Let’s talk about the way The Onion isn’t doing satire the right way anymore.
That’s an awfully blunt way to start this blog post off, but sometimes you have to be blunt with these things. Some people don’t get it if you’re not being blunt, and I get the impression that the folks over at The Onion right now might be some of those people. Frankly, they’ve lost sight of what satire is. Last night, this abominable thing appeared on Twitter:
Of course, this was not received well because it’s entirely uncalled for – who says that about a nine-year-old child? – and the tweet was deleted. CEO Steve Hannah issued an apology to both Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I imagine that whoever sent that tweet doesn’t have a job anymore. (At least I hope so.) A beautiful commentary on the tweet appeared on Tumblr last night. I reblogged it because I think everyone ought to read it.
This is not satire. This is the exact opposite of satire. This is saying things for pure shock value.
The Onion had a perfect opportunity for satire last night. When Seth MacFarlane made that horrible joke about Wallis being old enough for George Clooney sixteen years from now, essentially turning a nine-year-old into a sex object, the obvious joke to make would have been something along the lines of, “I’m Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC. Why don’t you have a seat over there, Mr. MacFarlane? I have the chat logs.” They completely blew it, however, and instead perpetuated the sexist, pedophilic humor by writing that tweet. Somewhere up in Comedian Heaven, more than a few people facepalmed.
Let’s talk a little bit about what satire’s supposed to be. In that post I reblogged on Tumblr last night, note-a-bear defined satire as such:
Satire, for the record, is not merely replication of vile realities with a change in the tone of your voice (or just your name to give the appearance of humorous intent). It is actually a rhetorical construction, it serves a purpose beyond an easy (and most certainly beyond merely crude or crass) laugh. Satire is an effort to expose the inherent hypocrisy and/or harmfulness of some system of power.
This is an excellent definition of satire. Satire doesn’t simply ‘say’ things. Satire goes beyond that. The proper way to write satire is to make it look almost like you’re taking it seriously, but make sure that there’s a facetious element to it. If we look at, say, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s shows, they’ve got this down pat. They report news ‘stories’ and produce ‘editorials’ that are done with mock gravity and seriousness, and yet the way they expose things for what they are is what makes it so funny. Their stories make a point, which is what satire is all about.
Satire has its roots in Greco-Roman writing, but it’s come and gone various times over the course of human history. It popped up in the early 1700s at one point, more or less hanging around until the mid-1800s when it was thought to be not gentle enough and so it faded into the background. The satire that appeared for the rest of the century was lighter (see Gilbert and Sullivan, for example), but it didn’t exactly make any blatant attacks. It remained that way until the early 1960s, when two of my biggest comedy heroes comprised half the cast of Beyond the Fringe. Satire became the cool thing to do for a while, then again faded out – it had been a fad. As culture shifted and more and more targets became acceptable, satire came back into vogue, and it holds a fairly strong place in today’s comedic culture.
There’s a reason that I have a picture of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on my bedroom wall (and have since 2007). Peter and Dudley, the two aforementioned cast members of Beyond the Fringe that I adore to death, knew how satire worked. Peter helped rescue and fund Private Eye, the UK’s equivalent to The Onion, and wrote articles for it on a somewhat regular basis. He also impersonated Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to his face. However, it’s important to note that the two men were fully aware that Derek and Clive, the drunk recordings they released later, were not satire at all – that was shock value humor, and they knew it. Of course, that shock value humor influenced a ton of people – possibly even Seth MacFarlane and his team of writers. Depressingly, people weren’t picking up on their very intelligent earlier work.
The Onion was founded in 1988, and it for the most part has succeeded in its role as a satirical mouthpiece. There are even cases of it being taken seriously, which I find hilarious. (Literally Unbelievable chronicles many of these incidents.) To this day, it still seems to hit the nail on the head when it comes to political articles, but when it comes to pop culture, it’s declined steadily over the past few years. The writers are going for shock value and trying to get people to click on things. They’ve bought into social media’s need for pageviews and hits, so their stories are becoming less satirical and more stupid. The Onion is becoming a source for people who like low comedy, and those of us who enjoy satire are becoming disillusioned and angry.
I used to want to write for The Onion. I’m not so sure I want to anymore. The people there have lost sight of what satire truly is, and it’s just not the same. We don’t need to use shock value to be funny. Not everyone needs to swear or make dirty jokes. We can be funny without that. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that, and especially unfortunately, many of them seem to be currently working at The Onion.
Xefer is a fun little website where you can see how many clicks it takes you to get from any random Wikipedia article title to the philosophy article. Basically, it’s the world’s greatest time-waster not called Tumblr. I decided to play with it by typing in three different comedy films and seeing what it came up with. I used, in order:
- Sons of the Desert (1933, Laurel and Hardy)
- The General (1926, Buster Keaton)
- Safety Last! (1923, Harold Lloyd)
And here’s what happened:
I think my favorite part was how ‘Sons of the Desert’ somehow went through the ‘Carl Linnaeus’ article. I don’t know why, but that just cracked me up.
I rewatched It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the first time in years last night. (A large portion of the cast of that comic I’m doing appears in this thing, amongst other reasons.) Besides possibly disturbing my parents a little bit by recognizing the way Buster Keaton (who cameos) walked, I did a little bit of thinking last night – and it’s true, comedy really does travel in cycles stylistically.
When comedy films first started appearing, Mack Sennett more or less ran the show. Sennett films relied on heavy slapstick – watch anything featuring the Keystone Kops and you’ll see what I mean. Watching Sennett’s Chaplin, Arbuckle and Normand films reveals…basically the same thing. There were no scripts back then – the actors would just go out with the director and a cameraman, find a scene somewhere, and improvise a little story. They’d then add title cards later after the film was edited and cut.
Then one day, Charlie Chaplin decided to believe all the critics calling him an artist, and things changed drastically. Films became longer, with proper plots carried throughout them. There weren’t scripts, because there was still no dialogue, but by the middle of the 1920s, the Big Three – Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd – were well-established, with Harry Langdon more or less keeping up with them (until he decided he was an artist, too, but let’s not get into that now). These films moved away from slapstick and became more situational, with the characters spending most of their time on film trying to get out of bizarre – yet realistic – situations.
And then sound came.
Now, you don’t need sound to make a comedy, but when sound arrived, everyone decided that now was the time for snappy scripts and puns. There was an over-reliance on dialogue, which naturally ruined quite a few potentially good films. By the time films and moviegoers had gotten used to sound, quite a few of the great comedians of the 1920s had fallen off the wagon. (The Big Three continued to make and appear in films, but their work during this period isn’t considered their best output, and Harry Langdon did quite a few talkies, as well, but eventually joined the writing team at Hal Roach Studios.)
If we look at the sort of comedy that was popular during the 1930s, we see two or three distinct branches. The first branch, which involves scripts heavily reliant on wordplay and puns, is primarily dominated by the Marx Brothers, but there were quite a few other acts falling under this umbrella, as well. Remember Wheeler and Woolsey? No? Anyway, they were here, too.
The second branch involves a return to slapstick. Columbia decided that at the height of the Great Depression what people really wanted to see was three idiots beating each other up for twenty minutes, so they signed these three and set them to work. Apparently Columbia was right, since they turned out to be a massive draw at the box office.
The third branch – my favorite – is probably the best-remembered of the three because they seem to be involved in almost everyone’s childhoods, even now. To be fair, the thing that makes Laurel and Hardy so special to me is that the two of them ended up becoming best friends over the course of their careers, which is the most adorable thing ever. From a comedy standpoint, they’re very different from the other two branches because of their pacing. Whilst the other acts relied on quick, snappy dialogue and non-stop cartoon violence, Stan and Ollie took things very, very slowly. They reacted to what happened to them – slowly – and stretched sequences that would have taken other comedians thirty seconds to do out over several minutes. It worked brilliantly.
By the 1940s, things needed to be freshened up some, and although the Stooges and Stan and Ollie were still around, it was Abbott and Costello who popped up and grew in popularity during the war years. (This may have reflected the general culture in America at the time, as Bud and Lou’s comedy style was more aggressive.) They hung around in the ’50s for a little while, but Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis picked up the baton from there and brought comedy into more of a screwball direction. At the same time, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road To… movies were further solidifying the genre. Television comedy also began its rise, with many radio stars eventually making the jump and bringing sketch comedy and sitcoms to the small screen.
Which brings us to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which came out in 1963. There are elements of several styles of comedy in this movie – which makes sense, because there are several styles of comedians in it. If we take a closer look at it, we can dissect it a little bit:
- Mack Sennett would have loved this movie. There’s plenty of slapstick violence in here – the film even ends on a banana peel gag, a staple of the Sennett era. Although there isn’t a pie fight, there’s a bit where an entire gas station is systematically dismantled and destroyed by Jonathan Winters, which is close enough.
- There’s a ton of situational comedy, too. The entire movie is fueled by one situation – Jimmy Durante’s character hid money somewhere in Southern California under something called a ‘big W,’ and everyone’s attempts to get there first place them into precarious situations: hitchhiking with strangers and ‘borrowing’ their cars, flying an airplane after the pilot passes out drunk, locked in a hardware store basement, and so on.
- The script is phenomenal. It allows all the comedians making cameos to get their trademark lines in (ZaSu Pitts gets to show off her Midwestern accent as the switchboard operator, Jack Benny gets to deliver a “…Well!” and Joe E. Brown gets to scream “HEEEEEEEEY!” near the end). It also lets the feature players shine (Buddy Hackett’s delivery of “What are you, the hostess?” to Mickey Rooney as they’re trying to land a plane is my dad’s favorite line in the entire film). The script is snappy and rapid-fire where it needs to be and quiet when all the audience needs to follow the plot is the action.
- For a three-hour movie, the pacing is incredible – you never get bored because the plot never drags for a second, even when the scene cuts to the police station for a breather.
You watch this film, and cameos aside, the films of the 1910s and 1920s are back – in color and in a much longer format, but there you go. Styles of comedy tend to cycle around. In the early 1960s, there was a satire boom which started in the UK and made its way to the US. Although Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who were at the forefront of the movement by being in Beyond the Fringe, lasted as a double act for twenty some-odd years afterwards by moving into sketch comedy, satire itself faded quickly out of vogue, only to return with a vengeance in the 2000s. My brother loves films like Dodgeball. Dodgeball is pure slapstick.
Think for a moment about what you like watching. There might just be some older – or newer – films in the ilk of what you’re into. Why don’t you go and check those out for a change and see what you think?
I have stupid ideas sometimes, and today was no different. In the middle of doing my graduate school readings for the week I was struck with drawing inspiration and thought of an appropriately cheesy caption, and this happened.
So I guess I’ll turn this over to you folks now and let you write your own comedy-inspired Valentines. I reblogged a few on my Tumblr account earlier, so feel free to use those for inspiration and whatnot! Have fun!
I spend quite a bit of time on the internet writing about baseball over at Aerys Sports. I cover the Orioles and Stanford’s college team and occasionally add commentary on the Red Sox (and cover things when Mets writers can’t). So naturally, I love it when my beloved comedians love baseball as much as I do, and quite a few did. That being said, there’s Joe E. Brown, who actually played baseball, and that’s more than enough to get me to sit up and be really excited and want to know more.
Joe E. Brown is best known for having a really, really large mouth (no, seriously) and yelling in a very specific way. All of his comedy’s clean, so you can share it with your kids if you’d like to. What interests me, though, is his baseball career – he played semi-pro ball and actually turned down a chance to sign with the Yankees to continue on with comedy. His son, Joe L. Brown, eventually became the GM of the Pittsburgh Pirates, so baseball runs in the family. Joe E. used quite a bit of baseball in his routines and even made three baseball-themed movies (which fans refer to as the ‘Baseball Trilogy’). Naturally, I was curious about the man’s actual baseball career, so I did what any good sportswriter does these days and went straight to Baseball-Reference.
No stats at all, go figure. Back when he was playing, semi-pro players’ stats really didn’t capture the attention of anybody except the scouts who signed them to go pro. That means I’ll have to actually do some digging. I’ve added the man’s biography to my Amazon Wish List with plans to purchase it as soon as I can – and I do need to know important things – like what position the man played, for instance – in order to write the script for chapter 3 of Comedian Heaven. (That may be a giveaway about what that’s going to be about, but since I’m writing this it’s only inevitable that there’s a baseball chapter at some point.) It’s easy to find information about his comedy career (see here and here, for example), but his baseball career is eluding me at the moment, and as someone who considers herself a good researcher (I’m an archivist in training) and a pretty darn good sportswriter, I’m miffed that I haven’t been able to find anything yet.
I guess the best thing to do is just keep going.
…on yet another blog, because I can’t seem to stop writing about things and the only general content blog I have is my Livejournal. (Yes, I still have one.)
I’ve decided to chronicle my quest to get a PhD. in the history and study of comedy. I know it’s not exactly a very popular field, but it’s something I’m really genuinely interested in and people will have to call me Doctor, so that’s worth it. Besides that, this blog’s going to basically be where I post any random thoughts about comedy that I might have, which is good because I have way too many of them and I needed a place to put them that wasn’t my Tumblr. Tumblr’s not for deep thinking or analysis. It’s for memes, .gifs and photos of cats.
Anyhow, I write the webcomic Comedian Heaven, so that should tell you all you need to know. Yep.