The tragic death of anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer at the hands of a white nationalist in Charlottesville has naturally sparked anger, fear, and despair towards the reemergence of old school apple pie pernicious American racism.
Tina Fey, a graduate of UVA, the school that was the epicenter of the carnage, did a widely viewed segment where she denounced the KKK and other white nationalist groups via a sheet cake which she savagely devoured over the course of six-minutes.
Quite frankly, I find the backlash is overwrought, like much of the commentary about satire these days. There has been a trove of bizarre think pieces, such as an article in The Atlantic that argue that satire is responsible for Donald Trump and anti-intellectualism. This is a patently ridiculous assertion because satire doesn’t cause events, it responds to things already taking place. This means that the argument that Tina Fey’s parody of Sarah Palin made her unelectable is just as false as the declaration that Fey’s current segment is an anti-activist screed.
Another thing I admired about the segment is that it tackled satire from a different angle. Usually satire is a complete and total mockery of a public figure, often somebody in a position of power (although with reality TV and 24-hr entertainment cable news “power” is a bit more relative). In Fey’s segment, Trump’s dickishness in refusing to disavow white supremacists is a large butt of the joke, but she also deftly interweaves the helplessness that the average disgruntled feels in these turbulent times. She brilliantly used the cake as both a prop for fantastic physical humor but also as a symbolism of catharsis of sorts.
Many of her critics fault her segment for being too shallow and light. These articles instead praise responses by Late Night hosts Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon, whose monologues take on a somber tone and denounce #45 as a totally immoral, hate mongering man unfit to be President. Their points are valid, but they also state the obvious. It doesn’t do anybody any favors to recast comedians as morality gatekeepers when comedy by nature is about subverting rules and expectations. I think Fey invoked the wrath she did because she was willing to go for the jugular when a situation was still raw. I have been frustrated with many comedians who are almost waiting for Godot when it comes to delivering their take on tragic current events. We look to them for a thoughtful, humorous slant.
There is a wrongheaded, but increasingly popular idea that anything that counters your views is not only wrong, but must be stopped in its tracks. On a British panel show Jack Dee’s Help Desk, which pokes fun at the televised Q&A town halls between public figures and normal people (yes the UK and Australia have those shows for real), there was a special episode aired after the US Presidential Election. Naturally, the audience and the panel of comedians were a little more rattled than usual and many of the questions and answers had a lot of anxiety wrapped up in tongue and cheek humor.
One young woman casually asked (at about 17:45) “how can I ensure that people only tell me things I agree with?” Her rationale was if politicians could cherry pick truths, she should be able too. Sara Pascoe quickly pointed out that cleansing the world was a “slippery slope.” Romesh Ranganathan remarked that Brexit was a shock to many because they surrounded themselves with people who shared their views. He suggested that she “cut off people who agree with her” and only follow people who disagree with her so that “when you leave the house, you think, oh everybody’s not an asshole.” Taken aback by the passionate responses, she remarked “it’s turning a bit more serious than I intended.”
Absolutely, the facts matter. That is why we need more satire, not less, to cleverly and humorously shine a spotlight on and compete with the insanity and evil in the world. If we don’t, Trump and the other loonies will have a total monopoly on the absurd.