Hugh Kenner supplies this lament of Flann O’Brien’s talent, oft-quoted in writings on O’Brien (in so much as writings on O’Brien may themselves be deemed frequent): that when he became “a licensed jester” (referring to Myles na gCopaleen’s regular column), “a great future lay behind him.” The first time I read this, I was of course struck by the wit and the sad sense of waste in reference to one of my favorite writers. But last night, and not apropos O’Brien (quotes have a way of breaking down and becoming part of a general mental compost), it was the word “licensed” that struck me.
I’m an avid reader of The Onion—when I lived in France I used certain articles to teach English without warning my students they weren’t true—and I think international exchange would be greatly advanced by more cross-cultural exposure to contemporary popular humor, that thing that famously “doesn’t translate” (but why not try harder?). Seriously, The Onion is my Cosmo. If my appetite for The Onion has a limit, it’s due only to a growing, despairing sense of its futility. No doubt this is a basement revolutionary’s teen angst, or misapprehension of The Onion’s motives, or simply reflects widespread cultural habituation (irony in surfeit or a weaker strain having inoculated us against its own corrosive effects); I don’t think The Onion ever set out to change the world with satire. It’s never been quite so toothless or throwaway, I think, as South Park, but I do get the feeling these days that even what should be its most vicious attacks come across as the yapping of a dog in a corner of the yard, so safely leashed even its frothing fury can be fawned over affectionately. Worse than unheard—condescended to. Patronized, in every sense of the word, or in our ostensibly less feudal, more democratic society, licensed.
I’m not saying this isn’t the very comfortable form of success The Onion may have sought. I can’t, in our postcapitalist society, even damn it for seeking or attaining it. I’m saying the blithe and widespread acceptance causes me personal pain. I cared about The Onion, but I’m just another Area Man. A schlub schlepping sentiment to the wrong party scene.
I’m not talking, mind you, about the genially absurdist Onion of the Kafka International Airport, which is eternal and enjoyable, the humor equivalent of literary fabulism. I’m talking about the knives-out political Onion, if there ever was one outside my imagination. These thoughts came about after seeing a recent ONN reality show parody pitting workers from two auto factories against each other for their livelihood. A thing I’ve always wondered is how to satirize something that will always go lower than you will—that swallows satire, like Orson Welles’ Unicron swallows planets. I suppose I threw in the gloves long ago—I generally do against the onslaught of the seemingly inevitable—but this was the first time I’d ever seen something that seemed effective. It wasn’t a question of going lower, but a surrealist juxtaposition of two different contemporary “realities.” And yet who was it speaking to? Who was it disturbing, or enraging? Who was listening? When’s the last time comedy seemed to strike a palpable blow, or be more than a court jester heartily guffawed at, then handed an approving bone? Colbert’s White House Press Correspondents Dinner speech? Maybe humor only becomes truly funny again when it finds an audience to rile.
The form of the ONN video is, as usual, cosmetically perfect down to the foreign model host. And sure, in general, a sense of professionalism pervades the articles—in fact, journalistic credibility is a form whose emptiness The Onion most expertly mocks—but gone is any sense it should get you down, that it should weary or jade. Perhaps this professionalism is one of the very symbols of its firm ensconcement in an established order.
I repeat, this is not a problem with The Onion. It may or may not be a problem with contemporary society. It is certainly my problem with what I wish The Onion, or something like it, could be, what I thought it was when I first read it: something whose genuine meanness set it apart and made people heed it. Then again, satire in the late 90s wasn’t the institution that it is now, partly thanks to the web, and to the collage-remix forms it’s popularized.
In a recent Slate piece, Dahlia Lithwick dissects the recent Palin-Letterman controversy, invoking Freud to say that jokes should hurt, should cut and bleed. They should be a howl of pained wrath (which is different, mind you, from kvetching, or the tired boorishness of Larry David, the bourgeois Diogenes). But of course even this so-called controversy was a passing distraction, a bit of headline-grabbing hot air, smoke dispersing from a culture war skirmish, a salvo fired just for show. A joke is an epitaph on the death of a feeling, Nietzsche wrote, but perhaps our communal feelings for individual feelings are exhausted by emotional mass graves. It used to be nuclear Armageddon was funny, but the murder of a single person wasn’t. Now murder is, well, just another line of work.
We won’t buy his vision of economics, but we’re all willing to allow Marx that “History repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, second time as farce.” So that’s the second act Fitzgerald said American lives don’t have. Against a landscape of continuous farce, how does satire differentiate itself? (You’ll notice I build my own argument with the equivalent of intellectual bumper stickers, which is more symptomatic than critical of the very things I’m tilting at.) Maybe it’s as simple as this: humor, the art form of our age, just runs itself ragged keeping up. Fiction stopped trying to a long time ago, or at least Philip Roth was willing to declare its surrender.
Critics of snark will tell you The Onion and kin paint themselves into their own corner. Irony is accused of being fey, the comedy of taste or its lapses, a luxury only the industrialized elite can afford, with their leisure and anomie. Like yoking together “chorizo” and “Darfur”: half the humor comes from the unlikely juxtaposition of effete precision and ghastly reality. That ONN video: Who did it think it was speaking to? Was it just being ignored, or was it even trying for anyone? The future will converse only in irony, critics wail. The future will titter.
At The Onion I read: “The Real Housewives of Mogadishu (BRAVO): Aasha is enraged when she finds out she’s not on the guest list for Ugah’s female circumcision.” Sure, I find this worth a snort of amusement. But where, in this case, is the pain said to be at the heart of all humor really located? Not in North America, critics of irony and satire would claim, and yet I would say it is: what is it satirizing, if not our own helplessness, impotence, inefficacy in the face of the grim world? Humor should reopen the wounds we can’t do anything about. Here we are, chained to our sofas in the planet’s most culturally powerful nation: humor should tear at us like the vultures feeding on Prometheus’ liver.
Humor needs to rediscover its old ally hatred. To reclaim, if not apocalyptic misanthropy, at least the kind of disgust that provokes change rather than defeatist withdrawal.