A golden age of American satire

Michael O’Donoghue

First published here on September 14, 2014.

It’s very easy to make people laugh. That’s not the point. It’s very difficult to make people think. Art is the cake. Comedy is the frosting. The trick is to get them to eat the cake.

Michael O’Donoghue (1942-1994)

Whatever happened to satire? I mean not parody or television shows like The Daily Show, which usually just confirms the prejudices of its audience, but literary satire, the kind that flourished in Rome with Horace and Juvenal, the kind that flourished in early 18th century England with Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope? The product of rage, a sense of the absurd, and skepticism about the hypocrisies of both public and private life, satire is often enough dismissed as hopelessly ephemeral (“Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” as George S. Kaufman memorably dismissed it). But the best satire, like that of the four writers I mention above, unfortunately proves to have considerable staying power. Sometimes righteous anger is justifiable, and only a few kinds of hypocrisy have a sell-by date. In the best satire, there’s always an element of cruelty — especially when that satire is not directed to politics (which admittedly is ephemeral), but to human experience and stupidity and gullibility itself.

The question occurs because I’ve been indulging in a little nostalgia lately, thinking about the kind of reading I did in my teens and as an early adult, and apart from plays it was almost all satire. Fortunately, having been born in 1962, I was growing up in what now appears to have been a golden age of American literary satire. I blame my father, really; among the books on his shelves as I was growing up were Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), masterpieces of satire and parody. But I didn’t have to look at home for this, either; the newsstand helped as well. As print publications, both Mad magazine and National Lampoon also qualify as literary satire, and I devoured Mad‘s parodies and satires in the early 1970s, graduating before too long to the more slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners attacks of National Lampoon, then in its glory days (as the National Lampoon Tenth Anniversary Anthology 1970-1980, now sadly out-of-print, attests). From inspired silliness like the “Wide World of Meat” to the coruscating “The Vietnamese Baby Book” by Michael O’Donoghue (with Baby’s First Handprint [three fingers, thanks to Agent Orange], Baby’s First Wound, and Ask the Doctor [“Although my baby is over four years old, she continues to suck her stump. What can I do?”]), the Lampoon honed my own sense of the horrifically ridiculous to a razor edge. What made the Lampoon particularly effective was its careful art direction — the “Baby Book” was designed to precisely resemble the kinds of baby albums kept by American parents, at the same time undermining mawkish sentimentality and emphasizing that it’s what some of these same American parents were supporting as the Vietnam war dragged on. I’m a parent myself now, and it wasn’t hard to remember the “Baby Book” during the recent wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, which claimed their own shares of similar victims.

O’Donoghue had his own heroes. “If there was a Mt. Rushmore of modern American humor, Terry Southern would be the mountain they carve it on,” he once said, and Southern quickly became one of mine as well — not because of his Dr. Strangelove screenplay for which he is best known and which has grown somewhat dated and tiresome, but for his astonishing satiric novels, The Magic Christian and Blue Movie among the best of them. The millionaire Guy Grand spends the concise 148 pages of the first novel “making it hot for them,” gaily revealing the greed, corruption, and foolish self-congratulation of American life through a variety of outlandish frauds and tricks; Blue Movie may be the best Hollywood novel since Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, centered on a Kubrick-like director who is trying to make a big-budget pornographic epic featuring Hollywood celebrities. Southern’s career was wildly uneven, but the novels represent the pinnacle of his achievement, and a high point of American satire of any age, that of Mark Twain included. (Though I should point out that Twain is the grand-daddy of them all, and all of the writers mentioned here owe him credit and reverence.)

Southern was the friend of both William Gaddis and Joseph Heller, to complete a triumvirate, perhaps, of American satire in the years 1955-1975; Gaddis I’ve written about before, but Heller, too, deserves to be remembered as one of the great satirists in the mode of Juvenal and Swift; it’s a shame his later novels, such as the powerful (perhaps more powerful than Catch-22) Something Happened and the more experimental Picture This and Closing Time, aren’t better known. Their books, too, began to pop up on my shelves beginning when I was about 15 or so, and these, along with shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus that began to appear on American television at about the same time, is enough to corrupt any young mind.

There was plenty of comedy in film and live performance as well that graced the period — Lenny Bruce’s 1961 Carnegie Hall and Curran Theater concerts had been released on LPs (I went through a number of phonograph needles replaying these), and the caustic All in the Family and the somewhat less caustic (despite O’Donoghue’s presence as head writer) Saturday Night Live both had debuted before I was 16 — but the lasting impressions were certainly made by Southern, Gaddis, Heller, Mad, and the National Lampoon. The grace, style, wit, elegance, anger, resignation, and sheer quality of this literature are without parallel, and that they flourished simultaneously is little short of miraculous. It is a rich, accomplished, incomparably American body of great satire that remains valid — The Daily Show and The Onion can’t hold a candle to it. Before long it was over; with the exception of Mad, all of these are now defunct. I hope my daughters’ minds will be similarly corrupted, but I can’t see how.

Mort Sahl

UPDATE: I stand corrected — many of Sahl’s early albums now appear to be available via iTunes.

Last month, the University Press of Mississippi published Last Man Standing: Mort Sahl and the Birth of Modern Comedy by James Curtis, who has previously written biographies of W.C. Fields, Spencer Tracy, and others. Keep an eye out for it.

Sahl stands in a unique place in American comedy and political humor. Not only was he a pioneer of stand-up comedy, taking the form from Vegas auditoriums and Borscht-Belt hotels into the nightclubs and jazz scenes of the 1950s, engaging more intimately with the audience than ever before (and paving the way for Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, and others). He also engaged with the post-war political scene, offering keen, incisive, and often hilarious observations on current affairs from his own unique perspective (and paving the way for today’s Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher). But even today — at the age of 90, Sahl continues to perform — he is unique, spinning his routines from a combination of newspaper headlines and personal observation.

His work was preserved on several records, none of which remains in print, unfortunately, and Robert B. Weide’s 1989 documentary for PBS, Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition, is hard to find. Below, however, is one of the best of them: Mort Sahl at the Hungry i, recorded at the San Francisco nightclub and released by Verve Records in 1960. Though the references are dated, of course, his approach remains fresh and the perspective still resonates. Hypocrisy remains hypocrisy, regardless of what the calendar says. Onward.

The quest for the authentic self

Both Wyatt Gwyon, the protagonist of William Gaddis’s 1955 The Recognitions, and John Yossarian, the protagonist of Joseph Heller’s 1961 Catch-22, are engaged in quests for an authentic self in a corrupt world. This alone opens up a 64-ounce can of worms, not the least worm of which is the question as to whether there is an authentic self to be found at all, whether the very idea is an illusion. How, once one starts looking for it, does one know that it’s been found? Is it even an important question, or is it just another form of narcissistic navel-gazing that we could more merrily do without?

Not to mention that not every person feels the need to search for it; the question never even comes up for most of us, probably; it never comes up for the other characters in these novels. Whether one sets out on this quest or not, one doesn’t feel the need for it until a discomfort and dissatisfaction is felt within; a sense that something, somewhere, has gone wrong with the relationship between us and the world and needs to be set to rights. Most of us probably wander around in a Panglossian haze: that this is the best of all possible worlds anyway, and it’s our job to work our way through it. Neither Gwyon nor Yossarian know precisely what it is that they’re searching for. But they know that, whatever it is, they don’t possess it.

The mid-1950s New York of The Recognitions and the 1942-44 Pianosa of Catch-22 are microcosms of the larger world and, as satirists, Gaddis and Heller are engaged in detailing the corruptions, fraudulence, and stupidity of this world as they impede their heroes on their quests. Both novels are lengthy, as befits the need to detail these corruptions, for they’re many. There are those, of course, that are local to the novels themselves: the corruptions of the artistic scene and popular culture of postwar Manhattan; the corruptions of the military and bureaucracy of the war machine of the 1940s. But Gaddis and Heller both see these corruptions as only local variants of a wider corruption and inauthenticity in the western world in the twentieth century; each of these corruptions receives its due. Among them are corruptions in religion, history, technology, politics, capitalism, education, aesthetics, family life, ambition. As Gaddis and Heller build their long novels out, each of these corruptions results in a barries to the quests of their heroes; they have their obvious effects on the other major and minor characters in the novels as well.

It seems that Yossarian and Gwyon are the only two characters who find these corruptions potentially lethal to their own sense of well-being. Even then, it’s unlikely that either could recognize and name these corruptions themselves, or recognize that they stand in the way of their quests. Ultimately, neither novel answers the questions about the authentic self with which I began this contemplation: Gwyon disappears into the Spanish landscape with his lover and their daughter at the end of The Recognitions, and Yossarian goes AWOL and deserts to Sweden, following the desertion of his crewmate Orr (a homophone for “or” — an alternative to the existing condition), on the last page of Catch-22. Rather than conclusions, these seem like indications that their quests are just beginning, but that they’ve finally been able to take the very first step on that journey. Both books end with a new life for both characters; how Gwyon and Yossarian end up is beyond the scope of the satire.

Friday roundup: Satire and schnitzel

A rather slow week — I was away from a working computer for most of it, and I’m none the worse for it — but on Tuesday I posted this review of a recent book about Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a film I watched again a few days ago. I’m glad to report that it still holds up and I can recommend it highly.

I’m delighted to offer for your Friday enjoyment episode 1 of Erwin Cooks, a new series from my good friend Erwin Schröttner at Cafe Katja — so if you can’t join us in person, you can join us in spirit. In this episode, Chef Erwin deconstructs the iconic Wiener Schnitzel (with the secret to making it perfect every time), goes deep into the potato (cucumber/potato salad and parsley potatoes with a butter glaze), discusses Riesling with one of America’s top vintners, and travels to the Alps to cook another version of schnitzel. Erwin Cooks runs on PBS39 in Bethlehem, PA (and below, when I can find it). Prost!

Something funny about crucifixion

On location with Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Earlier this year, London’s TimeOut released the results of a poll ranking the “100 Best Comedy Movies,” and coming in at #3 — just after This Is Spinal Tap (#1) and Airplane! (#2) — was the 1979 Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Though it’s been a few years since I’ve watched it, I probably saw it several times upon its first release and the years immediately afterward. Of the three official Monty Python films, it’s the one that holds together the best (and contains a lovely Chaplin-esque performance from Graham Chapman as Brian), and I have a feeling that it, like the other two of the top-three comedies, retains its strengths, even 40 years later.

Its interest, too, remains. In June 2014, the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London hosted an international conference exploring the historical Jesus and his times through the lens of the Python satire. Pythons John Cleese and Terry Jones also participated in the conference, and the results were released in book form in 2015 by Bloomsbury T&T Clark as Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and His Times via Monty Python’s Life of Brian, edited by conference organizer and King’s College Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism Joan E. Taylor. It’s a cracking good read, too.

Mind you, the idea behind the book doesn’t suggest a rip-roaring page-turner. The conference and collection are experiments in “reception history,” a comparatively recent development in Biblical Studies. As John F.A. Sawyer defines it, reception history assumes that “what people believe [the Bible] means and how they actually use it — in everyday situations, in the liturgy, in preaching, in the media, in literature, in art, in music, in film — can be studied with the same degree of scientific sensitivity and rigor as the original,” and that this study can, in the words of Paul Joyce, “shine a spotlight on biblical verses that have been dulled by familiarity; it can foreground biblical concepts and concerns that have faded over time into the background; and it can even give rise to new readings of difficult Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek terms.” In short, it can deepen our insight into the texts of the Bible themselves, how people live with and without the Bible, and, perhaps for some of us, provide different perspectives on Christian and Judaic faith.

The first half of the book looks at the film itself, its production and contemporary reception. In doing so, it reveals a few fascinating perspectives that may not have been obvious at the time. In Taylor’s own “The Historical Brian: Reception Exegesis in Practice,” she reminds us that Brian’s trip with aliens through the Terry-Gilliamesque skies may have been a parodic reference to Erich von Dänekin’s 1968 spurious potboiler Chariots of the Gods?, which suggested that extraterrestrial beings visited the ancient world and left behind structures that remain mysterious (fun fact: its German editor, Wilhelm Roggersdorf, was a best-selling author himself during the Nazi era); a documentary based on the book was released in the US in 1972, narrated by Rod Serling. William R. Telford’s essay looks at Life of Brian as a parody of the “Jesus film,” intriguingly asking whether it’s a “Jesus film,” an “anti Jesus-film,” or an “anti-Jesus film”; Anglican Bishop Richard A. Burridge looks back at the controversy that surrounded the film upon its original release in “The Church of England’s Life of Brian — or ‘What the Bishop Saw,'” asking “whether the Church and the academy missed a golden opportunity in 1979 to debate the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth in wider society,” as well as addressing a decline in biblical literacy in the years between 1979 and today; and David Tollerson offers thoughts on what blasphemy means in the Bible, in 1979, and today. In my favorite essay so far, Philip R. Davies’ “The Gospel of Brian,” the founder of what we might call “Brian Studies”1 compares the Christ of history with the Brian of history, revealing considerable wit and style in the process. Interesting observations about the cheerful nihilism of the end of the film abound. The second half of the book delves more deeply into issues of Biblical scholarship and archaeology, as well as questions of sexuality and Jewish identity that Life of Brian raises.

I can already see you yawning, but you shouldn’t; all of the contributors are fully aware that they’re engaged in the frog-dissecting business of analyzing a movie that was meant as entertainment, as a comedy, and by and large their tone remains as light and irreverent as that of the Pythons themselves. John Cleese, who participated in the conference, said, “I think it was somebody who said you were going to say, ‘What was the most interesting part that came out of Pythons?’ and as far as I’m concerned it’s this conference.” Terry Jones, the co-director of the film, echoed Cleese’s comment with an “Absolutely,” and contributed a preface to the collection in which he concludes, “The comparisons are always illuminating, and the commentaries are right on the nose.”

There’s no evidence in the Bible to indicate that Jesus ever laughed; this is a point that Cleese himself brought up at the conference. He wept, yes, according to John 11:35; but never an indication that he chortled, or even smiled. On the other hand, if Christ was fully human, it’s hard to believe he didn’t, with the apostles or with the money-changers and prostitutes with whom he often shared dinner. This is, though, nothing to be surprised at. The Bible is a collection of books of various genres composed over 500 years — of laws, of history, of letters, of poems — everything except jokebooks, it appears; but jokebooks are a rather late development.

If God invented everything, as some would have it, he invented satire and humor, too. In the end, we have G.K. Chesterton’s most interesting observation, from Orthodoxy:

And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

The film Monty Python’s Life of Brian and this collection of essays may remind us of that. It’s something completely different, and worth a moment or two of reflection.


A few interesting videos mentioned in the book are below. The first is the 1979 debate between Pythons Cleese and Michael Palin versus Malcolm Muggeridge and Anglican bishop Mervyn Stockwood, broadcast on the BBC:

And, just to prove that parody is not beyond parody, here’s a satire of the same conversation — with Rowan Atkinson defending his film, Life of Christ, on the same basis that Cleese and Palin defended theirs — a little later on Not the Nine O’Clock News: