The Death of Satire

Once the smartest form of comedy, satire has turned into fake news and dumbed-down clickbait. From Colbert to The Onion, the tide is going out.


How did satire get so stupid?

Not long ago, satire reigned as the highest form of comedy. It could shake political regimes, and spur social change. But in the Internet age, satire mostly subsists as fake news stories served up as clickbait on social networks.

Meanwhile our greatest living satirists are retiring or retrenching. Stephen Colbert, the most committed satirist of the last decade, is changing careers, abandoning the finely-honed persona of The Colbert Report for a talk-show job. Jon Stewart is stepping down from The Daily Show. Garrison Keillor, the closest counterpart of Mark Twain and Will Rogers in the modern day, talks about retiring next year.

David Letterman has already closed shop. Jerry Seinfeld is now hanging out with other comedians, and drinking coffee. Al Franken gave up humor for the U.S. Senate (perhaps comedy under a different guise?). Bill Maher is still flourishing, but has markedly shifted his approach from wisecracks to political analysis and commentary. Nowadays you are more likely to hear him exchanging views with professors and journalists, than gags with stand-up comedians.

Our most famous satirical songwriter, Tom Lehrer, is still alive, but he hasn’t given us a new song in ages—and has even gone on record declaring that satire is “obsolete.” The best work from Woody Allen and Tom Wolfe is decades old. Saturday Night Live struggles on, but with only a fraction of the cultural impact it once exerted.

And it’s been a tough time for satirical magazines. The terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo has had a chilling effect on the medium. But it hardly takes guns and ammo to shut down once prominent satirical periodicals. Just ask the fans who remember the glory days of National Lampoon (died in 1998), Spy magazine (died in 1998), The Realist (died in 2001), Punch (died in 2002), and others of their breed.

Will new young masters of satire rise to take their place? The emergence of Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham suggests biting satire can still flourish. But I suspect that most comedians nowadays are looking to be less edgy, not more so. And satire needs to be edgy to survive, otherwise it collapses into mere parody, a much lesser form of humor. Jimmy Fallon, for example, is skilled at parody, but has little taste for satire—perhaps a reflection of the changed tastes of today’s TV viewers.

The comedy routine going viral even as I write is a video of Bill Hader and Jimmy Fallon spitting coffee, chocolate pudding, and yogurt on each other for almost 10 minutes. This is the formula for successful late-night TV comedy in the present day: an absurd or ridiculous clip that can make the rounds on YouTube the next day.

Comedy has changed. Movie studios nowadays downplay satire in favor of goofball humor. When did this start? Perhaps with Jim Carrey back in the ’90s. Carrey came and (mostly) went, but his “dumb and dumber” breed of comedy persists. Even smart, biting comedians changed their approach in the aftermath. Eddie Murphy went from edgy to silly, and never came back. And I applaud the success of Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Bill Hader, and their cohorts, but nobody will every mistake them for Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl.

Face it, audiences today are easily offended by satire—and the younger members of the audience (coveted by the entertainment industry) have the thinnest skins of all. What a surprising turnaround. Just a few years ago, parents wanted to censor comedians, but young people had open minds. Nowadays the parents are tolerant but their children demand trigger warnings!

George Carlin once challenged establishment taboos with his daring routine on “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” All those words are now on television. But what modern-day Carlin would dare do a similar routine on the seven—or perhaps seventy or seven hundred—things you can’t say on a college campus?

Given this situation, who can blame movie studios for bankrolling goofball comedies, while avoiding controversial satires? Even if they somehow manage to avoid offending touchy youngsters, they might run afoul of North Korea or some terrorist group. Just ask the folks at Sony if they plan to do a sequel to The Interview.

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Meanwhile, the epicenter of satire has shifted to the Internet, and its best-known source is The Onion. The Onion was founded by students at the University of Wisconsin as a print periodical in 1988, but didn’t discover its true destiny until it expanded on to the Internet in 1996. Today The Onion is a media powerhouse and the most popular source of satirical humor on the web.

The Onion has enjoyed a good run. And even today it occasionally scores a bull’s-eye with its barbs. But much of its content now seems tired, even banal. The lead headline on the site right now is “Frustrated Man Doesn’t Know What Else He Can Do to Get Cat Purring.” You can compare that with Lenny Bruce or George Carlin and draw your own conclusions. But here’s my verdict: When the history of modern satire is written, The Onion will rank a couple of steps below Mad magazine.

You can only push the “fake news” concept so far before it turns into a stale formula. And the field is getting more crowded. Fake news is everywhere on the web, as numerous sites as others emulate the success of The Onion. We now have Evening Harold, CityWorldNews, The Beaverton, National Report, and many other satirical websites vying for clicks and links. We have specialized sites now, such as Reductress, which specializes in “fake women’s news.” The Unreal Times boasts that it is India’s favorite satire website. The Civilian publishes satirical articles about New Zealand. That Oregon Life specializes in satirical stories about the Beaver State.

Even highbrow publications, such as The New Yorker, are now imitating The Onion—a surprising turn of events given the extraordinary homegrown tradition of comic writing associated with that magazine. Does a periodical that once featured James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker, and Woody Allen really need to imitate clickbait websites?

With the shift to the web, the subjects of satire have been downgraded. Satirists once targeted the powerful and the famous. But now a growing number of satirical websites focus their barbs on dumb tabloid news—taking subjects that are silly to begin with, and constructing parodies that make them seem sillier.

Here are some recent headlines from web “satire” sites:

Women Arrested For Biting off Pit Bull’s TesticlesThis Man Proves Any Shirt is ReversibleAre Spiders the New Super Food?Woman Names Her Daughter After SuperstorePresident Obama Advocates Eating Dogs in July 4th Address

The ClickHole site, launched by the people behind The Onion, focuses entirely on satirizing the most birdbrained web content. It creates clickbait by parodying clickbait. What a change from the days when a brave satirist would take on totalitarian rulers and establishment dogmas.

“Kennedy didn’t beat Nixon. Satire beat Nixon,” Chris Rock reminds us. But in the current day, a satirist is more likely to target Upworthy or The National Enquirer. Instead of taking on people who make the news, satire increasingly finds easy laughs in mimicking those who report on the news—and usually the least sophisticated journalists are the target of these barbs.

You won’t see much resemblance between these corny write-ups and the powerful satires of the past. Aristophanes created satire so influential that Plato accused him of contributing to the trial and death of Socrates. Daniel Defoe was pilloried and imprisoned for his satire. Jonathan Swift scored devastating points against British imperialism with satire. Lenny Bruce was willing to spend years embroiled in legal problems rather than tone down his satire.

And today? We have gone from the glories of Juvenal to the merely juvenile. In our metrics-driven world, satire websites succeed by maximizing clicks. And the best way of doing this is by deceiving web surfers. Make the reader believe, if only for a few seconds, that the story is real news, not fake news.

The practice of deception is now so ingrained in the mindset of Internet-based satirists, that a website exists solely to differentiate between fake and real journalism. If you encounter a dubious news story, you can go to—just plug in the link and learn whether it is legit or phony.

But it’s getting more and more difficult to tell them apart. The now standard response to any ridiculous real story is: “Are you sure this isn’t from The Onion?” This reaction sums up the place of satire in the current day. The purveyors of modern-day satire try to make every day into April Fools’ Day, into an occasion for tricking people with some barely plausible tall tale.

But there’s a good reason why April Fools’ Day only happens once per year. By perpetuating this distribution of bogus news into a daily affair, the surprise factor is lessened, and what might otherwise be diverting becomes tedious.

Such is the state of satire in the present day—and, strange to say, it deserves itself to be satirized. But for that to happen, the satirists would need to turn a critical eye on their own efforts. Maybe they ought to consider doing just that.