Kathy Griffin: When Satire Fails, and Succeeds

"In the wake of today's Free Speech Wars, it seems that we've lost touch with what it means to be truly satirical."

Well, here we go again.

A comedian did something a little ‘over the top,’ people are mad, and now we’re debating over the limits of “free speech,” “comedy,” “satire,” and all that crap (oh, and the comedian was a female, so be sure to include “sexism” in there as well).

For a quick recap, comedian Kathy Griffin made headlines in posting both a video and a photo of herself holding the bloody head of, what appeared to be, President Donald Trump. Both pieces went viral almost immediately and created an uproar as planned.

No one can argue the disturbing nature of the photo, from Donald Trump’s severed head to the blank, almost mindless, gaze in Griffin’s eyes as she performed the gesture. Maybe it was a reflection of the politically turbulent times we live in. Maybe it was the efforts of another unfunny comedian trying to shock people for laughs. Either way, the stunt failed and rightfully so. It was yet another disgusting, disgraceful piece of material now being passed off as “satire” following a wave of outrage.

In the wake of today’s Free Speech Wars, it seems that we’ve lost touch with what it means to be truly “satirical.”

Now, let me just start off by saying there has never been a “good old days” or “back in the day” with regards to this subject. Controversy has always been, well, controversial, and people will always find ways to either piss someone off or be pissed off for no reason – and that’s unfortunately become the name of the game these days.

With regards to “satire,” which has always been tasteless at its heart, it makes sense that today’s world of digital media and tabloid sensationalism allows for more bile to make its way to the surface more easily than ever before. The end result is an endless chain of unfunny, crude, and vulgar pieces of “clickbait”.

So, in light of Kathy Griffin’s attempt at “satire”, it begs the question as to what the word means and how it’s pulled off effectively.

By definition, the word “satire” has been described by Dr. Roxanne Kent-Drury of the University of Northern Kentucky as the “literary art of diminishing a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn or indignation.” Though often thought of as something humorous or “funny” in a sense, its most basic function is to knock over a gold cow or shatter a sacred tablet.

I’d like to think it’s a bit more complex than that.

It was once described to me that satire is not necessarily about “making fun” of something, so much as it’s about taking a certain artifact – be it a person, place, or thing in a contemporary setting – and finding idiosyncrasies, flaws, and quirks to comment on. The gold cow may be magnificent to look at, and the sacred tablets may be the cornerstone of our civilization, but it’s still just a golden caricature of a stupid animal that craps everywhere it walks, and those tablets really are just pieces of rock with stuff written on them (possibly with the crap left behind by the cow).

In the case of the Kathy Griffin fiasco, the “satire” rests in the socio-political sphere, which is rife with golden cows and sacred tablets. The more successful pieces of socio-political satire in history effectively combine childish humor with quiet undercurrents of commentary. There are many said examples out there, but once we narrow it down to just a few pieces, we can see “the right way” in pulling off an effective satirical piece.

In 1940, the vaudeville trio, the Three Stooges, appeared in a skit lampooning Nazi Germany. This particular segment, dubbed “You Nazty Spy,” features Moe and Curly assuming the roles of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering while Larry Fine is off to the side as Joseph Goebbels. The trio present a cartoonish version of Nazi Germany, where Moe launches over-the-top tirades in German while Larry and Curly continually trip over themselves to please their Fuehrer. The skit lasts less than 20 minutes, but it may arguably be the Three Stooges at their best.

It should be mentioned that the Howard brothers and Larry Fine were all of Jewish descent. Without a doubt, all three were affected by the horrors coming out of Nazi-occupied Europe and their countries of ancestry. They were all born of Jewish migrants from Europe in the early 1900’s and became popular slapstick comedians as American citizens. World War II was a period rife with propaganda and satire, especially in the United States, and the Stooges utilized their talents to give us an effective mockery of the Nazi overlords of Europe. They could have (although highly unlikely in that time) done a skit where they cut Hitler’s head off, dropped Goering out of a plane, or gassed Goebbels, but instead, they gave us a charming, thought-provoking, and entertaining piece. It was a victory for free speech, a victory for the Jewish comedy trio, and a victory of effective satire in one of history’s darkest moments.

Jump ahead a few decades, you land in what may be a Golden Age of political satire. The United Kingdom had the “Monty Python” troupe, which lampooned religious fanaticism in their masterpiece, “The Life of Brian.” Here in the United States, “Saturday Night Live” attacked every sacred cow in a series of nightly skits. Chevy Chase is usually the first one to come to mind in this period. Before he was the clumsy Clark Griswold in the “Vacation” franchise, Chase got his big break parodying Gerald Ford stumbling into anything and everything. He spoke as eloquently and fluently as Ford did, but he just couldn’t stop running into stands, falling to his face, or rolling down flights of stairs. There was no fear or hysteria generated in his politics, just harmless fun poked at one of Ford’s infamous quirks.

My favorite, and probably the best example in this case, is a segment where Richard Pryor does an impersonation of the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. For anyone who hasn’t seen the Last King of Scotland, Idi Amin was the notorious ruler of Uganda whose track record included ethnic cleansing, torture, and even alleged acts of cannibalism of his enemies. In this particular segment, Pryor wore an obese body suit beneath a blue military uniform, wielded a pistol, and delivered a plethora of one-liners which hit their mark every time:

“My name Idi Amin ‘Dada.’ That spell two A’s, three D’s, and one gun.”

“I love American people. I want to say, I have two for lunch.”

“We had turkey for lunch. And I did not kill the turkey. Turkey die in ‘car accident’.”

“This (medal) here is for lying. President Nixon got one, but it’s real big.”

“Muhammad Ali and myself are the only black men known all over the world – and we both Muslim.”

In the wake of Amin turning his country into a slaughterhouse, this skit illustrated the lunacy behind the man whilst giving us much needed laughter. Until Tanzania removed Amin from power in 1979, it seemed this was the only attempt to remedy yet another failure of humanity in the 20th century.

As we see with the Three Stooges and Saturday Night Live in the 70’s, said segments are effective when they are funny, thought-provoking, and above all, slightly innocent.

As adults, we are constantly inundated with the ugliness and superficiality of the world. Moments and performances such as these give us a chance to be slightly childish again. Captain Hook, Jafar, and Ursula may be caricatures of darkness, but they serve a bigger purpose: to show children that acting buffoonish, bumbling, and cocky is not how to behave.

With Donald Trump, you honestly couldn’t get a better image of a classic Disney villain. In many ways, he is the perfect caricature of another rich blow-hard constantly eating money as if it were cereal and suggesting the world fix its problems by just “taking a break and going to Jamaica for a weekend.” He’s as out of touch with your Average Joe as he is clever. If he ever were to become a Disney villain, he would definitely be enjoyable – and easy to write – for those reasons.

How Kathy Griffin’s little charade fell apart is quite obvious. There were plenty of idiosyncrasies to exploit like with the Three Stooges and Hitler, and plenty of quirks to bank on as with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor on SNL – and Griffin didn’t do any of that. During her follow-up press conference, Griffin stated that if she could do it all over again, she would have used a ‘blow up doll and no ketchup.’ I’m not exactly sure how much better it would have done, but the odds might have been better for Griffin when you think about it.

President Trump
Image source:
Gage Skidmore

But that didn’t happen. There was no childish innocence or message to be heard. All we were left with was a violent, angry image that will never go away. It will be a part of our history forever and, quite possibly, pave the way for the re-election of one of the most un-re-electable presidents in history.

As I tell people all the time, I didn’t vote for Trump, nor did I vote for “the other guy” (either way, I was right when I said the President would have blonde hair and a pumpkinhead). I’m even less of a fan of inflicting any bodily harm on the guy. The last President to be assassinated was John F. Kennedy, and as you know, the intact portion of his head was minted on a coin in his memory. If you want the same treatment for Donald J. Trump, go ahead. While you’re at it, be prepared to see his head on coins, his face on monuments, and his name on business centers throughout the country for the rest of your life.

But if you want a future where Donald J. Trump is forced to see all of his policies undone, all of his speeches ridiculed, and all of his crony legacies obliterated before his eyes, then wish for him to live as long and miserable a life as Nixon, Cheney, and other famous Dicks in history – and be sure to have a good laugh along the way, too.

After all, life’s too short to be constantly mad at President Pumpkinhead.

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