I have a weird relationship with satire. I love the idea of it, but I rarely like satire anymore when I read it or watch it. I think there are a couple of reasons why it leaves me cold. First, it gets dated too quickly. If you watch a 20-year-old Saturday Night Live sketch about George W. Bush, it’s just not funny anymore. I lived through that period, but I could use some footnotes to remind me what they’re talking about. Second, it’s more often than not mean spirited. So, maybe I’m not the one to write this, but I think something has changed in the last 10-15 years. Reality has become more absurdist than fiction could hope to be.
Take one of the most famous pieces of satire ever written, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. For those who haven’t read it, Swift makes the suggestion that the poor Irish should sell their babies as food for the rich. It kills two birds with one stone, so to speak, since the Irish have too many babies and not enough food. In its time, it was clearly an absurd proposal. That’s where the humor came from. Now, I’m not so sure. There are philosophers who are taken seriously, like Peter Singer, who argue that infanticide is justified on the same grounds as abortion. What was absurd is now talked about with a straight face.
And it’s not just killing babies. Physicists have moved from concrete theories of reality to unprovable theories about the multiverse. Some philosophers think that it’s more likely than not that we live in a computer simulation. Congresspeople believe in Jewish space lasers. A significant number of people believed Hilary Clinton was running a human trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor. Kanye says he likes Hitler. You can’t get more extreme than these people. There’s nowhere for the satirist to go anymore.
A while back, I wrote a piece about how Trump was bad for comedy. I basically said that he’s so pathetic that making fun of him isn’t funny, it’s like bullying. Little did I know that when Trump left office, things on the satire and comedy front would get worse. Satirists need to be able to exaggerate their targets. That no longer feels possible.