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.