How Effective a Weapon Is Satire Against Tyranny?

Making fun of the powerful is the key to all great comedy, but does it really have an impact? How effective is satire, as a weapon against tyranny? 

“Humor is the weapon of the weak,” argues Israeli satirist Etgar Keret in The Last Laugh, a feature documentary about humor and social taboos after the Holocaust. His formulation is not a criticism, but rather an assertion that comedy is one of the few arms the downtrodden have to wield against their oppressors.

“We make jokes about our bosses, we make jokes about death. When I was in the army we made jokes about our commanders," Keret says. "Our commanders didn’t need to make jokes about us—they could just order us to do whatever they wanted us to do.”

Actor and producer Mel Brooks ascribes to a philosophy he calls “revenge through ridicule," which targets Nazi Germany and the hatemongers it continues to inspire long after Hitler's defeat.

“By making fun of the Nazis, you’re taking away their power,” says comedian Susie Essman.

Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is remembered as a withering assault on Hitler, but its director has said he would not have made the film had he known of the Final Solution. Theodor Adorno famously said, "there can be no poetry after Auschwitz." Yet decades later, almost no topic appears to be off-limits for today’s comics.

Whether the comedy in question achieves any kind of political or social goal is a separate question. Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone, the documentary's main subject, recalls approaching her father with her fears about the new German chancellor and his anti-Semitic tirades.

“My father told me, ‘Don’t listen to that comedian. Don’t you see he looks like Charlie Chaplin? He’ll be out of power in no time.’ Well, my father was wrong.”

Woody Allen deals with that same dilemma in a famous bit from his 1980 film Manhattan. At a black-tie cocktail party, Allen's character Isaac interrupts the conversation (led by “Saturday Night Live” writer and performer Michael O’Donoghue) to address an upcoming neo-Nazi march in New Jersey.

“We should go down there, get some guys together, you know, get some bricks and baseball bats, and really explain things to them,” Isaac suggests. The following dialogue ensues:

Party Guest: There was this devastating satirical piece on that in the op-ed page of the Times. It was devastating.

Isaac: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really get right to the point.

Party Guest #2: Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.

Isaac: No, physical force is always better with Nazis. It’s hard to satirize a guy in shiny boots.

As Allen suggests, one of the prime dangers of satire is that it simply soothes those with similar sensibilities without effecting social change. Jon Stewart's stellar work as the host of "The Daily Show," for example, couldn't save us from the horrors of the Bush administration. Instead, the program became a touchstone for left-leaning Americans seeking reassurance and sanity.

Americans, especially young ones, began turning to comedy shows as their prime source of information on current events, as parodies became more trustworthy and informative than “real” news. Did Stewart have any kind of appreciable effect on the politics of that era, or was he preaching to the choir? Worse, is it possible, as some have argued, that his brand of comedy actually hindered real political engagement in the U.S.?

Watch the trailer for  The Last Laugh:

We could watch Jon Stewart before bedtime and feel a twinge of relief that someone saw the same maddening absurdities we did. What most people did not do, after watching an episode of "The Daily Show," was take to the streets.

In his book Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany, Rudolph Herzog pointedly declares that political jokes were not a form of resistance for the German people, but a release valve for a terrorized populace—a mechanism the Nazis themselves allowed. "(The humor) didn’t translate into anti-Nazi protests. Those people who let off a bit of steam with a few jokes didn’t take to the streets or otherwise challenge the Nazi leadership… 'Whispered jokes' were a surrogate for, not a manifestation of, social conscience and political courage.”

In The Last Laugh, comedy writer/director Larry Charles compares this phenomenon to Slavoj Zizek’s maxim that “Resistance is surrender.” Zizek’s argument is that a certain amount of dissent—comedic and otherwise—is built into the system, tolerated by the powers-that-be in order to prevent real resistance from coalescing. That mechanism also allows the authorities to deflect charges of censorship or suppression of free speech and other civil rights.

Clearly, it is not usually the satirist’s intent to stymie political action. Quite the contrary. The failure of a formidable progressive movement to arise and oppose the Tea Party, for example, was likely a function of complacency during the Obama era, and hardly the fault of the comedic truth-tellers. Would it have been better if political comedians had not been on the air?

Today, Bill Maher, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and other political late-night hosts seem to be inspiring, rather than defusing, mass opposition to the new GOP regime. The issue then may be less the comedians than the times in which they work.

Comedians can raise political consciousness, but they cannot replace it. Perhaps Jon Stewart’s most effective political moment arrived in a 2004 appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire,” when he took hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to task for lowering the standards of political discourse in this country. It wasn't remotely funny, but the moment remains fixed in the minds of many Americans even now. Perhaps it achieved its impact precisely because Jon Stewart was an entertainer.

Comedian and director David Steinberg, who is featured in The Last Laugh, echoed these concerns in an interview with AlterNet. He reflected specifically on a Vietnam-era debate about whether he and his fellow anti-war comedians were having any effect. The consensus was bleak. “Look at what satire did to stop the Nazis,” Steinberg recalled thinking. “Absolutely nothing.”

But satire can have an impact, and Steinberg is a prime example. In the late 1960s, at the height of the protest movement, Steinberg was a regular guest on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” a top-rated show on CBS that regularly spoofed the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Few television shows were doing anything like it, let alone on primetime.

The network repeatedly warned the Smothers to back off. Tommy Smothers refused and CBS canceled the show, despite its ratings—a measure of how nervous the network had grown, and likely, how much pressure it was under from the White House.

The event that triggered the final ax was a standup bit by Steinberg, a faux sermon in which he mocked the Bible. Lyndon Johnson was savvy enough to know not to take the bait. He actually wrote to the Smothers Brothers, saying, “It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation to be the target of clever satirists. You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humor in our lives.” Even if he was being merely tactical, he recognized that becoming outraged would only make him look bad. Richard Nixon was not so foward-thinking, nor as easily amused.

The crackdown of a major TV network on a comedy show suggests that satire can have an effect. Did it end the Vietnam War by itself? Of course not. But it was emblematic of the gathering groundswell of a public opposition to the federal government.

In the present political climate, it’s important to remember that satire, comedy and ridicule have an effect. It’s hard to dispute the idea that Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin helped in some small way to keep the Republican ticket out of the White House by putting her in the (unflattering) spotlight week after week, often using her own words verbatim.

The current occupant of the White House is an even riper target, precisely because he is so attuned to what comedians are saying about him. That presents a rare opportunity for humor to have an outsized effect. But for comedians in trying times such as these, the secret may be to keep their elbows sharp and aim them where they count.

Virtually any art form can be a source of resistance to oppression, and comedy is no different. But if humor has been called “the Jewish novocaine,” we have to be on guard against comedy that serves only as a distraction to numb us to dire political threats, rather than a tonic to attack them at the root.

As Herzog notes, the German people often told jokes about Goering being fat. Such jokes were almost gentle, and—in modern parlance—normalizing. They were the sort of jokes that would be made about any public figure; they had no teeth. That kind of comedy may have provided a brief thrill in mocking the Nazi leadership, but it didn’t really have any broader effect; in fact, it may have done harm by channeling energy that might otherwise have fed real political opposition. (The Nazis’ very tolerance of routine jokes suggests how little risk they posed to the regime.)

What most Germans did not do was use humor to attack the very legitimacy of the Nazi regime. Maybe that is asking too much, as the consequences of that kind of satire could be very dire indeed. The question then is, who gets the last laugh?

The Last Laugh is now playing in select cities

Watch an exclusive clip from  The Last Laugh:

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