Monday, June 17, 2013

What Makes Us Laugh - Part Three: Satire, Attack with Laughs

Talking to the audience, done right.
Satire often in modern times is blended with its more low-brow brother farce and nowadays called parody. Sometimes we even go so far as to call satire "meta-humour". However satire is quite distinct itself as a genre and should be noted as such. While I am including it in the "What Makes Us Laugh" theoretical series, I'm doing so because it literally makes us laugh, not because it is a descendent of comedy--actually it's quite the reverse, comedy is a descendent of satire. In fact one could technically say that satire was the "original comedy" under Aristophanes and traditional Greek Old Comedy. In fact Aristophanes is dubbed, the "Father of Comedy", though I argue he really laid the foundation down for satire (and farce) first and foremost, and modern comedy comes from Menander.

I know what you're thinking...
The history of Satire however begins earlier than that though. Where we get the word satire come from the old Greek satyr plays that would play immediately after a Greek tragedy trilogy. Although only one complete Satyr play survives entact to this day, we can derive from it, fragments of others, and descriptions of Satyr plays in general that they typically involved Silenus, the leader of the satyrs, and his flock of fellow satyrs getting into some kind of predicament and a hero character coming along and managing to rescue Silenus and his merry flock. More will be mentioned on this in the next theoretical post next Monday. In this early time I'd argue that satire and farce had not yet separated into separate genres and even in the poop joke loving Aristophanes the two forces still managed to be held in balance. What were these two forces you might ask? I'll give you one answer today and another next week when we look at farce in depth, when I hope to get a rise, out of you all. So, let's take a look at Aristophanes, shall we?

Stone cutters took pity and gave him a great head of hair.
Little is known of Aristophanes' own life. He was most likely only just eighteen when his first play The Banqueters was produced, and despite the picture of the marble bust depicting a full head of hair, it's thought that he probably was prematurely bald due to the number of self-deprecating jokes he made against himself in his plays. He wrote forty plays that we know of, eleven of which have survived to this day. We know from Plato as well as his own parabasis that he embarked upon becoming a comic dramatist because he didn't like the ridicule that comic dramatists received and wanted to create a better image for them--comedy at the time was the new kid on the block and had much the bad reputation. As such, while generally remembered by Plato to be genial and good-humoured, he's depicted as not liking to be belittled or dismissed. Aristophanes' comedies are what we today would clearly recognize as highly political satire. If Aristophanes were alive today he'd write and perform for the Capital Steps or Saturday Night Live quite easily--in that way you could say he was the Tina Fey of his day--although with his propensity for poop jokes, he might have fit in better with the bawdier Mad TV. As such, a lot of his humour was very politicized and topical to the times he lived in, and Aristophanes sure did live through some interesting times. Not only did he live through the dying days of the Peloponnesian War (which is quite clear in his play The Frogs--in which Dionysus goes to the underworld to hold a contest to bring back the best playwright to re-inspire a demoralized Athens with a great work of tragedy), but also two oligarchic revolutions, and two democratic restorations. He lived through troubled and interesting times indeed and through it all used comedy in the first satiric manner to parody and make fun of many well known figures of his day. We know from Aristophanes for example that for a fact Socrates existed and wasn't just some figment of Plato's imagination because Aristophanes parodies Socrates quite extensively in his play The Clouds.

Remember, this is funny to an audience 
who has no doubt in their faith in Zeus.

He also took on figures such as Cleon (a prominent Athenian statesman and strategic mind during the Peloponnesian war--Aristophanes and Cleon got into a heated debate over how Aristophanes depicts him), Lamachus (a risk-taking general of the Peloponnesian war), to the gods themselves--Dionysus getting a rather hilarious portrait in The Frogs. And it's here where we first see the beginnings of satire. Satire isn't afraid to hit hard and hit high. Primarily it is on the attack. It's humour is based around attacking something--typically real-life people--and making a mockery out of them. Again, I say if Aristophanes were alive now, he'd write for the Capital Steps and he would've have had deja vu during the Iraqi War and it's similarities to the Peloponnesian war. Yes, I should note that Aristophanes was virulently anti-war, well anti-the Peloponnesian war, not so much against the concept of war per se. However while attack is an important part of satire it is not the end-all and be-all part of it. Otherwise pure invective or simple plain cursing and swearing at a person would be considered satire. No, there has to be something more to it, the attack has to be balanced with a sense of humour that way satire doesn't completely wallow in the sea of the mean-spirited.

Another tradition that comes from Aristophanes in to modern satire is the idea of authorial intent. In no other literary genre is authorial intent more out in the open and plainly obvious for everyone to see. Often times the author will speak to us through to work to the readers or audience directly, giving a little smirk, wink, or eyebrow raise for our own benefit. This was actually a formalized part of Old Comedy called the parabasis, and it is here that the author's intent was made clear to the audience, as the Greek chorus would "break the fourth wall" and speak the author's mind directly to the audience. Often times, well at least from Aristophanes' play, we'd get insights into the life of the author, but at the same time, the focus usually was more on the message that the author wanted us to take from the piece. It is from parabasis that the tradition of witty narrators, self-deprecating humour, and breaks in the fourth wall between the world of the story and our own as readers come from. Often satires will play with the notion of characters being self-aware that they're in a story, or will play around with self-awareness in general. As such the satirist will play around with exploring the artificial nature of storytelling. plays around with the notion of self-awareness

Although comedy derived from satire, I'd argue they've evolved to the point where neither truly exists in the same world, and the only thing similar about them anymore is that they both make us laugh. True comedy as we know it today is about community building, and satire if anything is about community destroying. Satire sees the world as corrupted and in need of a good purge--and it sees itself as the man up to the task to point the rest of us in the right direction. In a lot of ways satire is about wading through the muddy, dirty and disgusting parts of society that would trouble or upset us in a comedy. Comedy would try and laugh it all off as us just "being human", but satire likes to sit with the uncomfortable and demands that you pay attention. Satire typically wants to change the world, probably just as much as some of the best melodrama does. Except satire will try and get to you through your mind and intellect, while melodrama will hit you in an emotional gut wrenching manner.

I hope it's not the swimsuit edition.
As satire likes to focus in on the corrupted part of society, it could thus be said to be about giant slaying as Northrop Frye argues in his essay on the genre. I know, that association probably threw you for a loop, but please hang on for a second. Usually it isn't the giants of romance (although in some special cases it literally is), no it is the self-important fools who think themselves great and grand--like politicians, the clergy, professionals, and other people of "high respect and esteem". The "giants" of their fields, so to speak. This goes back to Aristophanes and his love of taking real life people he knew down a peg or ten. Usually in doing so satire could be said in Frye's terms to be taking an alazon and attempting to reveal that the delusion they have does not reflect any apparent sense of reality. However, as is often the case in satire, the entire world is full of alazons. Satire thus could be said to also concern itself with distinguishing reality from illusion, as well as the theme of deception. A lot of time is spent in satire in distilling "reality" and knocking people into seeing the "world as it is". Realism's existence is thanks in part to satire as well as science.

After Aristophanes' Greek Old Comedy gave way to Menander's Greek New Comedy, the notions of satire weren't again picked up until the early days of the Roman Empire under the quills of Juvenal and Horace. Here is a quote from Horace's The Art of Poetry, which discusses a new idea to crop up in our development of satire, humour of convention:

"Gods should not talk like heroes, nor again
Drink Roman, the only wine that matters.
Impetuous youth like grave and reverend men;
Lady and nurse a different language crave,
Sons of the soil and rovers o'er the wave;
Assyrian, Colchian, Theban, Argive, each
Has his own style, his proper cast of speech.
In painting characters, follow tradition,
Or in inventing be consistent,
If great Achilles figure in the scene,
Make him impatient, fiery, ruthless, keen;
All laws, all covenants let him still disown,
And test his quarrel by the sword alone.
Make Medea all revenge and scorn,
Ino still sad, Ixion still forsworn,
Io, a wanderer still, Orestes still forlorn.
If you would be original, and seek
To frame some character ne'er seen in Greek,
See it be wrought on one consistent plan,
And end the same creation it began." -- Horace

In this short excerpt from Horace, he argues for convention and tradition in character creation, he goes on to argue that it's hard to put an original twist on a story men know so well, but he asks us to maintain conventions for the sake of not confusing one's audience. And the reason I quote this is because Satire is a form of humour extremely dependent on convention. An example given by Northrop Frye that will be mentioned later as well, is the convention of the battered husband and shrewish wife. We conventionally find it funny in a comic strip for a wife to beat her husband with a rolling pin or a frying pan of some sort, but to introduce a comic strip where a husband beats his wife would stop and confuse its readers. One thing we know from convention is funny, the other we're told is a more tragic situation, and so an uneasy feeling would settle on the readers which would kill the satiric mood. Satire does aim to make its audience uncomfortable, but this specific level of discomfort is how one loses readers and audiences. It's a line not to be crossed too often, and when you do, as Horace suggests, be consistent.


One is cute in a weird way, the other has cute bu--
I think I know why we updated this convention...

Similarly if you wish to create a new convention, likewise be consistent. Arguably the minions from Despicable Me have created a new convention that has been emulated in many other children's films and will continue to be so in time to come. However I'd argue they're not so much a new convention as a re-imagining of an older convention of kewpie dolls and cute little cupids (see Disney's Fantasia). Conventions have lives and after living a full one, will die or fade from popularity, and as such every so often will be unexpectedly revitalized by a re-imagining of the convention in a manner that more modern audiences can relate to.

A knight and his washer lady.
So we've talked about attack and humour of convention, the two most vital parts of satire but in order to understand the final part of satire we need to jump ahead in time past the golden age of Romance in the Medieval period to the Renaissance where we arguably see the birth of modern satire with Don Quixote. To look at Don Quixote, one sees an obvious juxtaposition between itself and the Romances it parodies. Most heroes on a quest are young men, Don Quixote is at the senile end of his life. His lady love is a washer woman, the giants he faces are windmills. Don Quixote is an obvious satire of the Medieval Romances. Satire likes to concern itself with parodying Romance quests and epic journeys of sorts. And as such in a satire, episodic adventures, strange encounters, and odd intervals can be inserted for as long as the satirist desires. All of this comes from Don Quixote's influence as a cornerstone of modern literature. Due to this, satire often is seen as the complete opposite of romance. As such as romance was the elite's propaganda, satire can be viewed as the common man's response. In fact the most noted of satirists always seem to to be self-made men from the lower classes or are considered "outsiders" from a lesser ethnicity or nationality, from the lower class Horace to the Irish Jonathan Swift.

Gulliver in Brobdignab where the tables are turned.
Speaking of Jonathan Swift, he adds another element to Satire through Gulliver's Travels, which is a humour based on the fantastic or exaggerated. It's a grotesque based humour, made obvious blatantly obvious by the exaggerated extremes our character is taken to. These exaggerated extremes though never get balanced out for the reader like they would in a comedy, so they remain in their "sick" extremes. The little people of Lilliput will constantly be a war with the Bigenders over petty small individual quarrels like which end of an egg to break first. The giants of Brobdignab might have a better concern for its community at large, but it will overlook and suppress the individuals within its community. Brobdignab may also be free of war, corrupt officials, and greed--but at the same time it doesn't have music, art or modern science. Laputa may finally think of the meaning of the universe, but they'll never appreciate the beauty of a flower. The Academy might go about creating a new perfect world, but they'll have utterly destroyed the old one, and so on and so forth. In fact that's probably the best way to look at satire. Our protagonist has become stuck in a world full of the sick and insane, and in the darkest of satires, the person stuck there doesn't even realize that they too are sick and insane as well.

In Wonderland, everyone's mad. I'm mad, he's mad, you're mad...
The best case example of a satirical "protagonist" getting stuck in a "world of crazy" would probably have to be the two Alice stories: Alice in Wonderland, and its sequel Through the Looking Glass. Through those two novels, and Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (which satirically makes fun of fairy tales), satire arguably entered the realm of Children's Literature, and as such those novels can be reread as an adult and appreciated on an entirely different level. There are many conventions of satire to be found in Wonderland alone. The most obvious being that of the battered King of Hearts and the overbearing Queen of Hearts--a satirical glance at the balance of power between Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. The other is that the entire world of Wonderland is a world full of loveable eccentrics taken to the extreme of their characters. And all through it, our protagonist Alice makes it through as our lone character of "sanity" in an insane world.

Humour in satire, thanks to Aristophanes, can be more than just conventional,fantastical, grotesque, or poking fun at romance, it usually is quite topical as well. This is why of all the genres, I'd say satire has the hardest time lasting very long, and has to be constantly re-invented. Aristophanes attacked real people he and the rest of Athens knew, Cervantes parodied romance novels and stories that all of Spain had grown up reading, and Swift attacked the hypocrisies of his own society mercilessly. In each case though they were dealing with a subject that their readers already came to the table knowing quite well--and if we wish to understand just as much as they did, we have to do our own "studying" of the materials. However I would argue that the best satires, while using topical humour manage to find a way to transcend the topicality either by having the insanity it explores be SO grotesque and extreme that it transcends its specific time (Gulliver's Travels and the Alice stories fit here) or by simultaneously telling its audience what to expect to happen by meta-theatrically having the protagonist "explain the rules". Don Quixote for example, when asked to pay for his inn bill, proclaims that no knight ever has a concern for money and they're provided hospitality without any expectation of repayment. In the modern horror film satire Scream, a character literally explains "the rules" of old horror films.

Satire served up with a healthy dose of beer and teen torture, please.

While satire is quite topical in its humour, and thus prone to making fun of particular individuals, one can find a few common characters that belong to it that have now become prolific favourites.

Some common characters of satire:

The Last Man of Common Sense

Wait till he pulls out his gun in five, four, three, tw--BANG!
This character is one--typically with rural associations--who "cuts through bull shit" like a knife, reducing things to simple common sense to be weighed and evaluated. The character, though having a long history of existence, has come to be adopted by Americans of the Appalachian persuasion as their go-to source for entertainment and emulation. As such we have the reason for why Larry the Cable Guy exists. Jethro Gibbs from NCIS is another example. For a more refined American variation, see the suburban Mid-West's version with the Nostalgia Critic (as pictured), and for an even more refined variation, the Northeastern urbane Nostalgia Chick. The more urbane a culture this character comes from the more refined this type of character will become. I must say though that this is clearly the typical satiric character of choice for most Americans--whether they be rural or urbane, which as a nation suggests a more rural-based culture than most developed nations. Their sense of humour comes from wading through the excess wasteland that they see themselves in, and tearing it to shreds thus reducing it to its simplest elements to properly beat or kick to death. There is often something very violent about this character, for they usually see violence as the only way to "knock any kind of sense" into the world. Typically they see themselves as one of the last survivors of good common sense in a world run mad with idiocy. They only have common sense though in the lightest of satires. The darker a satire gets, the more common sense will be doubted as having any meaning and the crazier this individual will become until there's no distinguishing him or her from the rest of the insane society. In the darkest of satires, this individual is also an alazon figure who's worst offence is thinking he can save a society destined to go to hell in a hand basket by beating it into submission.

The Loveable Eccentric

Everyone loves Abby, that could be a sitcom, right?
Typically this character is female, but not always. There is usually something "off beat" or "quirky" about this type of character. And we tend to love them as there's some sense of "childishness" that lingers about them, but doesn't completely hamper them from interacting with the rest of the world in an adult manner. The satire of these types tends to stem from the fact that such a character of such professional knowledge or power can be so childishly eccentric. They add a diversity to the world they inhabit, breaking minor rules or conventions of that society that don't really matter, and by doing so allow us to discern the bull shit rules that need to be broken, and the common sense rules that need to be enforced. They're a living oxymoron that we love to see. These character types can only exist in the realm of satire where common sense can still be used as a measure of sanity. Once common sense is doubted these loveable eccentrics begin to disappear, and in the darkest of satires there's nothing at all loveable about them. While there are many examples of this type of character, arguably the best well-known one currently is Abby from NCIS, as pictured above who is a goth girl forensic scientist with a personality so sweet and loving she's the fan favourite of the show. See also Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series. For a more classic example see Betsy Trotwood from David Copperfield.

The Delusional Giant

Well isn't this rather obvious...
As mentioned earlier this kind of character is an Alazon figure who unlike the Alazons of comedy isn't self-deceived so much as they have an agenda to deceive the rest of society into thinking that they're greater than they really are. This is the classic "Emperor's New Clothes" situation, but usually with a darker twist that the Emperor knows he doesn't have any clothes on, but wants to make everyone else think he does. There are usually many delusional giants in a satire and they are often to be found in the highest positions of power and prominence.

The Battered Husband & Shrewish Wife

Feminists, if you want to change society, get rid of this...  OW! Yes, mistress...
This type of character is a duo where you don't see one without the other. It's essentially a Punch and Judy show, except Punch has no recourse to a more dominating Judy. This is a traditional satiric take on "traditional marriages" where the inherent laughter comes from a man being so frying pan and rolling pin beaten he is unable to assert his societally expected male dominance over the women in his life. In modern times one can see something of its existence still in comic strips like Hagar the Horrible or in the related descendent of the Overbearing Mother and Momma's Boy pairing.

Now all that is fine and dandy, but how does it all interact with our society? Well, currently since about WWI or so we've been living in a "golden age" of Satire, where everything is smeared with a satiric touch from pornography to children's literature. Sure, in the 1950s and on into the 1960s there was a bit of a backlash to that mindset (thanks to Disney and the dewy-eyed Silent Generation), but come the 1970s our satirical outlook was more firmly fixed than ever--one eyebrow raise at a time. Satire was and always will be a genre about mercilessly attacking a sick society and tearing it down. By doing so the satirists attempt to show what is wrong with "us" so that we as an audience might know what to change. In a way it's like House (people still watch that show, right?), where the satirist is an expert at diagnosing the sick. Now as has been mentioned previously, although satire is brilliant at diagnosing the sick, that's just about all it does. It doesn't try to heal the sick like a comedy would, instead it's the little kid in the parade pointing out the Emperor has no clothes on, and it's never seen or heard from again. Satire gives us the diagnosis, but it leaves the cure up to us--typically Satire is too cynical and too suspicious of cure-alls and those who proclaim to have the answer to everything, which is probably why it doesn't bother trying to heal society. The satirist figures letting you know what the problem is is enough, and oh, by the way, you're welcome. You'll have to figure out the rest from here on out, the satirist's job is done. And that's just in the lightest of satires, in the darkest of the dark satires--there's just pure nihilism with absolutely no hope of reforming anything and so we all might as well enjoy the ride to hell while it lasts.

Satire as a genre is how we attack parts of our society which are seen as sick and are most likely incurable. Sometimes through common sense we hope to violently purge the idiots who now control our society, and in other cases merely thinking you can cure it at all is a ridiculous notion to hold on to. Which makes me wonder if the darker satires really don't have a point? Perhaps we as a society are sick and going to hell in hand basket and there's nothing we can do about it. And if that's the destination, at least we can laugh about it on the way there.