But It's Satire!

Or, The Stephen Colbert Defense

Yesterday, I covered Dell’s gross miscalculation on entertainment for one of their big company meetings. A reminder:

He continued the streak that day. Vejlo live-tweeted the event and Christensen’s comments as they unfolded: for example, his opening line, roughly translated as, “There are almost no girls in this room, and I am happy. Why are you here at all?” “Gender quotas are still fairly healthy in your industry,” he went on.

On innovation, the emcee who directly followed Michael Dell on-stage commented that “All the great inventions are from men; we can thank women for the rolling pin.” And he ended his comments by saying IT was the last bastion for men, and that they should let the mantra “shut up, b–ch” hiss out from between their teeth.

I’m happy to say it didn’t happen here, but in the comments on BoingBoing, on Dell’s apology on Google+, and on Reddit (interestingly, in the technology subreddit but not the business subreddit, if that tells you anything) people have shown up desperate for us to understand that this is an act. It’s satire, as we should all be able to tell. Really, we’d know this if we didn’t react to every little thing, like being told to get out of the room because it belongs to the boys.

Since this claim that something is satire and, thus, not objectionable keeps coming up, let’s take a good look at it, shall we? Yes. Yes, we shall.

What Is Satire?

It would probably surprise many, if not most, of those who say, “Oh, stop reacting; it’s just satire”, to know that the very purpose of satire is to provoke a reaction. Satire =/= comedy. Satire is a form of communication intended to demonstrate a needed change in an entity or a society. It does that through humor sometimes, but the point of that humor is to invoke shame or anger or some other emotion that will prompt those in a position to make a change to do so.

That means that if you’re telling someone who is reacting emotionally to satire that they’re missing the point, you are precisely 100% wrong.

If you want to claim that some piece of comedy is satire, you have to pay attention to the targets of the humor, the butts of the joke. Remember, satire should be aimed squarely at those who can create change. If it’s aimed anywhere else, it may have been intended as satire, but the would-be satirist in question either thinks the problem is with the group targeted or is really, really bad at satire.

To put this in concrete terms, a competent satirist who makes jokes about institutional sexism in which women are the punchline is doing the functional equivalent of telling women to change their behavior so they stop getting raped.

You’re Not Stephen Colbert

Satire, like any form of social or political commentary, requires…well, competence. If you want to change the world, you’re messing with lives other than your own. (If you don’t, what you’re doing is not satire.) That means you–or the idol you’re jumping up and down to defend–have an extra burden to get things right. If you don’t, you should expect criticism exactly the same way you would if you were to have a crappy op ed published in the newspaper.

The reason we're still talking about this is that it took work and courage. If you were this good, you wouldn't be sitting here reading this blog.

When it comes to satire, it’s very easy to screw things up. Satire is much harder than simple criticism, because it doesn’t directly call out the faults it’s meant to engage. Satire does this by allegory, which may be misunderstood. Satire does this by sarcasm, which may not be clear. Satire does this by exaggeration, which may be dismissed as unrealistic. Satire does this by parody, which may be indistinguishable from what it’s attempting to criticize.

This shit is hard.

That’s why we don’t have loads of satirists out there. That’s why we treasure the good ones and exalt the great ones.

Stephen Colbert, who is always a touchstone in these silencing discussions, is one of the great ones. If you’re telling me that so-and-so was doing what Colbert was, you’re telling me one of two things. Either you’re telling me that this person was doing an amazing job at something very difficult indeed, or you’re telling me you don’t appreciate what Colbert actually does. Chances are very good that if we’re having this discussion at all, the first is not the case.

Colbert walks a very fine line in pretending to be someone odious. There are a couple of things he does that make it work. First, he breaks character a lot. He cracks up with Jon Stewart or with his better guests. He keeps his audience involved in fundraisers and the like. He says things that are not just ridiculous, which is in character, but actually absurd, which is not if you understand that the character is the people he mocks.

In addition to that, Colbert works very closely with his audience. They are incredibly close to him, and he reacts to their reactions–in and out of character–frequently. That means he knows when he’s going too far as it happens, and he frequently concedes that, yes, what he’s doing is over the top. If he misjudges a bit or a crowd, he adjusts on the fly.

If you or your “comedic” idol aren’t doing all that, the last thing you want to do in one of these situations is call attention to the differences between what you’re doing and what Colbert would do. Because Colbert would get it right. Usually.

Who’s Your Audience? 

Eskeptrical Engineer said it perfectly in a comment on yesterday’s post.

This kind of thing just makes me feel tired. No matter how hard I work, no matter how good I get, being both a woman and an engineer makes me somebody’s punchline.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I almost never watch Stephen Colbert. I like comedy. I like satire. I watch The Daily Show. I just don’t watch Colbert.

Why? Because it’s too damned close to the stuff I see day in and day out that makes me want to tear my hair out. The fact that he doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all. It’s just more.

Part of effective communication, whether it’s satirical comedy or not, is knowing your audience. Would a good comedian repeat a joke their audience has heard from every second grader who just discovered joke books? Of course not.

Why, then, is there any less consideration–professional, not personal, consideration–for making sure that the stuff you’re calling a joke isn’t the same old crap that parts of your audience hear day in and day out? Misogynistic nonsense isn’t rare. If it were, no one would waste time satirizing it to a general audience. So what makes it so pressing to satirize it in this instance, assuming that’s is, in fact, what you’re doing? What is it about a company meeting or a conference on a different topic that begs the entertainment to introduce political topics?

Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. Nothing is demanding that someone hired to lighten the mood change the topic to something we’d be hesitant to bring up over dinner with extended family, much less with people with whom we only having working relationships.

Even if it were, even if sexism were considered such a pressing problem in some group that addressing it had to be part of the entertainment, that would be absolutely no excuse for creating a satire that made all the victimized people unhappy and all the problem people laugh. A satire that afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable is no satire at all. It’s just the stupid old status quo.

And the next time someone tries to tell you that you should stop getting upset over this sort of thing because it’s just satire, tell them they have no idea what satire is.

But It's Satire!

27 thoughts on “But It's Satire!

  1. 1

    In my experience, the best satire is in deadly earnest. Jonathan Swift was a master of this: read A Modest Proposal for an example.

    But I agree: the point of satire is to ridicule those are in power, not ridicule the powerless. The point of satire is to shame the people able to make change into making change.

  2. 2

    Last year, Seth McFarlane was given the “Humanist of the Year” award by the Harvard Humanist Chaplains Association. Throughout the entire process, I was fervent with my anger about the decision. Family Guy (and by extension his other programs) is virulently transphobic, homophobic, misogynistic, and racist. Everyone arguing with me about it said the same exact thing, “but it’s satire!”

  3. 4

    Gregory, Swift was not invisibly in character. He did a number of things that set him apart from the people he was satirizing. For example, he didn’t mince words in his proposal. He also included a level of detail that would have been unusual. It’s harder to see how he signalled that he wasn’t serious from our non-contemporaneous perspective, but he did signal it.

  4. 6

    I’ll let you in on a little secret: I almost never watch Stephen Colbert. I like comedy. I like satire. I watch The Daily Show. I just don’t watch Colbert.

    Why? Because it’s too damned close to the stuff I see day in and day out that makes me want to tear my hair out. The fact that he doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all. It’s just more.

    This! Oh, so much this…..

    I loved Colbert when he was on The Daily Show (his ‘This Week in God’ segments always cracked me up). But when he got his own show, I just couldn’t watch that much of the same thing. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was living in KS at the time, and I wasn’t just exposed to it through the news, I was inundated with it in my day to day life.

  5. 7

    Why? Because it’s too damned close to the stuff I see day in and day out that makes me want to tear my hair out. The fact that he doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all. It’s just more.

    Used to do the same thing, pre-correspondents’ dinner. He doesn’t cut nearly as close to home for me anymore, and is more clearly doing comedy.

    /tangentially related comment

  6. 8

    I’ll let you in on a little secret: I almost never watch Stephen Colbert. I like comedy. I like satire. I watch The Daily Show. I just don’t watch Colbert.

    Ah, I thought I was the only one. And my reasons are the same.

    Anthony Grayling was on Colbert last year to talk about his new book. I tried to explain to him both what it is and what its cultural clout is, but it felt tricky, and when I watched it…well it just didn’t look like any fun from his point of view. He took it amiably, but…I felt especially unconvinced by the whole setup. As you say: it was way too much like the real thing.

  7. 9

    Oh, I love Stephen Colbert, though I understand the objection. And in fact, I give a lot more leeway for comedy (of both the legitimately satirical and non-satirical stripes) to get away with saying shit that I would consider hopelessly offensive in other contexts. For me at least, it’s important to be able to laugh at even the most awful things.

    But even still, you’ve pretty much got it right here: 1) Satire is not a blanket excuse which you can hide behind no matter what, and 2) know your audience.

    In regards that second point, we don’t even necessarily have to go so far as to say that this comedy routine would have been unacceptable in any context. (We might say that anyway, and from the quoted bits in the media I’d lean in that direction, but my point is we don’t have to.) The fact that this was a corporate event, where people might feel social and career pressure to attend, puts this waaaaaay beyond the pale. Even for someone like me, where I am willing to tolerate some pretty out of bounds stuff (I daresay, more than most readers of this site) when it comes to comedy, the context in which this took place just completely eliminates the possibility of that being acceptable.

  8. 10

    I’m the same way with Colbert. I can recognize the comedic talent and the skill he pulls the satire off with, but it’s too close to home as the Right edges ever further into self-parody. In the political climate of a decade ago I could have enjoyed it, but these days I watch Colbert and wonder if there is some Teapublican at home scribbling notes.

  9. 11

    First, people seem to be unaware of punching up and punching down.
    Good satirists punch up.
    If your punchline goes down, you’Re doing it wrong.

    Second, they seem o be ignorant of the idea of “in character”. People like Colbert create a character, one they can step out of, one that is distinguishable from their self.

    But yeah, “it’s just a joke” is the asshole defense. You can say whatever shit you want. If somebody is hurt or upset, say “it’s a joke”. This automatically means that:
    -the other person is humorless (a serious character flaw)
    -has no reason to be upset (aka gaslighting)
    -is now being unfair to you!
    And you have immediately reversed the situation.

  10. 12

    It didn’t occur to me until now why I have a hard time watching Colbert, but you nailed it perfectly. That’s exactly why I don’t watch him on a regular basis. When I do watch him, I usually enjoy him, but I can only take him in small doses and I usually immediately watch a Daily Show episode right after in order to “cleanse my palate.”

  11. 13

    As a liberal atheist in Kansas, I really appreciate what Colbert does, but I just can’t watch it. I get enough regurgitated Limbaugh quotes, or overhearing people listening to Beck and Limbaugh’s shows, or Fox News in every venue that has a TV (luckily my doctor and dentist don’t, but almost every restaurant does). I get enough of the real deal. But I’m still glad he does it, and I’m glad he has an audience, because that keeps him in a place to help bring about change.

  12. 14

    This entire post is so spot on. Satire is incredibly hard to do well, and satire that’s well-done leaves the right people laughing. So many people just think that you can say anything offensive and cover it up with “It’s satire” without realizing that satire has a purpose. Colbert is normally pointing out how ridiculous right-wing ideology is when taken to its logical conclusion. I have no idea what the point of this as satire would be. If he’s trying to make fun of men who don’t think women should be in engineering, he did nothing to tip his hand in that direction.

    By the way, for how much jerks like this guy make it harder to be a woman in STEM, communities like this one make it easier.

  13. 15

    It’s a little like the Galileo Gambit, where you say that the authorities say you’re wrong but you’re actually right for some reason. Trouble is, you’re not Galileo. Nor Stephen Colbert.

    (Now I have a picture in my head of Stephen Colbert Baroque fashion looking through an early Renaissance telescope…)

  14. 16


    -the other person is humorless (a serious character flaw)

    Oh, I hate this one so much. Not just because it is used to defend indefensible “humor”, but also for the presumption that the speaker has the “correct” sense of humor and any aberration from it is a flaw. It could just as easily be true that the speaker has a poor sense of humor and for that reason laughs at stupid shit.

  15. 18

    The type of situation where somebody keeps stacking lies on top of each other and you start dreading the whole thing crashing down in horrible embarrassment, that is how I feel watching Colbert.

  16. 20

    In no particular order:

    * RE: watching Colbert. People keep referring me to episodes of “Big Bang Theory.” I keep explaining to them that watching it is actually painful to me, as in more than about three minutes and I’m going to do something violent. Because I know and love people on the autistic spectrum, and making them the butt of jokes is not something I can tolerate.

    * Lynn Conway: one of the few gender-related episodes my profession didn’t screw up beyond recognition.

    * Eskeptrical Engineer: I wish I could apologize for all the XY jerks in the profession. Alas, I can only apologize for the ones I’ve been. And that’s already a lot of apology. Please accept them.

    * The original incident: My first reaction was to think, “He says, ‘leave the room’ and the few women there make a point by doing just that.” And then I think, “yeah, like that’s a smart professional move.” and spent some time banging my head on my desk. Free speech doesn’t exist in a feudal system.

  17. 21

    I don’t understand why ‘It’s satire’ should even be a defense. If what someone does has a negative consequence (hurting someone, inciting others to unjust violence, bullying) whatever the intent, they deserve to be chastised for it. At a minimum it needs to be pointed out so that they know they failed and that in the future they should do something else.

    It’s so basic.

  18. 23

    Took me more than a year to “get ” Colbert. I think Jon Stewart is wonderful, but what Colbert does every night is hard, very hard. That he so often pulls it off is amazing.

  19. 24


    If what someone does has a negative consequence (hurting someone, inciting others to unjust violence, bullying) whatever the intent, they deserve to be chastised for it.

    You mean like hurting people by criticizing their religious beliefs? Or inadvertently discussing the various aspects of 9/11 in front of someone who lost a loved one in the attacks? I catch your drift, but I don’t think it’s quite as basic as you assert.

  20. 25

    Hmm, I used to not like watching Colbert for very similar reasons. I started watching pretty regularly a couple years ago and very much enjoying the show; I’m not sure if it was his act that changed or my perspective.

  21. 26

    yes, when i first started watching Colbert, shortly after it first came out, i’m embarrassed to admit he “Poe”d me, even though i had already seen plenty of him on “The Daily Show”(and even on “Win Ben Stein’s Money”). :$ but even after i realized he was a satirist(which didn’t take long), it was a hard sell. i eventually started watching it regularly, however, and as someone else in the thread pointed out, now it’s a lot more obviously satire.

    Ophelia @ 8: yes, the interviews are the hardest parts for me to watch, and for precisely the reason you gave.

    Timid Atheist @ 12: i have the same “palate-cleansing” technique when i go on the web to watch those shows: i watch them in reverse order, Colbert first and Stewart second. vivé l’internette(or whatever)! 😛

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