[8 August 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
On the weekend of July 27-29, “The Simpsons Movie” grossed $74 million, the fifth-largest opening weekend of 2007. It was also the most surprising hit of the year.
Industry analysts had expected more in the range of $40 million. (Disclosure: My other employer, the Weekly Standard, is owned by News Corp., which also owns Fox, where “The Simpsons” airs.) Why the big surprise?
Surely part of the explanation is nostalgia. “The Simpsons” has been part of the cultural landscape for 18 years, and while the show isn’t what it used to be, the movie promised, and delivered, a return to some approximation of its golden years. But more important, perhaps, is what “The Simpsons” represents: a high-water mark during a fine era of American satire.
After a long period of waning, satire is back in American culture. It has not just arrived, of course, but in the last dozen or so years, it has flowered, finding both high achievement and popular success.
On television, cartoons were the major energizers, with “The Simpsons” and “South Park.” Old standbys such as “Saturday Night Live” and “Mad TV” have chugged along, if unevenly. For what they are, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” are probably smarter than they need to be. Perhaps the best TV satire in recent times has come from Ricky Gervais, whose BBC shows “The Office” and “Extras” were wonderfully, darkly jaundiced looks at the modern workplace.
Satire has done well at the movies, too, even if the high-mindedness of “Dr. Strangelove” and Woody Allen’s early work has dissipated. But in its place we’ve had more middle-brow perfections. Mike Judge gave us “Idiocracy” and “Office Space”—the latter of which may be the funniest movie ever made about suburban America. Christopher Guest created an entire series of satires about some of our more bizarre subcultures, from dog fancy (“Best in Show”) to the ‘60s folk scene (“A Mighty Wind”) to the world of amateur theater (“Waiting for Guffman”). And don’t forget Trey Parker and Matt Stone who, in addition to their TV work, managed a parody of the Hollywood action movie done entirely with puppets (“Team America: World Police” and a satire of American nationalism, wrapped in a satire of low-brow comedy, wrapped in a satire of the movie musical (the ingenious “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut”).
The printed word has seen the least impressive flourishing of satire. Certainly, there are no literary giants such as Twain, Mencken or Waugh. But we do have strivers such as Christopher Buckley (whose “Thank You for Smoking” remains the single funniest thing ever written about Washington), Andy Borowitz, and even Steve Martin.
And let’s not forget the greatest satirical achievement of the last 30 years: The Onion. Founded in 1988, the newspaper parody is often brilliant and consistently excellent, taking aim at anything and everything around us. (My personal favorite was its 2004 headline: “Jacques Derrida `Dies.’”)
What’s to account for this miniature golden age? Surely many factors. One of them may be that since the 1980s, it seems to have become more socially acceptable to make a living writing in Hollywood, which opened that career path to the type of elite university students who otherwise might have headed off to the fascinating world of hedge funds. Harvard, in particular, has grown a reputation for being the birthplace of a comedy mafia, churning out humorists and satirists who have swamped the TV and film world. (The Harvard Crimson reports that at one point, 10 of the 12 writers on “The Simpsons” were Harvard grads.) Education isn’t everything of course, but all things being equal, smarter is often funnier.
It’s also possible that American life has become more suited to satire as, with each passing day, humankind tiptoes deeper and deeper into farce. That’s essentially the conservative motto, of course: Never discount the probability that matters will get worse.
I suspect that what’s at work is actually something more systemic: The dissolution of America’s common culture.
Thirty years ago, we had three television channels and two national newspapers. We watched the same shows, went to the same movies, and read the same books. There’s a lot to be said for having a common culture. Witness how exciting the release of the final “Harry Potter” book was. But that rarely happens anymore. We have hundreds of television channels, blogs, Web sites. Our culture has broken into a thousand tiny niches, each carefully sectioned off from the wider whole.
One might have thought this segmentation would be the death of satire, that to flourish, satire needed a common culture to host it. But the reverse has been true. What do the great satires listed above have in common? Very little. They traffic in politics, popular culture, academia, dog shows, the working world—you name it. As our culture fractures, the many shards reflect and refract one another—and, individually and all together, they create a funhouse reflection of modern life.
No matter what part of the culture you inhabit, these little worlds we’ve built around ourselves all call out for satire. As Mr. Burns would say: Release the hounds.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.