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It's Funny How Humor Is So Ticklish

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A satirical New Yorker magazine cover cartoon depicting Barack Obama and his wife as flag-burning, fist-bumping radicals drew outrage from the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign as it appeared on newsstands Monday. Video by AP

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Call it the attack of the Jonathan Swiftboaters. A New Yorker cover illustration, showing Barack Obama dressed as a Muslim fist-bumping his gun-toting wife, fell afoul of the humor police yesterday. To some, it was satire. To others, it was aid and comfort to the malice mongers who hide under the rocks of American politics. In the end, it was both.

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"Successful" satire -- mildly funny, generally anodyne and broadly therapeutic -- needs an "April Fool's" moment, when the joke is revealed and everyone is at least invited to have a laugh. No, Bob, it's not Friday, it's still Thursday; that report isn't due for another 24 hours and you can climb off the ledge now. Like a practical joke, satire can be hysterically funny without a shared catharsis, but that's often a cruel form of humor. To be effective -- if by effective one means a teachable moment, a transformative bump forward in self-awareness -- the humor must be widely appreciated.

New Yorker editor David Remnick found himself defending satire that seemed to go astray. On Saturday, before the July 21 issue even hit the newsstands, he said, "Satire is offensive sometimes, otherwise it's not very effective." Yesterday, he acknowledged the offense given, and the emotional pitch of the current presidential campaign, but stood by his cover.

The illustration "had a title -- the title is 'The Politics of Fear' -- and there is also a context," he said. "It is appearing in the New Yorker." By which he meant everyone generally understands where the magazine is coming from, that it is "liberal-minded" and doesn't traffic in the kinds of slurs and innuendo the cover obviously lampoons.

Caught in the maelstrom of cable television blather, Remnick fell back on the time-honored belief that offensiveness in satire is rather like the height of a diving board or a tightrope: It raises the stakes and, if the joke works, increases the return. Which misses the other half of the equation: If you want satire to be "effective" (like a good editorial or a well-written position paper) you must aim at a wide audience, invite people in and wink with exaggerated meaning. In the cartoon, Obama almost looks as though he's winking. But "almost" doesn't count in socially safe satire.

Unfortunately, as debate about the image grew, the New Yorker missed a golden opportunity to question the rather odd American relationship to satire. Why must it be broadly effective rather than just funny? Why must humor, like grief, somehow be good for us on a deeper level? Instead, the magazine fell into the deadly trap of overanalyzing the funny in public.

"The burning flag, the nationalist-radical and Islamic outfits, the fist-bump, the portrait on the wall? All of them echo one attack or another. Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful, and the absurd. And that's the spirit of this cover," the magazine said in a statement released yesterday.

The New Yorker might have added that the image doesn't even add up to a coherent set of prejudices. It's not clear how a Muslim man who keeps a painting of Osama bin Laden on the wall could survive marriage to a powerful, gun-toting, pants-wearing, independent woman. But no matter. If something satirical isn't working for you, no matter how many times someone unpacks and analyzes it, the joke won't suddenly become funny.

And if the satire isn't carefully calibrated to a target audience, then it will almost assuredly be remembered for its offensiveness rather than its supposedly palliative effect on the body politic.

The main problem with the New Yorker cover -- if it's a problem at all -- is that its humor is intended for a relatively insular, like-minded readership: subscribers to the New Yorker, a presumably urbane audience with strong Obama tendencies. No matter what the New Yorker says about holding up a mirror to prejudice, the cartoon certainly didn't do that. It was more like a spyglass.

The cover, like so many self-deprecating, wryly funny, overly self-referential New Yorker covers before it, is just another prism through which New Yorker readers confirm something that is true and easily caricatured at the same time: They are an elite, a minority, and while they might be more educated or sophisticated or adept at the play of humor, they will always be outvoted by Texas. And Kansas. And the rest of the states beyond reach of the A train. The cover says as much about the political influence of Manhattan as it does about the prejudice of the rubesoisie.

There is a wearying need to learn lessons from every little political kerfuffle that blows across the arid plains of the presidential quest. The usual lesson, when something such as this happens, is that there is some invisible, but essential, line that has been crossed. That line, of course, doesn't exist, but gets manufactured in the moment, generally by the people who take offense first and most vociferously.

The prissy tone of dudgeon from the Obama campaign was a relatively well-pitched political twofer: It distinguished them from the New Yorker and its untouchable demographic (educated, literate, well-informed people from New York or New York-ish enclaves) and it gave them a news cycle on the high ground of victimization, defensively crouched against credulous souls misreading the New Yorker in coal mines, truck stops and smoky saloons.

At this point in the obligatory Drawing of Deeper Lessons about the enigma of humor, it's customary to declare satire dead and think the worst of each other. We live in a society so fractured and full of secretly nursed grudges and privately held prejudices, that there's no hope of unmasking ugly beliefs through humor. It's as if Jonathan Swift lived in a world where people really did smack their lips at the thought of chowing down on Irish babies. And the response to "A Modest Proposal" -- Swift's farcical suggestion that the starving Irish should sell their children as food -- was "Yeah, I eat babies. You got a problem with that?"

But satire isn't dead in America. It thrives on television, video and film. When "The Daily Show" interviews supposedly unknowing politicians, forcing them to answer absurd and offensive questions in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers who have been let in on the joke, satire lives. There's nothing particularly earth-shaking in this revelation: Satire today plays better in the more dynamic medium of video, where everyone but the victim can be in on the joke as it unfolds.

On "Saturday Night Live," a sketch in which Michelle Obama tossed the flag in the fireplace and Barack Obama took off the pinstripes to reveal a flowing white robe would be seen as outrageous -- and funny. Print cartoonists, unfortunately, find themselves working in an oxygen-free environment that is increasingly akin to the atmosphere of academia, or PBS. Cable television makes print seem like something ancient and sacred, a rule-bound sanctum fraught with the ever-present risk of sacrilege. Print is becoming a strange land where the solitary reader might easily go astray.

"People say, well, I get it, but I'm afraid that so-and-so is not going to get it," said a mildly exasperated Remnick.

Which is to say that even as we pride ourselves on our media sophistication, as debunkers and decoders of the visual, we fret about the power of the printed image to circulate beyond the comforting control of television's continuous interpretation and contextualization. In the age of YouTube -- where for the most part we can still laugh at each other and ourselves -- we are increasingly becoming print-humor iconoclasts, terrified that someone might be worshiping images in the wrong way.


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