Jonathan Swift’s Intellectual Descendents for Truth

Filed Under Satire

On Sunday, The New York Times described why jokes about George Bush have become far more aggressive and political. For the most part, all the reasons they point out (the unpopularity of his policies and the harshness of all comedy these days) are fairly accurate. The most interesting points occur at the end of the article:

1) The initial joke that George Bush is a bumbler has helped him. Absolutely true. It’s been ingrained in western civilization since Aristophanes: the smart aren’t so smart and the fools among us are the wisest of us all. Think about the end of Animal House... the characterization of an idiotic George W. Bush could have easily been one of the frat brothers who end up heading on to ambitious destinies. We don’t get angry at the clowns who make mistakes, we have sympathy for them. If the left wants to change minds, it should supplant the dumb jokes with ones that emphasize craftiness. (BTW, who was our last President who was portrayed as a little out of it? Reagan.)

2) Satirical humor plays only the converted. My head says this is true. My heart wishes it wasn’t. Naturally the most vitriolic of comedic rants really doesn’t change minds, but one of the things that always attracted me to comedy was the idea that my getting a laugh, you could sneak an idea in there. I don’t know if anybody ever walked out of a comedy show and said, “that totally changed my stance on abortion.” (In fact, I can’t think of any piece of art that has ever really done that.) On the opposite side, everyone loves to criticize media for driving people, particularly kids, to commit some antisocial act. But we can’t have any positive effects? I don’t think you can have it both ways. I imagine some would prefer to say art, and by extension comedy, has no effect one way or the other because they don’t want the responsibility. But I think exactly the opposite is true. Jokes can both help and harm society, but I think you and I will always be ill-equipped to judge which do which until a couple of decades have past. I mean, who’d ever thought Lenny Bruce would lead to Andrew “Dice” Clay?

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