Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Top 8 Best Examples of Modern Satire

Okay, so it makes me livid when people call things that aren't satire satire, especially when there are a fairly decent amount of modern things that deserve the name satire. Basically, the point I'm trying to make here is that saying, "GEORGE BUSH LOOKS LIKE A MONKEY DURRRRRR" isn't satire, because you could just as easily make fun of the appearance of anyone. Satire doesn't have to be political, but it has to cut to the core of the hypocricy/idiocy of its real-life target in a way such that the most frequent targets are stupid political or social viewpoints. AND NOW, the Top 8 BEST examples of modern satire. OH, one more thing: I'm defining "modern" as "in the last twenty years or so" or obviously things like Catch-22 and Tom Lehrer and Randy Newman and Strangelove (which Peter probably wouldn't put on such a list because he is terrible at realizing when Strangelove and Strangelove-related things clearly belong on lists) would be on here.

8. Mr. Show

Alright, so Mr. Show is a sketch show, which obvoiusly means that not every single sketch can be satirical. But Mr. Show picks targets and tears things down more aggressively and more frequently than any other sketch show I've ever seen, and I'd be surprised if any sketch show I haven't did it better. (Chappelle's Show might be close, but it degenerated into catchphrases a little too often.) Sure, there's a decent amount of absurdism, but when the absurdism drops out, sketches like this one hit you right in the fucking face:

That's one of the tightest, most merciless satires of capitalism I've ever seen. Awesome. And I don't even hate capitalism.

7. 30 Rock

It's awfully funny that Aaron Sorkin clearly intended his show, Studio 60, to be the intelligent commentary on the state of the television and entertainment industry, and 30 Rock, which didn't nearly stretch as far trying to be that, ended up doing it about a thousand times better. On Studio 60, the writers on the titular sketch show railed against reality TV. They also did on 30 Rock, right before all admitting that they watched it. Much smarter, much funnier.

Alec Baldwin's Jack and Tracy Morgan's Tracy should be taught in classes as almost perfectly-realized satirical characters. Baldwin's role is more obvious--the conservative, ratings-driven suit--and he is probably the most reliably hilarious part of the show, but I don't think that the brilliance of the writing for Tracy--a satirical version of self-exploiting black actors--gets as much credit as it should. Sure, there's a fair amount of wackiness in this too (most of it funny), but 30 Rock is at its core a pervasive satire of television. And the line in the most recent "Cooter," at a government building with a leaky ceiling: "No, it's not. We looked into it and it's not...I'll show you the study." That is fucking satirical gold right there. (Contrast it to South Park, which would have centered an entire episode on that joke, getting comedy out of the many similarities between the leak and other leaks and instances of government-in-denial. Which, again, makes the joke about the references, not about representing a government with the endemic problem of doing that.) 30 Rock, however, owes a ton to...

6. The Larry Sanders Show

Larry Sanders is maybe the greatest satire of the entertainment world ever created. Every celebrity who appears on the show, as themselves, is self-mocking in subtle but ruthless ways, to the point where I'm kinda surprised that people kept lining up to guest on the show. It either proves that Hollywood is pretty okay with making fun of itself, or that Hollywood doesn't realize when a team of brilliant writers (including Judd Apatow, Richard Day later of Arrested Development, Paul Simms of NewsRadio creation and now Flight of the Conchords, John Riggi now of 30 Rock...the list goes on) is savaging them. Here is the greatest news of all: every episode of Larry Sanders is currently available on YouTube. FOR FUCKING FREE. This is the greatest day of your life. Here, I'll start you off:

(Another good idea for a list: "Ways 30 Rock is indebted to Larry Sanders." Or maybe "Ways every single good comedy since Larry Sanders is indebted to Larry Sanders.")

5. Bill Hicks

Bill Hicks probably wins the award for all-time greatest satirical stand-up comedian. He was never content to make easy political jabs at an issue; he goes straight into it and talks very directly about everything that is wrong with the viewpoint of those who oppose him. "It's funny because it's true" is something often associated with observational comedy, but the best satire hits right there, too. And man was this guy funny. This is maybe the greatest takedown of fundamentalist Christianity ever done:

RIP, Bill.

4. The Onion's Our Dumb World

I know this is awfully high-up for something not that well-known and very recent, but I recently finished reading this entire thing through, and wow, does it have some of the best satirical writing I have ever seen. On nearly every country, the jokes cut straight to the most horrible and problematic stuff, and there is absolutely no apology made. A few examples:

on the map of South Africa, an "X" labeled: "Woman having consensual sex fantasy."
in the facts section on Iraq: "Leading Cause of Death: victory"
the subtitle of Germany: "Genocide-free since April 11, 1946"

I highly, highly recommend you buy this book right now. It's more relentless and probably better than America: the Book, which I loved.

3. The Thick of It

This is almost certainly the most savage serial comedy I have ever seen. It deals with the innerworkings of British government, only the main character, the Minister of Social Affairs, spends about 99% of his time making it look like his department is doing something worthwhile and 1% of the time doing something, which is usually not worthwhile. If The West Wing is essentially a show about how we all wish government were actually run, The Thick of It is a show about how we all fear it probably is run. Spot on, and hilarious. And like Larry Sanders, YouTube currently has every single episode available online, You're welcome.

2 and 1. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report

This. This ought to be the first thing anyone thinks of when they think of modern satire. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report consistently take angles on stories covered by every other comedian that cut to the basic problems and idiocy behind them. They don't sit on the sidelines and snipe easy targets, they make jokes that hurt because their targets are so deserving. There's a lot of crap made about people getting their news from The Daily Show, and I think that's basically a non-issue for several reasons:

1) The only studies I have seen are about people preferring The Daily Show to other TV news. Most people who are smart enough to enjoy The Daily Show probably do not watch TV news because TV news is awful. They read newspapers in print or online. The Daily Show isn't really that funny if you're not up on political events, so I don't really get how they assume that people get their news from it.
2) In a way, The Daily Show is not basically "worse" than most news. The difference is that most news makes the assumptions that politicians and news outlets act in a basically sensible manner, and The Daily Show assumes that they act in a nonsensical manner. If you're really cynical, you might say that means The Daily Show is at least as valid. I'm not that cynical, but I also don't think that normal news assumptions and Daily Show assumptions receive a 100/0 split.
3) The Daily Show, more than a show critical of politicians (which it also is), is very much a show generally critical of most news media. And usually what they do there is simply show montages of idiotic news media and have Jon Stewart react. That's not confusing, it's simply presenting.

Anyway, I love The Daily Show. When I said in that other list that South Park isn't that sane eye watching over the rest of the world for hypocrisy--the way it thinks of itself--well, The Daily Show is that. Almost every joke is pointed and the targets are deserving.

All of this goes again for The Colbert Report, which is perhaps framed more aggressively as a satire of Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, etc., but acutally veers off into absurdism a little more frequently.

If there is a perfect example of The Daily Show both being funny and sane when it seems like everyone else has lost it, here it is:

Okay, it's not embedding, so here you go.


Rebecca O'Malley said...

Great list. I miss Mr. Show and Larry Sanders every single day. Even when I'm supposed to be doing other things -- like laundry -- I'm actually missing Larry Sanders instead.

The Smoker said...

No South Park? Really?! Is this because you've been offended by an episode or two and so you modified your definition of satire specifically so you could "honestly" exclude it?

Seriously, I was expecting Colbert and South Park to top the list - especially considering the decline in the quality of the Daily Show for the last couple years (even taking into account that you posted this in '08).

And 30 Rock?! Mildly biting, at best. Bill Hicks?! Hilarious, cutting, and insightful - but I wouldn't call his act "satire" anymore than George Carlin, Chris Rock, or Richard Pryor. Exposing the absurdity of a truly absurd belief/activity is not the same as taking a slightly silly/absurd belief/activity to the extreme for the sake of mocking it, the latter of which I've always understood to be a necessary component of satire.

Ah, well, you did get The Onion: Our Dumb World, and Colbert in there...

Anonymous said...

yeah if this was all time satire it would be Monty Python (movies or flying circus either way), by far, in the first place spot.

Anonymous said...

South Park is not included because it is a parody. A satire has an actual meaning behind it. South Park makes fun of things purely to make fun of things. Hence, it is a parody, not a satire.

Anonymous said...

South Park IS a satire and probably a greater example than all of these. Also the Simpsons in its prime contained some really sharp satire, but for me this list is missing the king of modern satire, Chris Morris, who probably isn't even known very well in the US. His shows Brass Eye and The Day Today are unparalleled in this field.

Anonymous said...

parody is a type of satire..

Anonymous said...

Parody is a KIND of satire.

Thon said...

This is the best one I've seen recently:


Morteza said...

I was looking for a list of shows like "Larry Sanders" and landed here, to find some other satirical TV shows I've enjoyed including "The Thick of It" and I'm happy to know there are some other options for my taste as you have suggested.

As an Iranian who detests TV in general -but yet trying to find the very few TV shows worth watching- I find it unfair that "Reno 911!" isn't mentioned in most of such lists. I've watched it several times and still wonder how it could survive for several seasons on TV. It's a brilliant piece of work in my opinion, but again my knowledge from English/American TV shows is very limited and maybe it's not as good as I think.

Thanks a lot for putting this list together :-)

Anonymous said...

If the Colbert Report is satire, then South Park definitely is.

It's just the author is offended by South Park.

Matt T. Dalldorf said...

This is my favorite comment: "Bill Hicks?! Hilarious, cutting, and insightful - but I wouldn't call his act "satire" anymore than (lists three other satirists)"

Anonymous said...

To my own disappointment I only discovered George Carlin after his death but on the upside I did come across his material and watched as much as is available, brilliant, just brilliant, insightfull, intelligent and soooo to the point, spoting all the BS in the media, politics ect.