Every age is ripe for satire, but ours is unusually so. With all the television reality shows, the instant news cable channels and the politically correct sourpusses demanding censorship, satire pricks pomposity, pokes fun with impunity and laughs at unacceptable thoughts given voice.
Satirists not only have to contend with the Grandma Grundys among us, but the real news is often so absurd that it's difficult to play "Can you top this?" We've come a long way from the days when Lenny Bruce was kicked offstage for using bad language and making fun of Pope John XXIII ("Wear the big ring, Johnny"), or when the Smothers Brothers lost their popular comedy hour on network television because they satirized the presidency and criticized Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam.
"Satire is what closes on Saturday night," playwright George S. Kaufman famously said. Satire usually failed in the popular media because audiences couldn't always distinguish fact from fiction and were outraged by the bite in the bark. To work, satire must cut very close to the bone and leave the audience wondering just who's kidding whom. Jonathan Swift came a cropper in his classic, "A Modest Proposal," attacking absentee English landlords in Ireland -- with his suggestion that they should just eat Irish babies.
In our time, merely exercising the right of free speech, a fundamental right crucial to who we are, can provoke murderous riots by the uncivilized, as the cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper demonstrated. No Jews riot when the Muslims retaliate by sponsoring a cartoon contest portraying the Holocaust to be a myth, and Christians long ago learned to shrug at insults to their faith. But this makes a point lost on the Islamists.
In Rome, radio and television comics make fun of Pope Benedict XVI and his secretary, portraying them as dining at a restaurant called "The Last Supper," their cell phones ringing with Handel's Hallelujah chorus. An Italian television critic calls them fair game, "part of the ecclesiastical star system."
With a new sense of political security, the Germans have begun to laugh at their definitely unfunny history. German film companies are making a farce about Hitler. In one scene, the Fuehrer walks on all fours, barking like a dog. "Comedy is more subversive than tragedy," says Swiss director Dani Levy.