Satire: (Almost) Always a Bad Idea

It was either last week's earnest celebration of Festivus across the internet, or The Dissolve complaining about how the appreciation of satire in The Wolf of Wall Street will eventually be replaced by people who like the movie's excesses without irony or nuance that brought me around to the opinion that satire is almost always inadvisable as a rhetorical or narrative strategy. People are like to take literally all but the most extreme of situations, and so the probability that any individual satire will be lost on the population approaches 1 as time marches on.

The origin story of Festivus is a simple one: Frank Costanza is a terrible father, so he denies his son the pleasures of Christmas for no reason more complicated than his desire to not have to try too hard, and replaces them with a holiday whose entire purpose is to humiliate him and everyone else who happens to be around. This is bad. But, since we are on the internet, there are people who rally to Festivus as anti-commercial, or for the opportunity to complain about the ways other people have disappointed them. There's nothing in the original Seinfeld episode that makes it seem like this was a good idea: sure, Kramer likes it, but Kramer's ideas are also all bad, and sure, it's funny, but it's funny because it's absurd and horrifying.

The only successful example of satire that comes to mind is "A Modest Proposal," since no one is likely to think that eating human babies is a good idea, but even the savage Gulliver's Travels is most frequently reduced to the adventure and travel story it is nominally supposed to be, and handed most frequently to children who could hardly know what to do with it. Starship Troopers and RoboCop satirize so completely as to leave only the tiniest strip of plausibility for a non-satirical reading, and there is no shortage of people who think the former is pro-fascism and the latter an entertaining, violent romp.

It's slightly more difficult with violence, in fact, because violence has the appeal of spectacle, that people intellectually know they should disapprove of, but (sometimes) find to be satisfying on an emotional level. The college cult of Scarface and Goodfellas is happy to ignore any moralizing that might take place in either film; the careful, measured tones and ambiguity of The Godfather and The Godfather II (and II's flashbacks are already stripping out the ambiguity in favor of mythologizing) become the isn't-it-funny-that-we-sometimes-kill-people Sopranos, which is still a more artful creation than many. When people praise Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight, and talk about his most effective scenes, are they not always the ones where he acts most anarchically and with greatest violence? It might be intended as a satire of violence, but so much of the visceral thrill and humor comes directly from that violence.

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