It is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant
of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself …
Juvenal (c. 55-138 AD)
The Trump years are proving felicitous for satire. We haven’t yet had a MacBird! (Barbara Garson’s play about LBJ), an Our Gang (Philip Roth’s book-length evisceration of Richard Nixon), or a Mastergate (Larry Gelbart’s play satirizing the Iran-Contra hearings), but The Onion, McSweeney’s, Andy Borowitz, John Oliver, and many others are filling the gap on a daily basis. It’s only a matter of time before somebody or another makes the leap to one of these longer-form lampoons. Not that the stakes aren’t high. “I don’t think [Donald Trump’s] funny at all,” Sen. Al Franken told an audience at Cooper Union’s Great Hall the other night. But as we shall see, even Sen. Franken can’t entirely hold back.
My bedside table these days is awash in books of and about satire. I’ve not entirely finished any of them yet, but they’re enjoyable enough that I want to wave a little flag for each of them.
In 2015, NYU Press published God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert, by Terry Lindvall, a Fulbright Scholar who holds the C.S. Lewis Chair of Communication and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan College. His book is a broad survey of satire from a religious perspective, from the Hebrew bible all the way through, obviously, to contemporary late-night television. Characterizing true satire as moral outrage expressed in laughter, Lindvall doesn’t shy away from the scatalogical passages in Hosea and Elijah or the satiric ironies of Christ’s parables and sermons; later, he courses through the usual suspects (Rabelais, Swift, Pope, Monty Python) and a few unusual ones (Robert G. Ingersoll, Soren Kierkegaard). Prof. Lindvall wears his learning lightly, and his exegesis doesn’t get in the way of the jokes themselves. It’s a quick and inspiring read that sends you back to the sources.
Gilbert Highet’s 1962 The Anatomy of Satire, republished in 2015 by the Princeton University Press, tackles the history and techniques of satire from the secular perspective. Best known now for his Poets in a Landscape, profiles of ancient Roman writers, Highet usefully anatomizes the spirit of the genre in its monological, parodic, and narrative forms, covering many of the same writers as Lindvall. Like Lindvall, too, Highet seems to have written for a general audience; it only lacks, for obvious reasons, any coverage of the last 75 years or so of satire — and fecund years they were.
And sometimes moral outrage leads to more than satire: it can lead to politics itself. Former Saturday Night Live satirist Al Franken was elected to the US Senate in 2008, representing his home state of Minnesota; his new book Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken is a memoir that covers his career from elementary school troublemaker through his current status as junior senator. Franken admits that he’s had to tamp down his impulses towards comedy and satire, but apparently he’s secure enough now that they can come to the fore once again. And why not? Franken has proven one of the most effective members of that august body, working with colleagues across the aisle to win legislative victories for his constituents and advance a progressive political and cultural agenda: thankless work in many ways, but it puts paid to the idea that satirists do nothing but complain. And he’s one of the loudest, boldest anti-Trump voices in Congress.
Franken’s name has been floated as a possible 2020 Presidential candidate. It wouldn’t be the first time that a satirist has been elected to high office: in 1989 Václav Havel took the office of the presidency of Czechoslovakia for a ten-year run, and he didn’t do too badly, becoming a moral conscience for the world (though even he, like Franken, had to tread lightly on the irony pedal for most of his term). True, Franken might not be Václav Havel, not by a long shot, and he’s dismissed any ambition for a higher office than the Senate. But, as he might be the first to admit, he is a politician. So we’ll see what happens next year.