Saturday, July 19, 2008

Too much of a good thing

Satirists have had a hard time lately. Not that they ever have an easy time of it: unless your name starts with "Stephen" and ends with "Colbert", generally the best a humorist can hope for is a life of not-quite-penury, and - if he/she is lucky - to stir the ire of a lot of people, possibly inspiring a serious thought or two. But what is a humorist to do with material that is already beyond absurd? The challenge has become fodder for many a mainstream columnist in recent days in the wake of the New Yorker's recent satirical cover showing Obama (if you don't know what we're talking about, go read a newspaper please).

In fact, there's a double problem: first, Obama's candidacy is in many ways outside the usual realm of acceptable political humor. As the NY Times recently noted, even comic giants Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have struggled to find a punchline to fit Obama. Longtime joke writer Mike Barry, who has worked for everyone from Carson to Letterman, said this:

The thing is, he's not buffoonish in any way... he's not a comical figure.

But while Obama himself is nearly impossible to satirize effectively, the pandemonium his candidacy has generated is also problematic (the second problem), because it's so completely exaggerated. Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. opined on this recently in the Detroit Free Press:

To be effective, satire needs a situation it can inflate into ridiculousness. But the hysteria surrounding Obama has nowhere to go; it is already ridiculous. In just the last few days, we've had Jesse Jackson threatening to castrate him and John McLaughlin calling him an "Oreo."

Add to that the whispers about Obama's supposed Muslim heritage (not that there's anything wrong with that), the "terrorist" implications of bumping fists, and Michelle Obama's purported use of the term "whitey" (a word no black person has uttered since "The Jeffersons" went off the air in 1985), and it's clear that "ridiculous" has become our default status. What once were punch lines now are headlines.

Faced with this conundrum, what's a satirist to do? Eventually, things will settle down, one hopes. But for the moment, there's not much we can do, except hang on for the ride along with everyone else.

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