Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Death of Satire

Right now I'm re-reading Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, and feeling slightly disappointed. When I read it the first time a little over ten years ago, I was dazzled by its daring comic grotesques, but now the dread of modern life and apocalyptic "airborne toxic events" seem very dated.

One passage in particular stood out. The main character's wife is reading a list of ridiculous predictions from psychics in a National Enquirer–type magazine. They involve Bigfoot, UFOs, the ghost of Elvis, and so on. Then there's this one:
Members of an air-crash cult will hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into the White House in an act of blind devotion to their mysterious and reclusive leader, known only as Uncle Bob.
Of course, DeLillo wasn't alone in predicting such a thing, but it was still strange to see what was once a ludicrously far-fetched joke transformed by the passage of time into a sad piece of history. However, the best part of 20 years had passed between DeLillo writing the passage in the early 1980s and the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, which seems like a reasonable interval between comedy and tragedy.

The gap between reality and satire seems much smaller now, and it's increasingly hard to make comedy that is funnier or more extreme than what we see actually happening. I'm thinking of the fact that in 2003, Arnold Schwarzeneggger managed to release Terminator 3 and be elected Governer of California in the space of just three months. Or the way that it's often hard to tell the fake Bushisms from the real ones.

It's not just in politics. Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker stopped writing his brilliantly caustic spoof listings magazine TV Go Home because he was finding it increasingly hard to top the ridiculousness of reality TV -- which is perhaps no surprise considering he started writing it in 1999, the same year a UK garden makeover show travelled to South Africa to transform Nelson Mandela's herbaceous borders.

And, with the recent US election, satire was cast aside almost completely as the news itself became comedy. A trend started by the likes of the Daily Show reached its natural conclusion when Tina Fey won near-universal praise for her comic portrayal of Sarah Palin in a Saturday Night Live sketch which quoted the vice-presidential candidate verbatim.

Now the election is over, hopes are high that the incoming administration is going to have a positive effect on many aspects of life, both here in the US and further afield. However, I'm not sure that the appointment of a black man named Barack Hussein Obama as president is going to do much to help the struggling world of satire.

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