Satirists, stop settling for obvious targets

Although it’s often very funny, much of today’s satire fails to take risks that make us think.

Jasper Johnson

Many people get their introduction to satire and liberal pop politics through TV programs like “the Daily Show” or “the Colbert Report.” While it’s nice to see people get interested in political issues, these shows’ style has always bothered me.
 
 
To me, satire plays an important role in fostering a society which values social criticism and debate. However, I feel a lot of mainstream American satire simply isn’t reaching its potential. 
 
 
For example, programs like “the Daily Show” or “the Colbert Report” deal with relatively insipid and bureaucratic topics from an almost unilaterally liberal stance. While it’s important to keep society and government in check by pointing out things like Whitesboro’s town seal or deficient infrastructure spending, much of this material is just stating the obvious. It comes across as something to include in an interdepartmental memo rather than an ideal topic for satire. 
 
 
Along those lines, some of the material in these shows can be funny — but it often focuses on easy targets. Criticizing Donald Trump or Sarah Palin rarely comes across as iconoclastic. 
 
 
Unfortunately, when popular programs try to break from their comedic tone and feature more serious guests (like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example, who appeared on “the Daily Show”), the hosts often come across as vapid and uninformed.
 
 
Online, we see similar patterns. The Onion and the fake, BuzzFeed-style site ClickHole are some popular sources of satire. Their content probably isn’t going to leave anyone stinging, but it’s still critical of mass behavior. 
 
 
In any case, popular satire doesn’t usually make any ambitious claims about changing society, so I can’t really fault it for serving as humor first and social criticism second.
 
 
However, I consider something like the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo” to be a source of more challenging social commentary. The cartoons they publish often examine topics like religion and politics. Some people find this material offensive, but I believe it contributes to a critical political culture.
 
 
In my opinion, satire should be controversial. If it’s not, it’s likely stating some truism or widely accepted notion and thus adding very little to the public discourse.
 
 
I’ve seen other good examples of contentious satire on foreign Twitter accounts. Many of these are relatively obscure, like “@prophetess_,” which focuses on human rights in the Middle East. 
 
 
While that account’s humor can definitely be hard to grasp, in my opinion, it promotes the true purpose of satire: that is, to convey witty, complex political criticism as opposed to cheap laughs. 
 
 
Ultimately, we should work to revitalize the notion of satire as a powerful tool to examine societies’ shortcomings and criticize popular beliefs in a witty and insightful way.
 
I’m disappointed to see unintelligent satire dominate our media while more pointed works are left in the dark. 
 
 
Humor is one of the best tools in an iconoclast’s arsenal, and firebrand wit deserves more people’s respect and attention. 
 
Jasper Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected].