Satire Didn’t Change Anything, But Now It’s All We’ve Got

This weekend, Dave Chappelle will induce his hosting debut on Saturday Night Live . Even in a relatively restrained news season, this would qualify as a must-see event: At 43, Chappelle is one one of the smartest, most reliably capricious stand-ups and writersof his generationa guy whose just-rolled-up-to-the-spot demeanor allows him to casually discuss the cruddy realities of race, sex, and classand the SNL But now that President-elect Donald Trump’s victory has turned big areas of the country into a denial-dazed Upside-Downfull of familiar-seeming, yet undeniably terror-obscuring terrainChappelle isstepping into an impossible-to-envy role: Thepop-cultural first-responder, the onetasked with sorting out the events of the last few days, and perhaps stimulating people feel somewhat less precarious about the fate of the nation. It’s a huge, unfair burden to place on one person, but I’m glad that person is Chappelle, because Lord knows he can do a lot of healthy dismantling in merely a brief 10 -minute bit. And I’m excited to see what he does on Saturday night, because it’s going to matter very, very deeply … until, of course, it doesn’t matter at all.

The Limitations of Oliver and The Onion

Such is the case with political and social satire in 2016. It’s everywhere you look, a lot of it is pretty great, and yet it’s hard to tell what, if any, impact it actually has anymore( or if it ever did ). In this year alone, we’ve had the always-sturdy Onion hold our hand as we ascended into apocalypto, watched as the still-growing Reductress emerged to become one of the most subtly savage charade sites on the web, and watched John Oliver dedicate an entire giddy segment to the rebranding of Trump as “Drumpf.” Perhaps most crucially, 2016 watched the arrival of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee , a reveal whose host took on the gate-keepers and hate-heapers of the election cycle with the B.S.-sniffing-skills of a New Yorker fact-checker, the guaranteed sarcasm of a ninth-grader, and the furious rage of a Tarantino hero. There were plenty of insuring day-after responses to Trump’s winSeth Meyers ran earnest, The Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj got personal, and Stephen Colbert turned cautiously optimisticbut Bee’s response, below, was my favorite. The most effective political satire doesn’t merely affirm our viewpoints; instead, it digs into why we feel the style we do, and lets it loose our annoyances at a volume we’re either too cowed or confused to muster on our own. Bee’s take does all of that, and more. [ youtube https :// www.youtube.com/ watch? v= s1SaD-gSZO4? feature= oembed& w= 500& h= 281] I’ve leaned on sharp-minded outbursts like this one a lot lately. When I was young, the biggest appeal of satire is that it snuckme closer to the important-yet-indecipherable grown-up worlds of history, politics, popular culture: As a 12 -year-old gnawing on Bloom County collections and old Mad magazines, and re-watching SNL sketches, I didn’t always understand the subtleties or references, but I could situate the punchlines, figure out who the targets were, and aim my arrows accordingly.

Samantha Bee and John Oliver and The Onion and their ilk created some of the sagest, most appropriately damning political satire we’ll likely ever seebut in slapstick, as in politics, there are limits on power.

In the last 15 years or so, though, satire has functioned less as an informational tool, and more as an anti-anxiety EpiPen to the brain. At various phases in the 21 st century, I’ve felt like the desperate US president in Superman II , desperately weeping out for heroics mid-speech; that’s a goofy analogy, I realize, but in times of difficulty, I turn to Zod. Watching Stephen Colbert vilify George W. Bush to his face, or seeing Bee pants Mike Pence, induced me feel less vulnerable, less frightened, less alone.( I wish I could tell I got that same release from SNL ‘ s recent debate spoof. But despite Kate McKinnon’s inner-Hillary-channeling and Alec Baldwin’s expertly synced bloviating, they’ve always looked for the most obvious takeaway from each event, and hammered away at them accordingly. Plus, it’s hard to chuckle too lightly when you realize chronic menabler Lorne Michaels helped generate this mess .) In fact, my dependence on satire was so severe this year that I occasionally wondered if the combined forces-out of Oliver’s army, along with satirical powers that Bee, could perhaps steer the conversation( and votes) to a degree unseen in previous elections. In a year full of ridiculous beliefs, this one was a doozy, but at the least this one was rooted in optimism: Throughout this openly hostile year, I watched people creating and exchanging slapstick that both assuaged my fears and confirmed my worldviewso much so that, once in a while, I sometimes allowed myself to think that the comedians could somehow break through in a way that objective info could not. Maybe you believed it, too.

Comedy Is Too Essential to Abandon

But the idea that satire could ever enact quantifiable change is, of course, a notion worthy of satire itself. And it places an unbelievably cruel burden on satirists, whose chore is to reflect( and often reject) what’s going on in the world , not to help steer it. There’s a virtually instant disposability to modern political satire , no matter how strong it is: The references speedily grow old ( Ben Carson something something pyramids ?), and the main debates can easily get lost in all the inevitable online rebuttals. Bee and Oliver and the Onion and their ilk created some of the sagest, most appropriately damning political satire we’ll likely ever seebut in slapstick, as in politics, there are limits on power. The most they could do( and likely all they ever wanted to do) was share our fury, induce us feel OK about it, and maybe inspire us to use it somehow. And yeesh-McGeesh , could we really use that inspiration at this phase! After 9/11, there were several now-mockable declarations of” the death of irony ,” and the first SNL to air that fall opened with Lorne Michaels positing a then-pressing topic (” Can we be funny ?”) to then-mayor and future-Babadook Rudy Giuliani. No one would dare ask that now. Comedyespecially comedy that assails thepowers that beis too essential, and too immeasurably powerful, to abandon. That puts a big onus on someone like Chappelle, who’ll be addressing an audience so tossed-around and discombobulated, it feels like it was feed by a fuckin’ shark. But all he needs to do is share a little truth, and spur us to seek out some more. The rest is up to us. Read more:

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