Why satire's not for everyone

Posted: Nov 30, 2006 12:01 AM
Why satire's not for everyone

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.

In this country, where anti-Semitism was once a taboo subject for comedy, Jews made a CD called "Jewface," comprised of mocking lyrics about Jews by Jews. One of the songs, by composer Irving Berlin, born Israel Isidore Baline, creator of such classics as "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade," is a 1916 ditty called "Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars," about a man obsessing on his deathbed over an uncollected IOU. Berlin also wrote "I'm a Yiddish Cowboy," and Kinky Friedman, the country singer and sometime candidate for governor of Texas, famously produced an album by "Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys," poking fun at Jews, Christians and everybody else. The producers of "Jewface" say their satirical songs will appeal to Generations X and Y, who were brought up on edgier and irreverent lyrics. Cultural critics call it "in your face."

It's hard to push the envelope. But Sacha Baron Cohen, an English Jew who plays a mustachioed Kazakhstani journalist, has pushed that envelope a fair piece in his movie, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." He has become a new millionaire with his improvised character wallowing in anti-Semitism (and a lot of other vices). In one notorious scene, he asks a gun dealer to name the best weapon for killing a Jew, and the dealer replies nonchalantly, "a 9mm or a .45," as if the dealer were a follower of Heinrich Himmler.

This is the red meat of satire, cutting to the white bone of truth. Borat, vulgar and relishing going over-the-top, is not a barbaric Islamist, seeking young men and women to blow themselves up in the name of Allah, but a civilized man whose cold conscience guides a rapier wit.

Critics may fear that Borat encourages anti-Semitism, but he actually exposes the very ordinariness of the vice. Jews have always used humor, from before vaudeville days, to expose and taunt their enemies in the way that cabaret performers in Berlin of the 1930s ridiculed the Fuehrer before he closed them down. Laughter, like truth, is a disinfectant that frightens bigots because they can't stand the stink when it's poured on them. So let there be light -- and mirth.