Monday, August 28, 2006
Making Fun, Out of Nothing at All
There's a columnist for the Miami Herald whom I read once in awhile; his name is Leonard Pitts. This simple statement is hysterical at face value -- given that he's a Pulitzer Prize winner and, well, I'm doing this crap. For a moment though, I'm going to try and pretend that he can somehow benefit from the endorsement of a guy who spends most of his spare time bitching online, and give him a shout-out. He's an exceptional writer and one whose opinions I respect greatly, even if I don't always share them.
A couple of weeks ago, he wrote a pretty terrific column that dealt with a segment of the population's apoplexy at, and MTV's subsequent apology for, a cartoon show aired on the network which depicted an animated Snoop Dogg-like character walking around with two women attached to leashes. MTV defended the cartoon by calling it satire. Pitts brought up an obvious but very well articulated point that a defense like that hardly carries weight in our society anymore for one simple reason: satire is almost impossible these days.
He's absolutely right.
Satire is defined as the use of irony or sarcasm to expose and ridicule folly. Its main goal is to hold a very bright light up to the ridiculous by emulating it. When practiced well, it's not only a riot to watch -- it is almost impossible to defend against. Go along with it and you look like a dupe; argue back and you just look foolish. It should make its target wholly uncomfortable. It should make the stupid never question its sincerity. It is the most subversive art form ever conceived.
The problem though, is that popular culture has become such a self-parody that it almost seems as if parody itself has been rendered utterly impotent and throroughly unnecessary. How do you possibly make fun of Paris Hilton? Fear Factor? Hip-hop videos? Katherine Harris? The entire city of Los Angeles? How can you make Nancy Grace funnier and more painfully absurd than she already is?
Saturday Night Live has learned the hard way that you just fucking can't. Every time the once-hilarious late-night staple has attempted to mock one of America's many latter-day mondo-celebs by doing an over-the-top impression, it's fallen flat -- mostly because it can never go over-the-top-enough.
Rachel Dratch impersonating Britney Spears?
Britney Spears chewing gum and babbling incoherently to her worthless Vanilla Icy husband on video, doing an interview with Matt Lauer dressed like Aileen Wuornos, and writing poetry about tigers?
There are still a select few who practice the ancient art of irony and satire, and do it well. Sasha Baron Cohen's Ali-G character is a loveable buffoon, and he's a somewhat biting send-up of the idiocy of the Chav/Hip-Hop Nation -- but for the real detonation of an atomic bomb directly overtop of convention and social silliness, his other alter-egos, Borat and Bruno, are sights to behold. Watching the alleged Kazakhstani reporter get an entire bar full of rednecks to happily sing along to "Throw the Jew Down the Well" is priceless; as is the homophobic beat-down Bruno almost receives when he tells five drunk, screaming, half-naked frat shitheads in Daytona Beach that the camera they've been mugging for is broadcasting to "Austrian Gay TV."
Good satire is brutal. Even when it's subtle, its intention is never to deliver a glancing blow; it's to annihilate.
There is no more perfect example of this, than Stephen Colbert's blistering speech at this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner.
I have no idea what the hell they were thinking -- what they were expecting -- but I'm pretty sure that having a brilliant comedian mercilessly ridicule the President of the United States under the guise of worshipping him probably wasn't part of the plan. Stephen Colbert decided to forgo the typical harmless shtick which always gives the Beltway folks a good guffaw, and go right for the throat. And he did it with the most powerful man in the world sitting six feet away from him. He verbally bitch-slapped Bush for his antics -- and he verbally bitch-slapped the spineless White House press corps for not having done it for him long ago.
That may be the saddest fact of all: it would seem that the more asinine things get, the more we require satire; the more we need someone or something to hold the stupidity accountable. You can only laugh along with the hyenas for so long before it's time to start beating them over the heads with sticks.
Earlier this month, the Cartoon Network's hysterical Adult Swim series debuted a new program as part of its already bizarre lineup; if you haven't seen it, it's called Metalocalypse and features the very "Metal" adventures of a death-metal band called Dethklok. The show is a scream. It sends up every cliche' about that kind of -- well, just for the sake of brevity, I'll call it "music." Like all brilliant satire, it does it with a completely straight face. There's no hint of irony -- which is ironic in and of itself. If you understand the culture, the way the band and the devotion they inspire is presented is more sincere than an emo kid on two hits of ecstasy.
Years ago, I worked at a radio station where for a short time, I hosted a metal show. The kids who bowed to bands like Cannibal Corpse, Carcass and Deicide would call in and practically open their veins as a show of loyalty to "The Scene." They would compare albums and debate the musical influences of one band on another. Let me say that again: they would debate the subtle differences between one idiot grunting over rapid-fire drums and guitar, and another idiot grunting over rapid-fire drums and guitar. There were some who admitted that the whole thing was dumb and that they just enjoyed the joke, but there were far more who truly believed that songs like "Bloody Entrails Ripped from a Virgin's Cunt" were pure, brutal genius.
Thing is, they just might be genius.
The whole death metal scene was -- somewhat like Paris and Britney -- so unbelievably over-the-top as to be self-satire. It may very well have been its own perfectly-crafted, expertly-performed, deadpan inside joke. If that's true though, then as hilarious as it is, do we even need Dethklok?
I ask the same question Leonard Pitts asked: do we even need satire?