Good Satire Doesn’t Matter
Let’s get one thing straight: Adam McKay’s 2021 Netflix original movie Don’t Look Up is funny. A satirical take on how climate change is treated by the media, government, private businesses, and American public, the movie does have some issues — it is a 2 hour and 18 minute long comedy, for one — but one thing McKay has proven since his days as a writer on Saturday Night Live is that he knows how to write very, very funny satire. And yet, despite McKay doing the same thing he’s done to acclaim for 25 years, Don’t Look Up is certified rotten on Rotten Tomatoes with 55%. Why? Has McKay lost his fastball since directing Anchorman 2, the 2013 skewering of cable news and his last pure comedy? I don’t think so. I believe the issue is that, since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the expectations critics and the public put on satire have changed and that these new expectations would not have been met by the even the best satires in modern history.
When Trump was elected, comedians simply lost their ability to be funny. Trump was funnier than them, which made satirizing him impossible — see SNL’s “hamberders” cold open, a hastily thrown together sketch in which the final punchline consists of Pete Davison repeating something the President had already said, or Sarah Cooper’s TikTok videos in which she does not even attempt a Trump impression or joke, opting instead to lip sync to recordings of Trump and that’s about it. Instead, many comedians decided it was time to get very serious, like Stephen Colbert, who gave a monologue following Trump’s attempts to subvert the 2020 election in which he wore all black in mourning, nearly cried, and did not attempt a joke for nearly 9 minutes. Or the typically apolitical Jimmy Kimmel, who (no doubt sincerely, and informed by his son’s battle with heart issues) gave a tearful plea in 2017 urging Congress not to repeal Obamacare. And while reception to all of these varied (SNL and Cooper’s special received mixed reviews at best and both Colbert and Kimmel were widely praised) I do find that there an interesting trend: none of them are funny, and the ones that don’t try to be are more well received than those that do. As the American public has become more and more politically divided, consumers are less interested in laughing at comedy and more interested in agreeing with comedians who they believe are earnestly speaking truth to power — it is more important for comedy to be politically effective than funny. And that is not a good metric to judge the quality of satire.
Widely regarded as one of the best examples of satire is Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal.” Forgive me for committing the greatest sin in comedy by explaining why something is funny, but in the essay Swift executes satire at it’s purest: present a very real problem (in this case, poverty in Ireland), subvert expectations with an outlandish solution (the poor Irish can sell their children to the rich Protestants to be cooked and eaten), and lastly, make clear the author’s true beliefs by ironically rejecting them (“Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five
shillings a pound”). Swift’s essay is funny. It’s funny to say with a straight face that selling Irish children to the British to be eaten will solve poverty in Ireland. What Swift’s essay was not, however, is politically effective. The poverty that began with the invasion of Great Britain in 1649 continued through the Great Potato Famine in 1845 and, despite British control of Irish farmland, the British government refused to intervene, leading to over one million dead Irish, nearly halving the Island’s population. It was not until 1921 that part of Ireland seceded and formed its own country and Northern Ireland remains under British control to this day. If Swift’s goal was economic stability for the Irish people, he failed miserably. If it was to entertain, however, his essay was a success.
There are examples like this throughout modern American media; Stanley Kubrick’s Academy Award Best Picture nominee Dr. Strangelove, for example, was described by late Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert as “arguably the best political satire of the century.” Released in 1964, Kubrick would have to wait until 27 years for the Cold War to end with the fall of the Soviet Union and today, 22 years after Kubrick’s death and despite the film’s best efforts, the United States remains the world’s top nuclear power. Another example is perhaps the most direct successor to Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and was hosted by the previously mentioned Stephen Colbert prior to his earnest and unfunny interpretation of The Late Show. In his 2005–2014 Comedy Central program The Colbert Report, Colbert satirized personality driven right-wing political talk shows, specifically Bill O’Reilly’s O’Reilly Factor, in what was, for my money, the funniest satire of my lifetime. Colbert used Swift’s technique of heavy-handed irony, paired it with an unmatchable commitment to the “Stephen Colbert” character, and rode it to 46 Emmy nominations, 10 Emmy wins, and 2 Peabody Awards. The political impact of the show, however, was nil. While Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012, that followed the standard trend for presidents: one party gets two terms, then the next party gets two terms. And while that trend continued with Trump’s election (and stopped with the very slim election of Joe Biden despite Trump presiding over a pandemic), Trump’s win was more than just party trends. Trump embodied everything Colbert was mocking: a bumbling, un-informed, stubborn, but charismatic buffoon. It didn’t matter how biting and funny The Colbert Report was — and it was both — the avowed liberal, real Stephen Colbert saw the hand-picked successor to Barack Obama embarrassed by a real-life version of the Stephen Colbert character. However, The Colbert Report remains an extremely funny show.
One aspect of McKay’s Don’t Look Up that is being derided by critics was utilized to great acclaim in “A Modest Proposal,” Dr. Strangelove, The Colbert Report, and other great satirical works like Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film RoboCop: their use of extremely thick irony. Just as easily as one could say about Don’t Look Up “we get it, climate change is bad,” one could also say “we get it, poverty, nuclear proliferation, Fox News, and corporate greed are bad.” But what happens when if the satirist decides to go the route of subtlety? I find that then the satirist is critiqued for the subtlety — sometimes fairly, in the case of The New Yorker writer Andy Borowitz, and sometimes unfairly, in the case of the aforementioned Paul Verhoeven and his 1997 film Starship Troopers. Borowitz, who publishes daily under the column The Borowitz Report, combines the two least desirable traits a satirist could ask for: subtle and unfunny. Take, for example, Borowitz’s headline from December 15th of this year:
Get it? The joke here is the absurdity that Sean Hannity might send a text to a guy, that he has actually texted with, about CNN’s ratings, which both of them actually care about. And, while this may be excused as just very dry humor by someone that regularly reads The New Yorker, there is precedent for it being so subtle and unfunny that it is mistaken for real news. Where I differ from The Washington Post is in their questioning of whether or not this type of satire is “okay.” People should be allowed to write whatever they want. What I do think, however, is that this type of satire should be discouraged, because the deliberate subtlety causes it to be unfunny, and satire is supposed to be, above all else, funny. Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, on the other hand, was unfairly criticized as a result of its perceived subtlety. Sort of based on a 1959 Robert Heinlein book by the same name (which Verhoeven never finished reading), Starship Troopers was a satire of right-wing militarism in a similar style to RoboCop’s skewering of corporate greed the decade prior. However, this satire was lost on contemporary critics. In a review that recognizes that some of the film can be funny, TIME Magazine film critic Richard Schickel concluded his review thusly: “…maybe the filmmakers are so lost in their slambang visual effects that they don’t give a hoot about the movie’s scariest implications.” I suspect that part of the reason the satire of the movie was lost on some is not actually due to its subtlety — it is no more or less subtle than RoboCop — but due to the subject matter and political climate of each respective film. By the time of RoboCop’s release, America was staring effects of Reganomics in the face. Corporate greed was as apparent as ever. In 1997, however, Starship Troopers was released during a relatively peaceful period of American. With the Cold War and Soviet Union in the rearview and the September 11th attacks several years in the future, an already foreign policy-averse American public was particularly uninterested in the effects of war. All that said, you don’t need me to defend Starship Troopers to you. Watch it for yourself and if you still find yourself unconvinced please read Calum Marsh’s 2013 article in The Atlantic “Starship Troopers: One of the Most Misunderstood Movies Ever” or David Roth’s 2020 The New Yorker article “How “Starship Troopers” Aligns with Our Moment of American Defeat.” Don’t Look Up seems to suffer the opposite problem of Starship Troopers: while the former is criticized for its lack of subtlety, the latter is criticized because of its perceived subtlety. However, neither movie is subtle, and they are both better for it.
This brings me to Adam McKay as a satirist. While he has been doing political satire since his time with the Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe at the now defunct iO Theater in Chicago, I am particularly interested in McKay’s work post-Saturday Night Live which can be roughly broken into two distinct categories: non-fiction dramas (The Big Short, Vice, and the upcoming Bad Blood and Winning Time) and fictional comedies (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step-Brothers, The Other Guys, Anchorman 2, the HBO series Succession which he executive produces, and Don’t Look Up). While the two released dramas are quite earnest and naked in their portrayal of the director’s political beliefs (although both are also very funny), the comedies are all satires of varying degrees of subtlety and humor. While I won’t go in depth on each as I’m approaching 1800 words, I will say that McKay’s first three comedies are far more subtle and favor broad humor. Following the financial collapse of 2008, however, I believe McKay become more interested in being clearer about the satire of his films. The credits of 2010’s The Other Guys, a buddy cop comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as two police officers investigating suspected white collar crime, featured in its credits animation and text detailing facts and statistics regarding financial crime, set to Rage Against the Machine’s cover of Bob Dylan’s class-conscious song “Maggie’s Farm.” Anchorman 2 is very explicitly deriding 24-hour cable news. It was after these two movies that McKay directed his first two dramas, The Big Short and Vice, about the financial collapse and Dick Cheney, respectively. HBO’s Succession, while subtle and very black in its humor, is a of broad amalgamation of everything McKay is interested in satirizing: those who operate the levers of power in America, whether they work in business, media, or politics, are all backstabbing idiots. The show answers the question “what if the gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia ran the world” and the answer is “it would look a lot like the world already does.”
What do all of McKay’s movies and TV shows do effectively? Why are they good satire? They accomplish what SNL, late night talk show hosts, and Sarah Cooper couldn’t during the Trump presidency: they are all funny. And Don’t Look Up is too. People criticize it for being a movie-length version of Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” video without recognizing that the benefit concert in the movie headlined by Ariana Grande is saying exactly what the audience believes: celebrity lip service does nothing. The inclusion of an in-universe big budget movie about the pending disaster shows that the movie is self-aware; they recognize their own movie is not going to solve the climate crisis. Where the movie falters in when it is at its most earnest — I am not interested in Leonardo DiCaprio performing a self-penned monologue explaining that its crazy nobody cares about the comet, I recognize that from watching the movie. What I am interested in, however, is Jonah Hill as a Don Jr/Jared Kushner hybrid referring to his mother, the president, as a smokeshow. If you want your satire to instigate real social and political change, you will be sorely disappointed in just about every satire ever made. I am happy to let my entertainment entertain me.