “Oh, yes,” says the Burmese man. “But we’re not allowed to open our mouths.”

And that joke will land them in jail.

That is satire.

The real thing, when you see it, has some important characteristics:

  1. The joke has to have a hard target.  Preferably someone or something more powerful than you.  Ideally, more powerful than anyone.  No hard target, no satire.
  2. The joke has to mention the unmentionable, not just lampoon the powerful figure.  If you make a joke about Kim Jong-il’s hair, you’ve made a joke about a North Korean guy’s hair, from ten thousand kilometres away.  If you say his hair is funny, and that he needs funny hair, because all the great dictators of history had funny hair, and you say it to his face, you’re a badass of satire.
  3. The joke should be funny. 

You’re probably thinking “Gee, Pete, with criteria like that, there’s not a lot of satire about.  Well, not here.”  And you’re right.  When Tom Lehrer sang National Brotherhood Week on television in 1965 and remarked that the week kicked off with the death of Malcolm X?  Satire.  Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner?  Satire.

Sketches in children’s wards, deadpan jokes about Rudd as a serial killer of camels?  Nup.  Not even close.

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7 thoughts on “Oh, You’re Not Laughing? That’s Because It’s Satire.

    • It’s a fun sketch, but the purist in me wants them to have served real koala, panda and sumo wrestler to the Japanese whaling commission, at the conference.

      I’m not picking on the Chaser guys (it’s too fashionable, for starters), but they demonstrate the impossibility of producing half an hour of real satire every week, in a relatively tolerant culture. It becomes especially difficult once you’re successful and popular on a government funded national broadcaster, because you become part of the very power structure you’re supposed to be mocking.

      I loved the APEC stunt and – even better – the follow-up stunt demonstrating a local RSL with more stringent security precautions than those afforded George W Bush. But there are two things The Chaser have yet to do, that I would really love to see:

      Mock their own self-satisfaction.
      Really stick it to their employers.

  1. Wow, strict. Would Swift and Pope count as satire, by these standards? Although, admittedly a lot of what Pope was doing was more bitching than satire.

    I don’t think the Chaser even counts as comedy most of the time. Saying that it’s impossible in a tolerant culture is letting them off way too lightly.

    • You’ve made me recall one thing I never liked about the Chaser – invariably these skits were directed at the wrong people. You’re right, it should have been the Commission delegation that were tasting the “koala”, not the poor buggers on a Tokyo street. To pull that off would have tipped them into what I’d term legendary. And that’s what I never liked much about the APEC skit and the blimp over St Peter’s. They wasted a lot of people’s time and made life difficult in a fairly limp way. Had they made it into Guantanamo Bay dressed as Osama … well surely that would have lifted them to satire?

    • Yeah, I’m a stickler, Mike, and I confess I don’t know enough Pope, but I think Swift’s solution to the Irish Potato Famine meets all the criteria – OK, maybe nobody laughs at it now, but I bet the first Brits to read it chortled through mouthfuls of one-sided toast.

      The term apparently derives from “lanx satura“, or a “mixed dish, dish filled with various kinds of fruit”, so it’s certainly valid (and effective) to mix up the types of humour, but it’s the hard target and the unmentionable that I consider indispensable. Before the Fool criticised Lear, he was just a fool.

      Jane, I suspect your exquisite blurb will be adopted by all the Chaser’s critics:
      “made life difficult in a fairly limp way”

  2. A recent example that the Chaser are obviously aware of (becuase in a Rolling Stone interview done around the time of the first series of War on Everything, they admitted to nicking from it) is Brass Eye. If you haven’t seen it… um, hopefully it’s on Youtube somewhere (I have it on DVD)

    The thing is, it holds the techniques of Tabloid journalism up to ridicule – and was itself pilloried in the british tabloids quite viciously.

    I’d suspect that we would never see anything even close to Brass Eye in Australia…

    • Brass Eye (and The Day Today) are among the funniest things I’ve ever seen. The big difference between Brass Eye and the Chaser is that Brass Eye was hoaxing done by extremely funy comic writers with utterly weird imaginations. The Chaser is hoaxing done by a bunch of guys who all look like the same guy.

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