As a fan of both comic writing and trenchant cultural criticism, I found myself dismayed and, later, hopeful at two pieces I read this week. The first essay, from Slate.com, laments the current state of political satire in modern media, taking aim squarely at Saturday Night Live’s lame sketches with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The second is a brilliant poem, ostensibly written by the late, great Dr. Seuss who is furious at the terrible movies being made out of his books.
The Slate essay, by TV critic Troy Patterson comes at an opportune time. CNN has launched “Not Just Another Cable News Show,” which allows a group of young pundits and television, um, personalities to make snarky comments about the week’s news in an attempt to capitalize of on the popularity of “The Daily Show” and VH1’s “Best Week Ever.” At the same time, a University of Iowa professor has published a book titled, “Strange Bedfellows: How Late Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into A Joke.”
I confess to not having seen the new CNN show, nor read the book. Patterson describes the book as identifying a form of so-called humor that is a notch below true, incisive political satire. This “pseudo-satire,” Patterson writes, is “cynical and shallow and treats politics ‘like an infection’ and stands in contrast to the real satire.”
Pseudo-satire is defined as the kind of watered-down humor you find on late night TV shows that doesn’t comment on issues or events so much as it pokes fun at personalities in the news. John Kerry is dull. Dick Cheney is mean. Bill Clinton loves the ladies. The same jokes, over and over again, for years.
Where I differ from Patterson is that I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes those jokes are really funny. And then you read something like the fictional poem in the The Onion from last week, written in rhyme by an angry Dr. Seuss because his life’s work has been sold off as bland, big budget movie franchises.
While it’s not necessarily political, the poem helps you realize how powerful real satire can be, when it’s angry and informative and smart enough to mimic the meter and verse of a great American poet. All of a sudden those jokes about how John McCain is old seem like an opportunity missed.
From The Onion:
Why it’s simply an outrage—a crime, you must judge!—
To crap on my books with this big-budget sludge.
My books are for children to learn ones and twos in,
Not commercialous slop for Jim Carrey to ruin.
Have you no respect for the gems of your youth?
To pervert them on screen from Taiwan to Duluth.
Even after you drag my last word through the dirt,
I know you, you pirates,
You’d cut out my heart for a “Thing 1” T-shirt.
For eighty-some years I held you vultures at bay,
knowing just how you’d franchise my good name some day.
Not yet cold in my grave before you starting shooting
the first of my classics you’d acquired for looting.
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