The hardest part of satire is not chickening out

I love satire. Satire shines a light on something, exposing its flaws, and the best satires manage to do this while saying something important AND being hilarious. Dr. Strangelove is a brilliant satire on the Cold War, and the mindset of “us vs. them” that very nearly destroyed the world. The Colbert Report is a satire of self-righteous political pundits, which are becoming increasingly common and extreme on both sides of the political aisle. Even Huckleberry Finn could be considered a satire of early American values, placing Huck in a society so backward that he thinks freeing a slave will send him to hell.

The thing that these and other satires have in common is their unflinching gaze–they don’t just point and laugh at the issues they expose, they bite down hard and really show how deep those issues go. A satire that pulls its punches is nothing but a comedy, and often a weak one at that.

Let’s consider a counter-example. The recent movie The Invention of Lying is one half brilliant, scathing satire and one half stupid waste of everyone’s time. Why? Because it presents some incredible ideas and then chickens out, and doesn’t do anything with them. The story takes place in a world where lying, and in fact the very concept of deception, does not exist. It’s our world, just…relentlessly honest. The movie begins by plunging us straight into the most awkward situation such a world could produce: a date. The main character goes out with a gorgeous woman who’s obviously out of his league, and she says so, and the date goes downhill from there. The movie is using very dark humor to show how lies or deception are vital to the function of our society, especially “good” lies such as tact and (in some cases) silence.

The movie takes this concept and runs with it, as the shlubby man from the first scene realizes he can say things that aren’t true. One side effect of this ability to lie is that he can now have anything he wants, because if he says he’s supposed to have it everyone naturally believes him. But this is aside from the main point, which is to show that the ability to lie smooths things over and makes life easier to deal with. In one early scene the hero walks down a street passing disaster after disaster: people who are angry, people who are breaking up, people who are horribly depressed. Once he gains the ability to lie he goes back to each one of them, whispers something in their ear, and they cheer up. Lying, even in the form of self-deception, can be a form of hope, and allows us to keep going even when things are terrible.

So far the movie’s been clever, but it’s about to take the next step into brilliant. SPOILER WARNING. The hero’s mother is dying, and she’s terrified; she thinks she’s headed into nothingness, and you realizes with a start that the people in this world have no concept of an afterlife or even religion. Now we’re getting interesting–is deceit a vital aspect of religion? It’s a touchy subject, but the best satire is. Stay with me here. The hero comforts his mother by telling her that death is not nothingness, but a wonderful place full of all your favorite things and all the people you love, and she feels peace before she dies, but meanwhile all the doctors and nurses have overheard this description and become enthralled: they’ve never heard of an afterlife before, or anything this hopeful, and it is without question the most wonderful thing anyone in this world has ever heard. The hero becomes revered as a prophet, and the entire world hangs on his every word, asking more questions about the afterlife and “the Man in the Sky” and the meaning of life. These are incredibly deep topics, and the movie bites into them with vigor, showing the hero struggle desperately to present a simple, cohesive belief system that is almost instantly over-analyzed apart by his relentlessly logical listeners. If God is all powerful, is he responsible for evil? How many bad things can we do and still get into heaven? If the answer is two, does that mean we get a free pass on two sins? If we’ve already committed three sins, should we just be as horrible as possible since we’re not getting into heaven anyway? Are some sins worse than others, and how can we tell? Why don’t we just kill ourselves and go straight to heaven right now?

The movie has taken a very simple concept–a world without untruth–and followed it step by step to a logical, terrifying place…and then it does nothing. It asks these questions about religion and God, and our reaction to them, and the purpose they serve in our society and our lives, and then instead of answering them it just goes to sleep, and the second half of the movie is about the hero trying to get that girl from the first scene to fall in love with him. It doesn’t work. It is a horrible cheat. A good satire goes all the way, shining its light and never turning away, but this one blinks and chickens out, and loses all the edge and interest that made it so fascinating.

I’m currently writing a satire, and it’s a very fun but very tricky genre. I’m doing my best not to chicken out.

3 Responses to “The hardest part of satire is not chickening out”

  1. Arlene says:

    I can’t decide on the poll so I haven’t voted yet.

    Don’t chicken out, Dan. The force is with you!

  2. Alex Booth says:

    Very lucid comments. Chickening out is easy to do. I don’t know if anybody here listens to rap, but Eminem’s Magnum Opus The Marshall Mathers LP is a fine example of your point. I know that many people hold a lot of preconceptions about him, but Eminem is an amazing satirist that has sold 80 million records by never, ever chickening out.

  3. Spoiler Comment.

    While I agree with your description of what happened in the movie, I wonder if maybe they just didn’t have an answer with what to do next. He made the rules, and all he did after that was “fine tune” them, he became too depressed to do anything about it.

    In this case, instead of chickening out, it could be more that the movie followed the character’s story more than the religious side note that they arrived at.

    I guess what I’m saying is, that to me, that was just a part of his progression with learning what his lying is doing, followed shortly thereafter by him giving his girl away to his rival.

    In other words, you went into the movie expecting a satire, when it was a romantic comedy with satire in it.

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