Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically)
Any time I get the chance to teach American satire, I begin by asserting its power. I use Mark Twain (who else?) to frame the course, taking a line from the Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” I imagine many teachers do the same thing. It is a wonderfully useful statement that grants an aura of legitimacy for the course. It is also a rather conspicuous effort, as I fight off a perpetual fear that my students (and my peers) hold fast to an underlying belief that “serious” and “humorous” are opposing forces. I confess also that I add Twain’s line to soften my lurking guilt for being able to do something so thoroughly interesting and fun for a living. Still, I believe Twain’s assertion.
But I am having doubts.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone (29 Sep. 2011), Jon Stewart shares his own misgivings about his role as a court jester and, more specifically, as a satirist. In commenting on the work of The Daily Show, he acknowledges the intent of the writers to engage in social criticism with comedy as their tool. Stewart observes, however, that satire as a weapon for demanding cultural change has significant limitations. In reference to the unique position shared by satirists on the whole as they mock social mores, he claims, “It’s the privilege of satire, and it’s also the albatross around its neck. It can be sharp and it can be pointed and shaming, but at heart it’s impotent and sort of feckless” (47). In his role as writer and host of The Daily Show, Stewart is arguably the most powerful satirical voice in the United States, but he is nonetheless cynical about the prospects of applying whatever power that entails, if any. He continues, “everyone overestimates the power of satire. There’s a great thing Peter Cook once said. Somebody said to him that the most powerful satirists in history were the cabaret artists in Berlin during the 1930s. And Peter Cook said, ‘Yeah, they really showed Hitler, didn’t they?’ In a lot of ways that’s how I feel about it” (47).
If Jon Stewart—riding high on the success of The Daily Show –is dubious about the long-term impact of his work, what are teachers supposed to think? But that is not the half of it. The problem facing satire is not merely one of weakness in comparison to the longer, broader reach of so-called “serious” media or the brute force wielded by political figures themselves. The core problem ensuring the impotence of satire may be, quite simply, the intractability of audiences. Those of us who believe in the power of satire to effect social change implicitly believe that satire can be persuasive. It goes like this: satirist identifies social wrong; he/she skewers it rhetorically with irony; audience recognizes the previously hidden absurdity exposed by the satire; things change. Really? This assumed process may be an article of faith for satire lovers that cannot hold up to scrutiny.
In the highly publicized article, “The Irony of Satire” (International Journal of Press/Politics 2009), Heather L. LaMarre, Kristen D. Landreville, and Michael A. Beam, indicate that the human brain may be even less likely to respond to satirical inferences than we have dared to imagine. LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam focus attention on The Colbert Report and demonstrate that viewers of the show tend to interpret Stephen Colbert’s satire directly in terms of their own political views. In other words, the message is fungible and by no means clear. In short, people see what they want to see; believe what they want to believe; and, moreover—here’s the kicker—conclude that Stephen Colbert agrees with them. The authors note that “individuals with strong political ideologies may be motivated by their social self…to process ambiguous information in a way that favors their political beliefs and/or [those of ] political groups who hold similar beliefs and opinions” (214). In other words, conservative viewers see Colbert’s satire as attacking hypocritical and overblown left wing positions; liberal viewers see it as attacking hypocritical and overblown right wing positions. And everyone thinks it’s funny.
Whether or not individuals choose to accept fully the arguments within the study, at the very least, it should encourage some hesitation, and humility. Those lovers of satire who assume that The Colbert Report is clear in and of itself (because it is clear to them) may be sadly mistaken (no matter their own political views). Moreover, if teachers think that our lectures and discussions will remove all doubt in the varied minds of students, we are perhaps plagued by delusions of grandeur. Colbert’s satire—its target, its message—is obvious to me, but I also should recognize that others opposite to me politically may make the same claim while drawing markedly different conclusions. I can conclude that they are idiots (they are), but that conclusion also makes me an arrogant, clueless jerk just like that guy who told Peter Cook about the power of satire in Berlin during the 1930s.
According to the study, the key seems to be the ambiguity of Colbert’s performance. He is true to his art and doggedly remains in character. In so doing, he does not provide audiences with substantive interpretive clues as to the intent of his ironic pose. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, often moves in and out of incidental character poses and consistently provides laughter and self-referential remarks. He readily asserts his role as fun-loving jester apart from the satirical performances themselves. As a result, The Daily Show does not encourage as much confusion. The authors of the study assert that it is Colbert’s deadpan style and refusal to step out of character that set up such self-affirming (and conflicting) responses from audiences. There is an irony here (I think. Hell, I’m not sure): the more perfectly constructed the satire, the more likely the misunderstanding. If that is so, then perhaps the stronger the satire is artistically, the weaker it is socially and politically. I don’t know what I think about that.
“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Well? Emotionally, intellectually, and rhetorically, the fact may be that plenty of things stand, at least in the minds of those who want them to remain standing, and plenty of things fall, at least in the minds of those who wanted them down all along. Nothing is more steadfast and stubborn against the assault of laughter than the human need to affirm itself in its opinions again and again—even in the face of beautifully conceived and constructed satire.
I have no plans to stop using Twain’s hopeful line, though. What else can I do? Generally, my answer to such questions is to seek another line from Twain for comfort. In A Tramp Abroad, while setting up his parody of Alpine adventuring, he provides the following conclusion: “There is probably no pleasure equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp; but it is a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it” (411). The same point applies to the pleasures of irony. It remains, as ever, a worthwhile and wonderful interest whether or not it has the power to change the world, or even the power to change anyone’s mind.
Jeffrey Melton (PhD. University of South Carolina, 1993) is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama. He is the author of Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism: The Tide of a Great Popular Movement (University of Alabama Press, 2002, rpt. 2009) and co-editor of Mark Twain on the Move: A Travel Reader(University of Alabama Press, 2009). He has published articles on travel literature, tourism, and humor in South Atlantic Review, Papers on Language and Literature, Studies in American Humor, Popular Culture Review, Studies in American Culture, and Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor.