The End Can Be Funny: The Catharsis of Satire
Recently, I watched Stanley Kubrick’s prophetic and immensely funny Dr. Stranglelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb for the first time. In a way, viewing this film undid a kind of ontological wrong in my life. It is a great embarrassment to be a bespectacled 26-year-old male with a forearm tattoo who hasn’t seen Dr. Strangelove. Now I can, along with my peers, gleefully justify feelings of uncertainty with concern about attempts to corrupt my “precious bodily fluids” and knowingly laugh along with pop culture’s many callbacks to Kubrick’s masterpiece. Besides its technical execution, however, Dr. Strangelove left a very profound and immediate impression upon me, an affective impact that makes it just as important a human event as it is a cinematic landmark, a surprisingly caring offering that still resonates deeply fifty five years after its release.
Like most who breathe in our factless, perpetually spinning, Twitter-driven informational atmosphere, I am exhausted with the news. Its desperate crying for my attention through limitless little screens at all hours of the day and night leaves a sinking feeling in my stomach whenever the subject of national politics is thrust upon me. Smartphone owners, after all, live in “a state of perpetual emergency interruption that used to be endured only by 911 operators or air traffic controllers,” according to Team Human’s Douglas Rushkoff, who reminds us that we are paying for it. The anxiety, stress, and general dysfunction of the media cycle has been well-documented, of course, with the Pew Research Center reporting that nearly seven-in-ten Americans suffer news fatigue last year. This phenomenon frequently manifests itself in my life as a fear of turning on NPR and hearing the national newscast. As the station is my first preset, it typically comes on when I start my car. When it does, my finger darts to the dash to change the channel to sports or to connect my phone for music. This ritual that repeats itself daily, and it did again as I drove to my sister’s house for the viewing of Dr. Strangelove. I just couldn’t stand to hear it. Two hours of nuclear terror, absurdity, infighting, closeted Nazism, and twisted misogyny later, I got back in my car to drive home. NPR News blasted predictably through my speakers. I moved to change it, but stopped. I listened, feeling oddly more prepared to absorb whatever fiasco, tragedy, or tension had captured our country’s attention that evening than I had on the drive over.
Much has been made about good satire’s politically and socially mobilizing functions. It seems to me, though, that not enough significance has been recognized in the genre’s ability to produce catharsis. This is likely a result of society’s privileging of brains over hearts. If something lights a fire under us, it is (of course) good and necessary, but satire’s impact goes beyond intellect to the hidden parts of us that receive and respond differently—it can be an emotionally and even therapeutically engaging art. There is something deeply ironic but understandable in the comfort that well-crafted satire can bring. Rather than distance the viewer from what troubles them, satire drenches the viewer in it—doubling down on what frightens and fatigues us about our world and, in so doing, allows us a moment of relief in its absurdity. In a 2015 article in BBC Magazine following the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Will Self professes a belief in the moral power of satire to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (which he complicates and calls into question throughout the article, eventually qualifying it with the importance of good satire’s context-specificity and coherent ethical dialogue). I would never presume to identify my privileged self as one of the “afflicted,” but there is certainly something powerful about satire as an emotional refuge when the most heartwarming posts on my Instagram feed are headlines from The Onion.
It is this very power that Stephen Colbert harnessed in The Colbert Report, a program now sorely missed. Rather than just report the news with jokes (something that is now ubiquitous among late-night talk show hosts, including Colbert himself), Colbert chose to bluster on as a phony conservative talking head in a meticulous manner that walked the line between critically substantive and lighthearted. In doing so, he did not merely ridicule his subjects but opened a space to make the actual subjects themselves funny. Bill O’Reilly suddenly did not seem to be as big of a deal, paradoxically allowing the consumer to more fully and seriously approach O’Reilly and his ilk with a critical eye. Comedy hosts today seem to have forgotten how this works. They report the news, make it funny, but then ever-so-seriously address the camera directly to let everyone know how important these matters are and how beyond laughter they’ve become—draining the viewer’s emotional reserves further and undercutting their ability to actually motivate the populace to do anything.
In a world where all sorts of various global dooms are suddenly and frighteningly real again, watching the end of the world can make for surprisingly effective self-care. Perhaps in our media engagement, then, we should seek out more writing and speaking that pulls the self-importance out from under our problems—not because our many social ills aren’t important (certainly the systemic Eurocentrism and brutality and hate and war-mongering in which our nation engages must be urgently addressed) but precisely because satire’s irreverence empowers us to deal with them.