Joke's on whom?

Letters to the Boston editor, August 22, 2008
By BOSTON PHOENIX LETTERS  |  August 20, 2008

Harvey Silverglate’s well-researched and written article “Parody Flunks Out," about the now-legendary New Yorker Obama cover, is the sort of thing that should be saved, as indeed I have, for occasions when people who may be offended by humor need to be advised to calm down. Or, as we used to say at WEEI-FM whenever someone called to complain, “Fuck ’em if he can’t take a joke.”

I think, however, that there is an important asterisk that needs to be added to Harvey’s essay on Barry Blitt’s illustration: the cover didn’t work. I’m not saying it was in bad taste. Okay, maybe it was, but so what? The real problem is that it was ineffective as satire. As they say in comedy circles, “If you gotta explain it, the joke’s no good.”

Without wasting 1000 words to deconstruct a single picture, I’ll offer that satire only works if the reasonable observer understands what’s being satirized. That’s why the Vanity Fair parody of the New Yorker cover was so brilliant: it didn’t need to be explained. The New Yorker cover, by the magazine’s own admission, satirized not the Obamas but people’s misconceptions about them.

Satire is generally a lie that tells a greater truth. The cover was a lie based upon a lie, and you had to send out for truth. One level too many. As Chris Miller of the National Lampoon once said, “It isn’t enough for a joke to be in bad taste — it also has to be funny.”

I recall in, I think, 1975, there was a similar to-do at the Village Voice. Jules Feiffer ran a strip in which an Archie Bunker–type swilled from a can of beer and lamented, “I can’t say kike any more. I can’t say fag any more. About the only thing I can say any more is nigger.” Predictably, the Voice’s letters column went crazy. Some people correctly grokked that Feiffer was satirizing how even bigoted society had begun to change but had remained essentially racist. But most letter-writers damned the Voice for publishing the “N” word, period, saying that doing so legitimized its acceptance. Yet Feiffer did what Blitt did not, which was put the cause and effect in the same place.

Just as one needs a separate volume today to understand the now-outdated satirical references in Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, or The Wizard of Oz, so one needed to have the New Yorker cover explained. You couldn’t get it even if you tried. (Didn’t Sam Goldwyn once say that subtlety is fine as long as it’s obvious?) Instead, everybody has wasted a lot of ink and time reviewing the messenger instead of the message. Um, including me.

Nat Segaloff
Los Angeles, California

I would like to express my appreciation for your comprehensive coverage of China’s human-rights record on the eve of the Olympics. Even as athletes are breaking world records in the swimming competitions, the government of China has worked hard to obscure its treatment of dissenting voices, including the arrest of family members of children who died in the recent earthquake. Many of those parents who were arrested were trying to document the alleged shoddy construction of school buildings, which may have contributed to the tragedy. I would also like to remind your readers that Mr. Shi Tao is serving a 10-year-sentence for “divulging state secrets” based on his efforts as an Internet activist. Yahoo helped to identify him to Chinese officials. The policing of the Internet to punish the expression of political dissent is a worrisome trend in China, and, regrettably, elsewhere.

Joshua Rubenstein
Northeast Regional Director
Amnesty International USA

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