Harry Shearer on The Dangerous Business of Satire

Satirists occupy a perilous position—to skewer dogma and cant, and to antagonize the establishment while needing its protection.

01.08.15 12:30 AM ET

On learning of Wednesday’s terrorist massacre at the Paris offices of a satirical magazine, Harry Shearer waited a decent interval—20 minutes—before tweeting a joke about it: “This Just Not In™: FBI ‘almost certain’ Paris attack on satirical magazine caused by North Korea.”

Like the victims of the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo—a left-leaning journal that has relentlessly lampooned not only Islam and other faiths, but also officials of the French government—Shearer is a professional satirist (as well as the voice of Mr. Burns and a multiplicity of characters on The Simpsons) who hosts a weekly radio program, Le Show, that punctures the powerful in pop culture and politics.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, Shearer’s dark tweet—a reference to the Obama administration’s debatable conclusion about who’s to blame for the recent cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment—had garnered 11 re-tweets, 23 favorites, “and I only got one ‘too soon,’ ” he told the Daily Beast.

Yet, Shearer argued, any satirist worth his or her salt doesn’t hesitate to flout good taste, offend the powers that be, or even mock religious dogma. It’s an occupation that has become increasingly perilous in recent years with the rise of Islamic extremists who answer perceived insults with lethal violence.

“One of the troublesome things for a satirist,” Shearer said, “is that you’re asking a political establishment that is often your victim to come to your aid, and to the aid of your cause. As far as I can tell, this magazine spent as much time making fun of French politicians as it did of Muslims or Islam. That’s a rough one. It’s much easier to come to the support of journalists who are less transgressive. Satirists are often the target of choice because they are isolated and standing by themselves.”

As the growing number of incidents confirm, the risk of bodily harm or death is conspicuously real for any satirist who dares to caricature the Prophet Muhammad or other aspects of Islam—to say nothing of the threat to representatives of free societies where such barbed humor is commonplace.

“The easiest thing to say in these circumstances is the knee-jerk ‘This is horrible,’ and I don’t mean to say that that’s not true,” Shearer said. “The more difficult stuff is more nuanced. As far as we know, the prohibition against the depiction of Muhammad inside Islam was an attempt to get rid of the idolatry of graven images. But there’s no reason that prohibition should apply to people who aren’t inside the religion and who aren’t depicting the Prophet for those reasons. But that’s harder to say. It’s more subtle, and it risks angering the extremists. To borrow an old right-wing talking point, these people are angry no matter what we do. And Muslim friends of mine would say they’re not real Muslims.”

Shearer dismissed fellow satirist Bill Maher’s frequent claims that Muslims in general aren’t sufficiently disapproving of violent measures ostensibly taken to defend Islam, such as Wednesday’s bloody mayhem.

“Oh, maybe I missed when he [Maher] called all those silent Protestants who didn’t denounce the guys who killed abortion doctors back in the day,” Shearer said sarcastically about the HBO star. “Were there a lot of liberal Christians who said, ‘This is not real Christianity’? I don’t remember that. I don’t think liberal or moderate Christians seem to feel that they’re under the obligation to rush to the microphones and separate themselves [from religion-inspired violence] as way of defending the legitimacy of their religion. I don’t think that’s standard practice. But Bill does single out Muslims for the obligation to separate themselves from the crazies in their midst… We know all religions have crazies in them.”

More and more, it’s lamentably clear, satirists are caught in the crosshairs.

“Real satirists find themselves at the throats of the establishment all the time if they’re doing their job right,” Shearer said. “And it’s the job of the establishment to suck it up and say, ‘even so, this [violence] is wrong.’ I think the response of the French government so far has been pretty appropriate in that regard. They have stepped up.”

On the other hand, Shearer said he’s unimpressed by the various expressions by President Obama and other top U.S. officials on Wednesday defending the core values of freedom of speech and freedom of the press that the pious assassins in France apparently want to snuff out.

“They are hypocritical on this very issue,” Shearer said about Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and other public officials. “They still have a record of the largest number of prosecutions” of any administration past or present for leaks of classified material to journalists, he added.

“We just had this paroxysm of righteous indignation [from the White House and elsewhere] at the Sony situation, which of course turns out not to be what we thought it was. So this comes at an odd time. Is George Clooney going to come out with another petition about freedom of speech for people who really exercise it day in and day out?—not just when it’s a Christmas release.” (Shearer was referring to The Interview, the silly Seth Rogen spoof depicting the assassination of Kim Jong Un.)

With Charlie Hebdo, “you really have a clean case here,” Shearer said. “This is a magazine, a group of humans who exist not to sell hardware and software on the side. This is a group of humans who exist mainly if not exclusively to put out a satirical magazine that is not basically commercial; it’s a satirical enterprise that happens to exist in a commercial market. The sad fact is there is no one else to defend them. Satirists are reliant ultimately on the very establishment they mock. That’s the great irony of their situation.”