Have you ever noticed that humor is an effective way to make a serious point? Whether you are criticizing a friend’s political point of view, convincing your significant other that they never listen to your ideas, or lampooning an entire institution or culture, nothing disarms better than humor. The armor of self-defense is shed, the guard is lowered; no amount of preaching or heavy-handed theatrics will accomplish this — in fact, such tactics will only further entrench your audience in their position of foolishness.
Satire affects how we view ourselves by gently holding up a mirror and allowing us to acknowledge our blemishes without denial or defensiveness. The premise is genius: embellish the faults of the audience to such a degree as to be preposterous, yet contain an undeniable kernel of truth that must be acknowledged. The audience feels more comfortable copping to such foolishness in this context because we can say, “Well, maybe I do that sometimes but I’m definitely not THAT bad!” The humor acts as a natural anesthetic while cutting deep to plant the kernel of truth; it’s the sugar that makes the medicine go down.
The magic of Mary
Speaking of “Mary Poppins,” a recent re-watching of the classic film revealed its satirical bent quite clearly as a criticism of misplaced priorities, where work, money and seriousness are elevated above family, love, and imagination. The notorious nanny’s work is only done once she has exposed the buffoonery of Mr. Banks. His narrow-minded ideals of success, representative of society’s, are challenged and eventually stripped away, leaving him a redemptive and sympathetic character with which the audience can identify. The film’s cartoonish satire dulls the painful truth that lurking inside all of us is a Mr. Banks. It reminds us of what can be lost as we age into serious adults. Lest you perceive the film as mere child’s play, its cultural significance cannot be overstated — it garnered thirteen Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and won five. According to Wikipedia, the film was also “selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’.”
Satire goes nuclear
An exploration into the impact of satirical movies would be remiss if Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” was not mentioned. Regarded as one of the greatest satirical movies of all time, it is no coincidence that its subject matter could not have been more serious: nuclear holocaust. Satire recognizes that when presented with a serious message or moral, most audiences will behave like a teenager being lectured by their mother. Satire instead strikes a more subversive tone, like a strung-out dope dealer dispensing wisdom to at-risk youth — we are now a much more receptive audience to that same message or moral.
“Dr. Strangelove” attempted to expose the ridiculously fast-and-loose way that the world’s nuclear weapons were maintained by asserting that a deranged military officer could alone begin a nuclear holocaust. This kernel of truth struck so close to home that “Although ‘Strangelove’ was clearly a farce…it was criticized for being implausible,” wrote Eric Schlosser of the New Yorker. “An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film ‘impossible on a dozen counts.’ A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the president’s approval: ‘Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth’.” Rather than simply ignoring the absurdity of the film’s premise, the powers-that-be instead lent the film greater credence by speaking out.
While perhaps dismissed as frivolous at the time of its release because of extreme vulgarity featuring marionettes, “Team America: World Police” is another powerfully satirical movie. The brainchild of modern-day satirists Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of the animated television show “South Park” and the wildly successful Broadway production “The Book of Mormon”), “Team America” manages to satirize with extreme irreverence the immediate post-9/11 environment by treating “Bush-era foreign policy as if it were an ’80s action movie,” observes Charles Taylor in Salon.com. The film’s effectiveness stems from its fair and balanced skewering of all belief systems and views, including even Hollywood’s left-leaning A-listers who feel qualified to expound on America’s foreign policy because of their place in pop culture. Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, as time passes the film’s importance will likely grow as its undeniable kernel of truth becomes easier to recognize and accept. The memorializing of a turning point in history will be marked with scatological jokes, sexually obscene sight gags, and creepy-looking marionettes. What better way to expose some hard truths from a tumultuous time?
Satire paves the way for self-realization without sermonizing, and our faults, blunders, and blemishes do not seem so serious if we can laugh at them. The levity frees us to more easily cast off a shroud of ignorance or denial. Satire is like a funhouse mirror, where our paunch becomes an enormous protrusion or our high forehead becomes billboard-esque. We recognize the humor and can laugh at ourselves, but deep down we are forced to recognize the mirror (or movie) is merely exaggerating what already exists.