Satire is probably the most controversial form of expression. We tried to describe it, to define it, even to regulate it, but in vain. It will always escape from the limits we try to drawn.
In ancient Greece, the comic playwright Aristophanes targeted the demagogue Cleon, the most powerful of his time. Among the Latins, satire could have been literary or theatrical. We still remind authors like Lucilius, Horatius, Persius, Juvenal, Petronius, Quintilian and more. The name itself, satire, comes from satura lanx, the plate where the Romans put their offers for the Gods.
In the Middle Age started the allegorical satire, which represented humans with animal features. The favorite subjects were politicians and religious members (unlike what we could think about that era), especially in the Occitan compositions, but we can find traces of it also in Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. But many literary works has satirical references, Don Quixote is the most famous example.
Powerful people had never been immune to satire. Even a cruel dictator like Benito Mussolini, at least in the first years of his regime, appreciated irony on his implications in the Matteotti murder, the episode that paved the way to his government. Almost at the same time the writer, journalist and humorist from Austria, Karl Kraus, joked on the contemporary society. Then the Fuhrer arrives and Kraus published The third Walpurgis night, that contains a self-explanatory “I have nothing to say about Hitler”, just to devalue his political stature. Charlie Chaplin‘s idea to mock the Fuhrer in The great dictator also stems from scorn, with its tragicomic effect.
Right after the drama of World War II, the most common genre of comedy is curtain-raiser. A light kind of humor just to forget the horrors and move on. After this forced “break”, in the Sixties, society and its contradictions are once again under looking glasses. Lenny Bruce marks the turning point.
He sides with two teachers, fired for their homosexuality, against racist, homophobic, bigot America of that time. He uses a foul, unconventional, politically incorrect language, with the only purpose to weaken the effect of words. That causes him several detentions, charged with public obscenity (and drugs possession). Oppressed by the system, he dies for overdose in 1966, a couple months before his 41st birthday. In 1974 he got honored with the movie Lenny, directed by Bob Fosse, starring Dustin Hoffman.
Lenny Bruce started a new way to do comedy, the stand-up. A microphone, a stage and most of all something to say, from another perspective. That’s probably the only rule. Going against the power, actually, doesn’t just mean picking on politicians, but with the uniform thought of the middle man. Like Matt Groening did 30 years go in another field, cartoons. Homer Simpson is nothing but satire of the middle man, lazy, ignorant, way too exaggerated with food and beer.
Comedians are on stage, but not on the pedestal and that’s important to remember. They’re not better than the others, even though sometimes they forget that. Actually, maybe they are worse. They release their stress, anxieties, paranoid, frustrations, problems, going through a sort of therapy, cathartic also for the audience. Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Louis CK, Ellen DeGeneres, Trevor Noah, Ricky Gervais, Doug Stanhope, Bill Maher, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Dave Chappelle are some of the best representatives of comedians who target society, religion, moral, family, politics, sexism, racism, always making lough, because that’s the main point of comedy.
How far can satire go? We’re far from Lenny Bruce legal problems, but censorship is behind the corner. According to Ricky Gervais a good comedian has to bring you into unkown places in which you wouldn’t go by yourself. So, there are no taboo topics, not even dark humor. “We use comedy as a sword, a medicine and a shield. That’s what humor is for, getting over bad things. There’s no point of joking about good things, we don’t need to cure that. Laughter is the best medicine”.
Last chapter, the one that shocked the world, Charlie Hebdo. Everybody stood for freedom of expression after the terrorist attack of January 2015, when the French magazine joked on the prophet of Islam Mohamed. In Italy, the same ones that wrote on Facebook “je suis Charlie” got offended for the drawn on central Italian earthquake, which is a normal reaction, as “you can’t get over your thing, emotionally”, says Gervais, while it’s easier to understand the mechanism behind something that doesn’t affect us – like Islam.
The Charlie Hebdo attack struck satire twice, at a physical level, no need to explain that, and for the proposition made by some comedians to make January 7th the international day of satire. But institutionalize it would just add a nail in the coffin.
Ricky Gervais on humor https://www.youtube.com/watch?