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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.