The Future of Satire

College evokes a lot of memories for me, but even in a world of easily traceable moments courtesy of Facebook and smartphones, my most potent memories are of conversations. Overriding the memories of pizza and movie nights and unceasing lust, conversations hold eternal.

One conversation that was pivotal for my relationship to comedy – how I think about it, how I do it, how I want to do it – was a brief discussion that I had with a peer who I had an immense crush on. We were sitting in my dorm room, flipping through channels on my roommate’s television and we stopped on Cartoon Network. The Boondocks was on and we decided to catch the tail-end of an episode before she headed back to her dorm (much to my silent distress).

I don’t know what episode we were watching, but in it, Uncle Ruckus gave one of his typical self-hating monologues, filled with innovative uses of racial slurs and alarmingly specific insults. My crush cracked up, doubling over, cackling, and grazing me on the shoulder with her soft , brown hand. The joke had touched a nerve, as she had touched me.

I was laughing too – the specificity of Uncle Ruckus’ comments has always been his main selling point for me. For someone who hates black people, he knows them incredibly well (which is how most self-hatred plays out, I think).

As our laughter subsided, with relief, she said, “So true, so true,” endorsing Uncle Ruckus’ deranged statements. I grimaced, but I didn’t think much of it because I had more primal things to think about it.

Those thoughts were short-lived because she continued, “The Boondocks is so on point sometimes.” “How so?” I asked, curious. “Uncle Ruckus is just so right,” she explained.

Willing my primal thoughts back to the fore, I conceded. “I know what you mean.” Minutes later, I escorted her out of the building.

Before that night Uncle Ruckus had been one of the most unambiguous characters I had ever come across in any work of fiction. He was black, his first name was Uncle, and nothing he said was even remotely salvageable. He was racist to the core, someone who could only be hated, objected to and mocked. Sure, his character had range, but his range was like the surface of a pool, expansive, but ultimately flat, infinite ripples of the same vile substance.

My crush’s endorsement of Uncle Ruckus broke me. How could a black person hear his lines and agree with anything he said? Was he actually an ambiguous character? Was I an idiot? Was I just bad at dating?

A recent essay at the Baffler wrestles with similarly perplexing questions, noting that satire has recently been used to obscure rather than illuminate the truth. Citing the CIA’s first tweet, Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns, the institutionalization of late night humor as a source of news, and the general ubiquity of humor in contemporary life (i.e. Twitter), Ben Schwartz makes a strong indictment of satire in 2015. The article has a twinge of nostalgia to it, seeming to long for some mythical past when all satire hit hard, but in terms of surveying the field, Schwartz is right on. Satire is definitely the lingua franca of the times and there is certainly something alarming about its widespread appropriation, especially by those in power.

But though satire’s recent incarnations are alarming (and often not funny), I don’t think that the problem Schwartz lays out – politicians, institutions and lame late-night comedy shows easily defanging satire through their appropriation of it – really has anything to do with the genre of satire.

My experience with my college crush is insightful. I was disappointed by the fact that she didn’t “get” Uncle Ruckus, that she didn’t see that he was the joke, not the things he said. But now I know that she absolutely got the joke. Satire doesn’t belong to anyone, even the people who make it and who they ostensibly make it for. Her seeing Uncle Ruckus as a truth-teller and the CIA tweeting self-referential jokes are of a different order, but the same dynamic is at play in both scenarios. In both instances satire is doing what satire does, serving as a palatable vehicle for observations and worldviews that are too taboo or too risky or too unthinkable to be uttered in their raw form.

This has to be understood. Though the history of satire suggests that satire itself does things like threaten people in power and mock society’s absurdity, satire as a medium, as a particular way of acting in the world, can ultimately be understood as humor + an agenda. And everyone – the CIA, President Obama, Comedy Central producers, bougie black folks – has an agenda.

Schwartz’ real observation isn’t that satire has changed; it’s that satirists have changed. The history of satire being used to challenge power and mock society is more a history of the challengers and the mockers than the history of the genre itself. Satire can be (and has been) wielded by anyone. It just so happens that it’s typically been favored by people who like mocking monarchs and presidents.

That reality might be disappointing for people who want to believe in the eternal power of satire, but for me it’s refreshing. Instead of attempting to redeem a genre that is doing what it has always done, or encouraging traditional satirists to be edgier, or crushing on someone who is toxically bougie, maybe the true satirical act is to not be a satirist. Everyone has an agenda but how many many people have the will to follow that agenda to its bitter end, giving up on their favorite art form in the process? I don’t know, but if the legacy of satire lies in the ambitions of satirists rather than in the genre itself, there’s already plenty of precedent.

What I’ve Been Up to Lately

I haven’t updated this in awhile, but I have been doing stuff elsewhere, so here’s a quick roundup.

I wrote a review of a Hail Mary Mallon (Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic) concert for Bandwidth. I’ve been listening to their album as well. It’s a fun ride if you’re looking for some spaced-out beats and very in-the-pocket rhymes. And Rock’s voice is very compelling. He raps like he’s possessed by words.

I recorded a podcast with video game writer Zolani Stewart called Bar Exam. In it we talk about Earl Sweatshirt’s new album (I Don’t Like Shit,I Don’t Go Outside) and Kendrick Lamar’s new album (To Pimp a Butterfly). We won’t be rolling podcasts out weekly, but I think they will be ongoing. We had fun recording it and we have a nice rapport.

I uploaded a recording of a recent comedy performance to Soundcloud. The audience wasn’t digging it, but I like the joke a lot.

I reviewed To Pimp a Butterfly for Paste. I have complicated feelings about this album, but I don’t like it much. The review goes into detail, but in short, I just don’t think the album lived up to its own expectations.

The Toast published a personal essay I wrote about an involuntary haircut. My hair is important to me, so this episode in my life really involved some tough decisions.

The Toast also published a personal essay I wrote about the economic and personal difficulties of writing professionally without a lot of money and time.

I reviewed Tetsuo & Youth for Paste. I still listen to this album. It has blemishes, but the moments where it shines are really impressive. “Deliver” is my favorite track.

I reviewed B4.DA.$$ for Paste. If you’ve seen the movie Detention, this review might make you proud of me.

That’s about it. I have some blog posts planned for the next few weeks, but I’m really trying in earnest to write all over. I think I may have another post about comics soon, but otherwise, I think I’ll be sticking with the usual mix of race, movies and music. We’ll see. As always, thanks for reading!

Hooked on Comics: Cape Comics Only Make Sense If You Read More Cape Comics

Uncanny X-Force 10 Dark Angel

For the past 18 months, I’ve been navigating through the ever-extending universe of X-Men. As I’ve gotten deeper into the X-Men world I’ve noticed that I’ve been making fewer and fewer research visits to Wikipedia and other comics to understand plots and characters. As an individual reader, this is a pretty pleasant development because the stories are finally starting to flow due to be me being knowledgeable about the X-Men. But as someone who likes to share things, it’s incredibly frustrating because I’m unable to talk about the comics with anyone other than people who have also read 30 years worth of comic books, which is no one that I know.

The normal course of action would be to seek out people who have also read 30 years worth of comic books and I can kind of dig that. But honestly, that seems like the wrong approach because the problem isn’t that not enough people read comic books. The problem is that not enough comic books are made to be readable by anyone other than people who regularly read comic books.

I know that this isn’t a new observation. Feminists have been making it for years, frequently giving up on cape comics and opting for independently published graphic stories, or writing and drawing their own (which they’ve actually been doing since comics existed). But I’m bringing it up now because it’s intriguing how transparent the effort has been to just give up on accessibility.

For instance, I just finished Uncanny X-Force, a series about a mercenary wing of the X-Men that tries to reconcile killing people with the X-Men’s philosophy of preserving life. In “The Dark Angel Saga” story arc, X-Force attempts to save its member Angel from succumbing to his evil persona Archangel. Archangel exists because the X-Men villain Apocalypse once kidnapped Angel and brainwashed him into becoming his minion. To save Angel, X-Force recruits Dark Beast, a minion of Apocalypse and doppelganger of the X-Man, Beast, from the Age of Apocalypse parallel universe where Apocalypse has conquered the world. Dark Beast takes them to this parallel universe and then the real story begins in earnest, going on to span 8 more comics.

Since this story arc starts with Uncanny X-Force issue #11, it makes sense for the authors to assume the reader has knowledge of issues #1-10. But to assume knowledge of comics from over a decade ago is quite a stretch. Seriously, the mere scaffolding for the story, its basics, requires knowledge of the X-Men universe that extends to storylines from the 80’s and 90’s. For these comics, suspending one’s disbelief is secondary, possible only after expending one’s time and money. Even as someone who has paid these costs, I don’t like this.

And it’s not because I think there are inherent problems with learning curves or opacity or niche audiences. Barring governments, healthcare, the internet and parks, I don’t think that everything needs to be easy and accessible and widely available to everyone. I think there’s real value in rarity and mystery and exclusiveness, depending on the circumstances. I’m struck by these X-Men comics because the opacity never goes away. Despite different artists, writers, stories and characters, the learning curve never really smooths out.

In other words, I fibbed earlier. The comics actually aren’t flowing that much better from when I first started; I’ve just learned to navigate the gaps. There are always more comics to be read, more Wikipedia pages to scour. Reading these comics is like having a daily commute over a street that’s riddled with potholes: the gaps eventually just become a part of the street.

I once celebrated the fact that comics had slowly phased out advertisements because I always used to see those ads as “interrupting” the stories. I now realize that the stories themselves have become advertisements and that the product being sold isn’t the comics themselves, but access to them. To put it differently, cape comics sell literacy of cape comics. Inaccessibility is built into this model. This doesn’t mean that all cape comics are a scam or that all their stories and art are invalid. There are good stories and ideas out there. But they come at a steep price that probably isn’t worth it.

Suddenly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t seem like such a cool idea.

Byzantine Blues/I’m Feeling Lucky

Last night I was stopped in Arlington, Virginia for being an “unlicensed driver in the state of Virginia” (apparently having a Georgia license and a Virginia registration is not acceptable) and was issued a ticket for not having a Virginia driver’s license. The officer told me that I can avoid the court summons and a fine by getting a Virginia license and going to the courthouse before my court date to prove that I am newly compliant with Virginia driving laws. Maybe I’m being reductive, but paying for an unnecessary new license (my Georgia license expires in 2017) and visiting a courthouse sounds incredibly similar to appearing in court and paying a fine.

I wasn’t too excited about being forced to waste time and take off work for something so slight and inane. But I soon realized that because I’m moving to DC proper at the end of the month, I will now have to get a VA license just to own it for 2 weeks, then exchange that license for a DC license within 30 days of moving in.

Hoping to avoid this ridiculously annoying sequence of events, today I called the courthouse and asked if there were other options. They very dryly told me that I have a “perfect grasp” of the situation and that my only other option is to appear in court and explain my situation.

I hadn’t considered this, but it really is an option. I could wait 3 months, then appear before the judge and explain, “I am here before you today because instead of navigating the Byzantine system that has been elaborately and weirdly designed to coerce me into paying nominal licensing fees at the expense of my time and money, I have decided to expend my time and money in order to explain this Byzantine system to you in hopes that you, someone who is comfortably ensconced within this system, will suddenly recognize the horror of this nightmarish machine of parasitic pettiness and solve my silly problems in a heroic swoop of Reason and compassion.”

Because I really doubt that I could speak so eloquently for so long, I’m going to go with the first option of getting a license, going to the courthouse, then getting another license. Even if I got a DC license, then appeared in court, I would probably still end up being fined because on that day I was driving without a VA license.


I know that this annoying episode will come and go as quickly as it came, but I can’t help but dwell on it because there’s something scary about how normal this situation is. There is nothing unusual about a police officer scanning vehicle license plates while driving (generously assuming that’s even the real reason I was stopped…), stopping drivers, sidling up to their car windows, and enforcing municipal licensing rules that people have never heard of until the moment they were enforced. This happens every day, multiple times a day, everywhere.

This was my first time ever being pulled over, so perhaps that, plus the fact that I’ve actively kept up with the nationwide epidemic of police violence against folks of color, just have me on high alert. But even if that is true, that I’m being paranoid over what was a rather uneventful encounter, why shouldn’t I be? It is precisely the very uneventfulness of this entire experience that alarms me. All it takes is one unlucky and unnecessary police scan to send someone spiraling down a bureaucratic rabbit hole that can only be escaped via time, money or an unlikely rejection of the bureaucracy by someone who holds power within it. For some people, like the residents of Ferguson, the spiral never ends .

But that’s not a surprise. I’ve always known that I live in a world where a black male who gets stopped by a cop feels “lucky” to “only” receive a ticket and “only” have to do some pesky bureaucratic maneuvering. The surprise is just how exhausting this so-called luck feels. I haven’t even started my bureaucratic relay race yet, but I already feel winded, defeated.

After I got home, I undressed, brushed my teeth, then told my girlfriend what had happened.  “I’m just glad you’re okay,” she responded. I told her that I was glad too, and to my horror, I really meant it.

Remind Me To Remember What You Told Me (On Black History Month)

Like most commemorative events, Black History Month is an assertion, a statement that this month and what it represents are important. The Canadian rapper Shad almost captures this commemorative spirit in his song “Remember to Remember.” I say “almost” because despite its pithy title, which is repeated in the chorus, “Remember to Remember” betrays an attempt to conceal its own origins. We have to be to told to remember to remember precisely because it is easy to forget. And this ease suggests that the things we want to remember might actually be unmemorable, unimportant. The sheer conviction of the statement “Remember to remember” paints over that anxiety of forgetting, which I think is dangerous.

Another rapper, DOOM, more accurately captures the spirit of commemorative holidays, drunkenly rapping, “Remind me to remember what you told me,” in his song “All Outta Ale.” DOOM’s line simultaneously asserts his desire to remember and admits that he’s already forgotten. He knows that the importance of memories is contrived, arbitrary, so that’s how he treats them, embracing the artifice. He doesn’t see forgetting as a vice, a denial of Truth. He sees it as more reason to remember. Importance is a concentrated effort, not an inherent characteristic.

I pinball between these two modes of thinking about historical memory, but I ultimately side with the DOOM approach because it is more transparent. “Remember to Remember” has a certain self-evidence to it that I think is ultimately self-defeating. If black lives and history inherently mattered, we wouldn’t have to declare their importance.

This is precisely why #alllivesmatter falls flat on its face. Not only does it grossly deface the point of #blacklivesmatter, which is to highlight the devaluation of black life through ongoing systemic racism, but it obscures its own origins. In other words, #alllivesmatters paints itself as an “obvious” correction, an “of course,” when it is really a reaction to #blacklivesmatters’ collective observation that all lives seem to matter except for black lives (as well as other marginalized groups). If all lives inherently mattered, no one would be compelled to make the counterclaim that certain lives don’t.

The same goes for the silly annual tradition of people asking, “Why is there no White History Month?” which is unfortunately rarely a rhetorical question. That question can only be asked if you view history with a severely unempirical eye, thinking of it as a mere archive rather than as the process of archiving certain things toward certain ends, like the Texas school board fighting to get textbooks that misrepresent Islam, climate change, and the Mexican-American war, among other things.

There might be some implicit nihilism in the assertion that no life is inherently important, but I’d rather embrace that nihilism than bet my life on some alleged inherent properties of this life that have never been acknowledged. This stance, and Black History Month as a whole may seem like a concession, but that’s the point. Black life and history matter precisely because we say that they matter in spite of how they are routinely treated. Without that concession, that painful admission that this remembrance is willed, it’s just another empty cause.

In the end, I’m just saying that I think it’s important to remember why we remember, not just to remember. Because as soon as Black History Month or #blacklivesmatters forgets or elides their reasons for existing, they spiral into meaninglessness, losing their power to change and joining the ranks of other defanged projects and customs, like Labor Day and Earth Day. We can do better and it starts with actively remembering why we have to.

Key and Peele on The Limits of Pathology

I’m not entirely sure exactly what Key and Peele set out to do in this “School Bully” sketch, but when I first watched it, I immediately thought of pathology, the search for origins and causes, meaning. Pathology is deeply ingrained in how people, especially college-educated people, understand the world, and though there is nothing inherently wrong with pathologizing, it’s a mode of analysis that’s easy to abuse, assigning meaning and offering explanations to things without acknowledging its own fallibility.

This sketch exposes that fallibility, showing how silly and absurd our messy world looks when we tidy it up through our search for singular meaning.

Every bully isn’t secretly a victim of abuse. Every internet troll isn’t a lonely virgin, sitting in a room full of Lucy Liu posters and empty bags of Cheetos. Every angry person isn’t secretly sad and rejected. Every homophobe isn’t secretly gay.

Some people are just assholes.

Further reading:

Cameron Kunzelman, Thinking About Trolls with Foucault.