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.