Satire has enjoyed a rich history in the United States, popularized through the medium of television. In January of the tumultuous year 1968, the sketch comedy series Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In premiered on TV. The show would continue its run for five years and keep the American people enormously entertained as it did.
Laugh-In got to poke fun cultural and political movements of its day. And like the sketch comedy shows which were to follow in its steps, it took advantage of humiliating everything and everyone from the most obvious fault to the minutest defect.
Regulars and guest stars of the day who brightened things up included Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Nixon, Orson Welles, Tim Conway, Don Rickles, Johnny Carson, and others. Some were renowned for their comedic style, while others were talented musicians, politicians, and movie stars. The Carol Burnett Show, begun in 1967, would run for over a decade and included Tim Conway as a regular co-star. Burnett’s series lasted longer than Laugh-In did and may have had its raunchy moments.
However, it relied on life experiences outside of the political realm. Its success and perpetuated popularity could owe something to this attribute. Carol Burnett suggests this herself on CONAN, a modern series hosted by Conan O’Brien. “You didn’t do a lot of political comedy,” the host pointed out in relation to her show.
“That really wasn’t my bag,” Burnett confessed. She added that she believes it is due to its abstinence from political satire which allows it to be “viable 50 years later.” Prior to his very own show, O’Brien had hosted NBC’s The Tonight Show for a brief period. (Johnny Carson, mentioned earlier, had hosted The Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992.) Presently, we see Jimmy Fallon hosting the show. In its whole history, The Tonight Show remains primarily a talk show depending heavily on the guests who come on.
However, on The Late Show, sort of the CBS version of The Tonight Show, we certainly see comedic sketches in addition to the guest interviews. The host Stephen Colbert pulls off some genuinely hysterical commentary. His parody on some of the classic Twilight Zone episodes was rather enjoyable. However, when Colbert starts to make sport of grave instances regarding actions or decisions which could ruin people’s lives, such as in reference to court hearings which determine whether a person goes to prison or not, I start to have concerns.
The comedy of present-day America looks to be reliant on the dark and dirty. It has lost any and all sense of boundaries. The entire societal/cultural/religious landscape is free game for exposure to humiliation. Tom Lehrer put satire to song in the fifties. The result was often hysterical with relevance to the times and remain so to this day. His song “National Brotherhood Week” (which makes fun multiple races, religions, and societal statuses) is rather funny while simultaneously acting as a criticism of some of the cultural views of the day.
However, as a Roman Catholic, I find Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag” rather offensive, intrusive work of satire. This is my own viewpoint as a devout Catholic. And it is this sort of disgust which fills me when experiencing satire such as this which can often lead us – or should lead us – to empathize with those of other religions. The right to religious liberty is safeguarded in this country’s Constitution. We should not be mocked for our faith beliefs.
Today, perhaps the biggest abuser of satire on TV and the web is NBC’s Saturday Night Live which began airing in 1975. For a number of years, the typical satirical sketches remained fairly clean and when a group was made fun of, many more were usually made fun of as well. We see this “make fun of everyone” concept used in the old SNL skit “What If Superman Grew Up in Nazi Germany?” in regards to Hitler’s intense hatred to so many different religious, ethnic, and social groups. (The sketch featured John Belushi and Bill Murray.)
However, modern Saturday Night Live specializes in sex jokes, body shaming, and satirical slander. One is hardpressed to find a genuinely funny skit devoid of references to sexual activity when analyzing SNL. Studio C, which touts itself as a family-friendly sketch series is one of the few serials being produced today which simultaneous remains clean (in dialogue and action) and often hilarious.
Studio C seems to have even mimicked SNL in similar sketches which they both share such as the lost Star Trek episode, the spelling bee, the adventures of Lewis and Clark, and the family life of Superman. Despite this, Studio C is often refreshing and, at times, arguably just as funny as SNL. Ultimately, however, its approach to satire is nothing like SNL’s. In this regard, Studio C takes after The Carol Burnett Show.
Saturday Night Live has gotten itself into some trouble of late with SNL actor Pete Davidson’s satirical insult toward Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw, a veteran Navy SEAL, earlier this month. Davidson has since come out and apologized to Crenshaw for his previous remark.
Does satire need a filter? Well, yes and no. I would say it depends on the specific content and the audience it is being shown to. Certainly, if political correctness had to be adopted by comedians in all respects, the comedians probably would have killed themselves long ago! (For those of you who might find macabre humor entertaining, that was for you.)
I admit some morbid may cause me to chuckle, and sometimes I stop smiling once I really mull over the gravity of the situation which a comedian has twisted. I think there is a difference between joking about a death which took place over a hundred years ago and one which happened in more recent years. One feels more comfortable to take a historical death lightly, even though the events which brought about that death might be just as grievous as the murders going on right now.
There is a dimension of human decency which attempts to pay respect for the dead in their lifetime. However, many comedians are now stretching, even breaking the fabric of this dimension in their satire. With the problems which come up in modern satire and in its history, it would be a good idea to regulate some of what is being produced. Frequently, comedians make appearances to retract offensive statements. This does not need to be happening, yet it does.
America is the melting pot; when we offend a group, let’s be fair and offend all the groups! Seriously. In that way, people may be able to swallow it more willingly. Politics – obviously a broad and touchy subject – does not need to be included in adult satire to make it funny. If anything, as Carol Burnett believes, the absence of politics can result in a largely popular and long-remembered program.
Satire does not require a filter if the comedians themselves recognize boundaries and strive to be more creative, more genuinely funny. Satire can be pure. It’s not an impossibility.