Who are the best satirists?

by on October 21, 2008 at 6:40 am in Books | Permalink

I will define "painter" broadly to include mixed media artists...

To be one of the great American painters, you must satisfy several criteria:

1. You must have an identifiable style and a consistent body of work.

2. Your pictures must complement each other and look better when shown en masse in the form of an exhibit.

3. Your very best pictures must stand among the very best in the American tradition.

4. You must have had a strong influence on other artists, and must capture some essential element of "the American experience."

Let’s start with the nineteenth century today and move on to the twentieth century soon. 

Thanks to Paul Keating for posing the question.

1 Andrew October 21, 2008 at 7:41 am

Conservatives have more better, but libertarians have the best.

I think it’s equal parts knowing your position is right, not taking your functionaries too seriously, and having buffoons on the other side who know their position is right when it is wrong and do take themselves too seriously. The Brits doing other Brits is a great example, they have a built-in pomposity that will never let up. Thanks to Monty Python, now it’s part of their national brand.

I mean, how can you not laugh at people who take the U.S. government seriously? They aren’t even proficient at locking up and torturing people anymore. I think the real reason they want to keep knocking off these tin-horned dictators is penal envy.

2 Daniel Klein October 21, 2008 at 7:50 am

Kierkegaard, Nietzche, LA Rollins, and Thomas Szasz kind of fit in here.

3 Anonymous October 21, 2008 at 7:53 am

I guess it comes down to how own defines “conservative”. I don’t read Mark Twain as someone who supports traditional values, and in my view was actively trying to subvert them. I just don’t see how “The War Prayer” can have a conservative interpretation (it went well past the idea that we should have limited military activity beyond self-defense). And were Mencken’s writings during the Scopes trial really shoring up the establishment? If anything, I’d say the best satirists were progressives, arguing for better approaches by showing the failings of the society that they were in. Satire deflates the powerful in society, which to me is the opposite of conservatism.

4 Tim Gray October 21, 2008 at 8:08 am

What about the Onion? Clearly satirical and clearly left-leaning (though maybe that’s my left-leaning blinkers talking, and right leaners see the Onion as one of theirs–I’d be interested to hear).

I think the key isn’t which philosophy produces better satirists, but which one is ascendant. Satirists and comedians of all stripes prick the powerful. Till very recently in the US, the GOP held sway and thus offered the bigger target for the likes of Stewart, Colbert and others. Before that, Clinton was a mighty big, tawdry target, and during that era, O’Rourke did his best work.

5 Millian October 21, 2008 at 8:18 am

A sizeable proportion of the left still sees itself as an insurgency movement. It believes that poor people, women, or what have you, are genuinely oppressed and unable to free themselves without state intervention. That is not a basis for good satire, except of the most partisan and bitter sort. Therefore, it isn’t going to be as credible or popular as the ascendancy humour of right-wing satire, which also, in fairness, tends to attack those very groups or their representatives.

Finnsense above missed one of the most influential UK satires – Spitting Image – which was decidedly left-wing on most issues (though not really very partisan) and markedly bitter (Google for images of the puppets used to represent Thatcher etc.). But from your perspective in the United States, a show like that would never get aired.

I accept that the thesis might be weakened by people like Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, but I suspect his show will go into a real decline once Obama is in the White House. It is based mostly on young liberal people’s hatred for Bush and McCain. Whereas right-wing satire goes for the beliefs and not the man.

P.S. “Yes Minister” from the UK is hardly left-leaning. It’s the show that introduced Britain to public choice theory – the image of a civil servant in Britain is about two degrees away from the Niskanen model thanks to that programme.

6 Ernest October 21, 2008 at 8:23 am

Conservative is a term that has little meaning when applied to America over the last 100 years. Is the modern Republican (with their emphasis on Christian rule, a vast military industrial complex, seeking out terrorists and America haters in Congress, vast budget deficits, spyihg on Americans, and a vastly more powerful Executive branch) anything like the conservatives of 50 or 100 years ago? Um, no. Therefore, we should either specify “American conservatives prior to Nixon” or Post-Nixon conservatives” or define what is meant by “conservative”.

Given that the term “conservative” doesn’t mean much any more, the whole discussion is a little silly. I think that satirists from Swift to Twain to Huxley to Orwell to Groening to Trudeau would have no problem satirizing the modern Republican (and the modern Democrat for that matter.) I also think that if they ever were in the Republican party, they would have dropped out by the 1980’s, to be replaced by the Reagan Democrats and others who think Reagan was a good President.

7 Jim October 21, 2008 at 8:28 am

Was Juvenal really a conservative? His invocation of traditional Roman values was standard trope of Roman literature (found in Horace, Vergil, etc.) and shouldn’t be taken as an indication of a specific political attitude. Would you consider Voltaire a conservative? And, further left, I remember some of Marx’s early journalism as being satirical and pretty funny.

8 Emily October 21, 2008 at 8:33 am

Do political cartoons count? If so, I think this lends weight to Gray’s thoughts. It seems as if political cartoons are done on commission based pay whereas the literary satire has a longer production process and the profits are less dependent on the daily tides of public opinion. Then again, you will tend to see lefty cartoons in lefty newspapers and vice versa – which may mean that the currency of public opinion is less influential in markets where there is competition for right and left markets but the divide manifests earlier in the structure of the organization.

9 reader October 21, 2008 at 8:57 am

Juvenal, as pointed out, wasn’t what we could consider “conservative” today, and Twain was openly progressive, not conservative. Satire attacks hubris & power, which are in full supply across all political spectra. To reduce it, to try to contain it politically, is to destroy its worth, its meaning.

10 Finnsense October 21, 2008 at 9:09 am

I can’t believe people are questioning that Yes Minister is left-wing. To the extent it has a hero, it is Jim Hacker, who’se always trying to do progressive things. The civil service, who are both Conservative and conservative, who are Oxbridge elites and try to prevent anything changing, are the anti-heroes. The whole point of the show is to satirise the fact that Westminster is really run by the civil service – and it’s not approving.

11 Sarah S. October 21, 2008 at 9:18 am

The best satirists are mad at everyone and everything, and therefore can’t really be closely connected with any sort of party line. (At least, not in their writing.)

If there’s a tender soft spot at the middle of the satire, a protected area that’s too sacred to mock, the satire is not as shocking, and therefore not as effective.

“Modest Proposal” works so well and remains so shocking because Swift is almost as angry with the Irish as he is with the English. No one escapes his scalpel.

12 John Thacker October 21, 2008 at 9:25 am

And were Mencken’s writings during the Scopes trial really shoring up the establishment?

One particular type of establishment, absolutely, but that muddies the waters. It is worth noting that Mencken mocked Coolidge, but absolutely hated the radical FDR.

Was Juvenal really a conservative? His invocation of traditional Roman values was standard trope of Roman literature (found in Horace, Vergil, etc.) and shouldn’t be taken as an indication of a specific political attitude.

Ah, the modern argument that says that Juvenal’s mocking of all those who violate traditional Roman norms is so over the top that he can’t really be serious and wants to mock that mocking and the norms themselves. But how much of that, indeed, is what modern readers bring to the text? Even if you won’t count Juvenal, I think it’s clear that Aristophanes was a conservative, though I suppose one could make the same argument.

That’s an old question, though; one requires common social norms (though not necessarily ones personally believed in) to make mockery. One can either mock the norms themselves or the transgressors. Some may do a little bit of both. The former is generally more liberal and the latter conservative, to generalize. Merely because one mocks a conservative transgressor does not mean that one is mocking the underlying value.

Somewhat surprising that South Park hasn’t been mentioned yet, either.

13 Millian October 21, 2008 at 9:33 am

On the subject of Yes Minister: Remember that its two writers were one Labour and one Conservative. Indeed Antony Jay was honoured, perhaps knighted, for his media services to Margaret Thatcher on party political broadcasts and that sort of thing. Instead of my lecturing everyone on what the show was about, you can just look it up yourself on Wikipedia. Suffice it to say that any show about the venality of politicians and civil servants has its heart in the right place.

14 BoscoH October 21, 2008 at 9:54 am

I don’t think of Colbert as satirical. Snarky, sure, but he’s just too in the box and predictable to label as satire. Matt and Trey are the real satirists of our day. Could you imagine anyone else even trying to make the point that Spielberg and Lucas “raped” the whole Indiana Jones franchise with the latest edition, let alone making the point by having the two repeatedly rape an Indiana Jones caricature in cartoon remakes of classic cinematic rape scenes? On its own, it’s brilliant, but it’s even more brilliant in it’s ability to slap a completely unrelated and easily offended crowd who wouldn’t so much as wink at a graphic rape scene in an a movie.

15 Blackadder October 21, 2008 at 10:04 am

I can’t believe people are questioning that Yes Minister is left-wing. To the extent it has a hero, it is Jim Hacker, who’se always trying to do progressive things.

You mean like abolishing the National Education Service?

Fwiw, I wouldn’t describe Jim Hacker as the hero of Yes Minister. He spouts a lot of lofty ideals, but is willing to drop them in favor of what is politically convenient at the drop of a hat. If there is a sympathetic character on the show it’s Bernard.

16 Mark October 21, 2008 at 10:27 am


I’ll see your Dorothy Parker and raise you an Evelyn Waugh.

I wouldn’t dispute the fact that liberals are talented, funny, and make perfectly good humorists. Dorothy Parker may very well be funnier than P.J. O’Rourke, but she was relatively unproductive.

I’d argue that it’s much harder to be consistently good than occasionally brilliant. Without the work ethic, I’m not too sure what good being the smartest and most talented kid in the room does for her.

17 John Pertz October 21, 2008 at 10:47 am

Is this the best refutation that the mainstream left can make of the modern libertarian movement?

Is the left in America becoming devolved intellectually?

Yesterdays Slate-Newsweek piece on the death of libertarianism was quite general and devoid of any real specificity. Id hate to see such a grand intellectual-political tradition reduced to squabbles concerning personality politics. I thought that was job of the mainstream American right.

Whatever happened to the capitalism-socialism debates? What happened to the battle of ideas? Is the left really this intellectually dead? Has the talk radio/fox news right wing slowly devolved the intellectual capacity of the American left?

The best anti-libertarian writing that the modern left can come up with this these days is to lump libertarianism in with the sins of the political apparatus of the modern day Republican party. That isnt debate nor is it a refutation of ideology. Its partisan hack work at its worst.

18 Andrew October 21, 2008 at 10:57 am

The news of the death of libertarianism has been misunderestimated.

Today Americas have weak positions strongly held. Ripe for satire.

Libertarian satire:

Team America.

Case closed.

Thanks for playing.

19 figleaf October 21, 2008 at 11:22 am

Unless you’re using a very formal definition of satire I don’t think I can agree with the premise. No one who’s read Letters from Earth would imagine Mark Twain was conservative but most would agree he was an excellent satirist. (See, for instance, his takedowns of James Fenimore Cooper, his dissection of German pronouns, or… pretty much everything in Innocents Abroad.)

See also Ben Franklin’s takedown of, say, rival almanac editor Titan Leeds, for instance. See also, oh, say, anything Dave Barry wrote in the 1980s.

And finally I’m surprised no one ever mentions Ayn Rand who’s pitch-perfect deadpan satires of adolescent egocentricism as moral virtue have inspired liberal parodists from Don Novello to Sacha Baron Cohen.


20 Bernard Yomtov October 21, 2008 at 11:54 am

Is this the best refutation that the mainstream left can make of the modern libertarian movement?

Wrong thread, I think, John.

21 8 October 21, 2008 at 12:51 pm

People don’t usually satirize things they hold sacred. Liberals are good at satirizing politicians, but their criticisms are often have an explicit or implicit political agenda. Libertarians (and libertarian leaning conservatives) are more apt to satirize the entire institution, hitting at deeper and funnier truths. A joke about Bush is funny, but timely. A joke about democracy is timeless.

22 liberty October 21, 2008 at 12:57 pm

I think the People’e Cube probably nails it — it depends on your priors:

23 RJ October 21, 2008 at 1:47 pm
24 meter October 21, 2008 at 2:12 pm

“The best anti-libertarian writing that the modern left can come up with this these days is to lump libertarianism in with the sins of the political apparatus of the modern day Republican party. That isnt debate nor is it a refutation of ideology. Its partisan hack work at its worst.”

When you idealogues stop voting Republican and start voting Libertarian maybe you’ll get some much-deserved attention.

25 Michael Drake October 21, 2008 at 4:25 pm

Okay, first off, the question is hopelessly impressionistic and impossible to answer.

Second, liberals are obviously better satirists, though (in all fairness) only because they are funnier.

26 Anonymous October 21, 2008 at 4:49 pm

The common characteristic of left-wing ideas is that they are superfcial (“rents too high? -pass a rent control law,” “production for use, not profit,” and endless others. Since real satire requires depth, satirists, like other deep thinkers, are conservative. Jon Stewart? Just a purveyor of (superficial) gags.

27 Andy B October 21, 2008 at 5:06 pm

Voltaire? Erasmus?

28 Andrew October 21, 2008 at 6:09 pm

Maybe liberals are better comedians, partly owing to the performance aspect, which requires a dose of populism and makes satirizing the audience problematic.

But, the best performing satirists skewer all. Can liberals pay that price?

Dave Chappelle?

29 Lee A. Arnold October 21, 2008 at 9:54 pm

Well you’d have to define whether liberal and conservative are to be defined in the European or American way. Great satirists who were not American-style conservative include Twain and Jarry (I would think.)

In film, and this may be the exception to the rule, almost all the best and lasting satires have been made by liberals or progressives: Chaplin, Renoir, Bunuel, Sturges, Capra, Cukor, Wilder, Fellini, Kubrick, Frankenheimer, Altman, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols, James Brooks.

Among the last century’s playwrights, it is probably an even split. The conservatives can claim two astounding writers, Ionesco and Stoppard.

30 mocking October 22, 2008 at 12:13 am

Who can best summarize Proust (or a NT Times review), Liberals or Conservatives?

Having actually read the linked article, I would say that the original post misses the point completely and goes off on a great straw grasping mission, coming up with this wonderful bon mot of a topic. Slow news day, eh?

Ahh, the irony.

31 Superheater October 22, 2008 at 11:48 am

Time for a new keyboard…

the self-parody among conservatives on this thread who make it clear they actually don’t know what liberals think .

If you think that’s the case, perhaps its because liberal “thinking” is so disordered or clouded by emotion as to be nearly impossible to follow. Generally, as soON as somebody starts an assertion about politics, economics or some other matter that starts with “I feel”, I know they
are a liberal and that reason will never intrude on their notions.

32 Superheater October 22, 2008 at 8:55 pm

No politics isn’t an exact science-which is precisely why it should be met with skepticism and sober deliberation-the exact opposite of emotions. Feelings defy verification and are notoriously nearsighted, fickle and arbitrary.

Sure feelings can be useful. When you think about passing over a rickety bridge and don’t have the time to evaluate the structure, its probably good to check your decision with the butterflies in your stomach. On the other hand, when your acrophobia informs you that flying is less safe than driving, then its not valid.

Seventy-some years ago, Germany (and other places, such as Hyannisport) was full of people who “felt† Hitler was on the right path, restoring economic vigor and national pride. The initial ugly details of the Reich, the suppression of free speech and suspension of liberty were known, but ignored. Yet, anybody who read “Mein Kampf† could see that it was the screed of a madman who should never been anywhere near political power and who shouldn’t have been surprised when the the concentration camps and their horrors were brought to light.

33 guthrie October 23, 2008 at 12:02 pm

What about, and I realize this might be polarizing, Rush Limbaugh? Sure, he’s an apologist, but whith his ‘updates’ on sacred liberal cows such as environmentalism, homelessness, feminism, et al, he strikes the left exactly where the left aims for on the right… those who hold tightly to extreme beliefs then act accordingly (like spiking lumber to protest logging), or, conversely, those who declare their positions publicly, then do the opposite (like declaring a concern for the environment, then opposing an off-shore wind farm due to unsightliness).

Humor and satire come from similar places. Both seek to lower the status of that which is ‘held up’ and to raise the status of that which is ‘base’ or ‘low’. Satire tends to require language, wheras all humor needs is a slapstick to the ass, or a bananna peel.

34 Erik October 24, 2008 at 10:53 am

Byron! BYRON!

And Thomas Moore, too–seriously underrated as a satirist.

35 guthrie October 28, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Sandy, you must be an improviser!

‘Playing’ low doesn’t mean you can’t mock or deflate others. Back in the day Chaplin and innumerable clowns who worked for Keystone made the ‘low man bringing others low’ their bread and butter.

These days Michael Moore, Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart are all examples of liberal folk who have no problem deflating and mocking those who they don’t agree with or like. Moore will take a low status and tear down, while Maher takes a high status and pushes down. Stewart is the most flexable of this group of three, alternating high and low… this is probably what makes him more watchable then the other two…

P. J. O’Rourke is one example of a conservative who’s learned the secret to being low and then lowering others… I’m not sure if I can think of others, b/c as you’ve noted, conservative folk tend to try and position themselves as high status.

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