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• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

October 08, 2008

How Satire Has Improved Since 1970

Here But Not Here is a memoir by Lillian Ross about her love affair with William Shawn, the famous editor of the New Yorker from 1952-1987. Ross writes that there was only one time during Shawn's tenure when the publisher tried to interfere with the magazine's content.

Was it hard hitting journalism that made the publisher so nervous? Perhaps Seymour Hersh's famous 1972 series about My Lai?

No, it was satire:

The New Yorker would not keep quiet about Vietnam, no matter how many people, including advertisers, complained...

Once, and only once, the publisher, Peter Fleischmann, came up from the business floor...To Bill's astonishment and anger, Mr. Fleischmann asked him not to publish something. It was 1970. The "something" was the artist James Stevenson's satirical spread on Spiro Agnew and the Nixon administration. Bill told Mr. Fleischmann he was going to go ahead and publish the spread...

Mr. Fleischmann told Bill he thought the magazine was becoming too much of a "political journal."

It's too bad Lorne Michaels wasn't in charge of the New Yorker during the Nixon administration. He would have run real satire, about how all of America's problems at the time were the fault of women, gay men, African-Americans and Jews.

(The Stevenson spread, which seems as though it could just as easily be about Vice President Palin, is below the fold.)

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at October 8, 2008 11:25 AM

The Stevenson stuff is all right, but pretty tame.
Sort of like college humor of the mid-Sixties. Funny and forgetable.
The really important question is: was it Fleischmann (1st mention) or Fleishman (2nd mention)?

Posted by: donescobar at October 8, 2008 01:11 PM

Don, you're righter than you know--much of The New Yorker's original template came from college humor magazines (and one of Ross' major gigs was as editor of Judge). And the illustrator, James Stevenson, is an alum of The Yale Record, where Jon and I also toiled. But Record pieces of the late Sixties were much more incisive (and much more graphically proficient) than this, thanks to a guy named Trudeau.

What strikes me about this piece is how utterly tame it is in the context of its time--not just in comparison to college humor mags, but also to The Realist and National Lampoon and Esquire. Even MAD, ostensibly for kids, was much fiercer than this. This is college humor stuff from the late '40s, when Jim Stevenson was at Yale. Pre-Playboy, pre-MAD.

Out of all the above, MAD was the closest to SNL in its absurd contortions in the name of "balance." In MAD's eyes, Vietnam was wrong, but the hippies had B.O. But MAD knew which flaw was big and which was small.

I can't bring myself to watch the sketch Jon posted, but I think what I find most troubling about SNL's editorial judgment is how it distorts the idea that "everyone's fair game, and all people have flaws," to "everyone's flaws are equal." That suggests a level of either cravenness or sloppy incompetence that makes me genuinely angry.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at October 8, 2008 01:57 PM

Mike, I agree. College humor, most often written for the staff of respective magazines (Harvard Lampoon, Cornell Widow...) turned very dark in the early Seventies, but then in the Eighties reached for and attained mainstream and Bob Hope-like tameness--not offending anyone but tossing cute little "insults" at everyone. In short, no bite at all and no judgment about who was worthy to be bitten. Don Rickles and the National Lampoon, along with Letterman, became the norm on campuses that joined the Reagan Revolution with zest. The campus today is as much popular culture as most everything else.
You can assign them Kant or Camus, but they forget about either as soon as the paper is handed in and the exam written. They are Seinfeld in a Brooks Brothers suit.

Posted by: donescobar at October 8, 2008 02:10 PM

George Trow and Chris Cerf were really the first HarvLamp editors to bring pop culture to the mag, setting the table for Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, who National-ized it. By the time Jim Downey, who wrote the piece that Mike refuses to watch (sound instinct there), came along, that whole sensibility was moving toward showbiz, esp once Downey joined SNL in early '77. He was the first HarvLamper to write for the show, opening the door to the deluge that followed, Simon Rich being the most recent example. Hmmm. Wonder how he got into Harvard, the New Yorker and on SNL?

Posted by: Dennis Perrin at October 8, 2008 02:29 PM

So what do you make of Trow's "Within the Context of No Context" and his second book, a wistful memoir about the disappearance of a piece of America--intellectual and academic life among the literary elites in NY and NE in the Fifties and early Sixties?
Also, are we talking about "mass culture" when we say "popular culture?" I think so, but it's a distinction that has abandoned. I suspect it is because popular culture gave up the ghost around the 1980s. Look, for example at Greenwich Village and how what used to be called Off-Off Broadway has shrunk to a teensy joke. But what those little theaters did, once, was "pupular" among GW types and kindred spirits in NYC and outside, too. No more.

Posted by: donescobar at October 8, 2008 03:03 PM

Trow's somber, wistful takes on his lost past came later in his career. At Harvard, he helped open up the musty, reserved Lampoon Castle, playing Motown (i.e. "Negro") records and the like. Both he and Cerf told me that they were seen as wild guys, esp compared to the generations before them. It was they who first pop cultured the Lamp. Someone would've eventually. Inevitable.

Posted by: Dennis Perrin at October 8, 2008 05:16 PM

Ok, the posting equating SNL to the Nazis has been sticking in my craw since I read it.

So Jonathan, you are against humor that offends now? Or just humor that offends you? You are offended because the right wing is not criticized enough? There was nothing in that sketch that justified comparing them to Nazis. Nothing.

Say what you want about the crummy humor of SNL, but that sketch seems pretty accurate to me. (aside from the obvious stupidity at the end).

(No, I never bash extreme conservatism here, but why would I do that? I agree that the Right is probably more responsible for current events, but why preach to the choir? And in my opinion, the most damage came from the progressive policies that the Right has exploited.)

It all boils down to realizing that Socialism is evil on a national level. It is like I tell my mom often, "Just because you love someone, it doesn't give you free reign to do whatever you want to them." Socialism (contemporary liberalism, progressivism, don't evade my argument with labels) aims to do just that. Now that Socialist policies come back to bite the country in the ass, you get butt hurt when someone mentions it.

In a properly functioning republic, socialism would never grow beyond the family level of government, but the local level would probably be ok too. Now, in our society, the family structure has been mostly destroyed. (That is, unless you are a Rothschild or a Bush.) So you want to make the whole country into a Socialist paradise? Have you ever read a history book?

They fooled our grandparents into allowing everything we have come to by exciting them about populism (Democracy! Bah!) and progressivism in the early 1900's. By creating a few generations of civics ignorant Americans, of which you progressives are only the latest, they were able to transform our society into something that is only meant to enrich those rich money-lending Jews that you are so passionately defending!

And you can't see past a funny accent!

Posted by: tim at October 8, 2008 05:22 PM

please for the 8 quadrillionth time -- it is "rein" (think of riding a horse) not "reign" (think of a king's term on a throne).

thank you.

Posted by: karen marie at October 8, 2008 05:53 PM

The Castle was always a club, and even after Trow et al made it more pop, most undergrads didn't read it or find it all that funny. Exceptions were the parody issues of magazines (Cosmo was good) and the stunts (fake Yale Daily News issue saying JFK + Jackie would attend H-Y game in New Haven) as well as pranks Lampoon and Crimson pulled on each other. Very insy-poo.
And yet, next to that there was also an intensity, intellectual--not just social--in the air then, producing a kind of brittle humor (outside the Lampoon) and stance missing today.
Trow was a very odd duck (as is "Within...")--combining his Exeter/Harvard pedigree with the copy of Kaufman's book on Existentialism he carried with him everywhere.
Not the worst mix, first allowing him into the Castle and then to become its "Negro." No such mix in Cambridge today.
Was it inevitable, as you say? Probably. But what has replaced the mood on campus? The mood from outside the Ivy walls. The campus is not different from any other place. And that was not the intention of our liberal arts colleges, at least for periods in our history.
A few years ago I had lunch with the leaders of the Harvard takeover to get janitors a "living wage." The kids said to me that the overwhelming majority of their fellow students didn't care.
Or, didn't mind as long as tuition didn't go up.
Welcome to the corner of Wall Street and Main Street.

Posted by: donescobar at October 8, 2008 06:13 PM

FROM 1776 TO NOW the only law ever written to benefit the masses (and not all of them) is THE U.S. CONSTITUTION, everything else eventually benefits the rich elite. If U&I catch a benefit along the way its just chance.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at October 8, 2008 06:17 PM

that sketch seems pretty accurate to me

Well, that's your problem right there.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 8, 2008 06:22 PM

If I have any problem at all, it's that I'm too objective about the Left and its objectives.

What wasn't accurate? The part with the Democrats licking Soro's boots about he is better than us all? That seems accurate to me. Was it the part about it being retarded to force banks to give any worthless dirtbag a loan? All those people losing their houses because they were felt to believe they had a right to a house. (or to health care for that matter.)

I don't think you have any argument other than your emotional response to what you thought was anti-semitism (and which I don't even see.)

Should I be offended by the pokes at the President's intellegence? I was always made fun of for being a dumb pollock.

Perhaps it was the Democrats pandering to the privileged white people? That is insightful social commentary to my (admittedly stupid and polish) eyes.

Posted by: tim at October 8, 2008 08:15 PM

Don, I think you might be interested in the work I've been doing with the students at The Yale Record. Doubtless most kids at Yale, Harvard, or anywhere else--don't care about much. But some do, and out of those, there are a few with a knack of expressing themselves in an entertaining way.

What I and other Record alums try to do is get these students to think analytically about comedy, theirs and others, so that they're making jokes with intentionality, jokes that express who they are and what they believe. The fact that we can have this discussion about Downey's sketch suggests that he wasn't rigorous enough in his work; he shouldn't want us to be thinking about Der Sturmer--assuming that he isn't a poisonous toad. Never having met him, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say it was a flaw in construction, not malevolent intent.

The process of learning how to make comedy that says what you want it to say, in the way you want to say it--which is a lot more fun than I'm making it sound--naturally leads to introspection and personal growth. It's the opposite of PC, by the way. Intentional comedy isn't necessarily popular or sanitized; but you can defend it better, because you haven't done anything without thinking it through. And if you make a mistake, it's an honest mistake, not some bullshit boilerplate. "Banks were forced to give any worthless dirtbag a loan" is an attitude that only works if the "dirtbags" aren't people just like you and me. Jim Downey gets sloppy because he's spent his entire adult life in one writer's room or another, looking down at all the ants in Rockefeller Plaza. He may be a comic genius, but even if he is, that narrow a range of experience is crippling.

Jon thinks I'm crazy, and I sure am, but I'd love to see a student-produced college humor magazine at every decent-sized school in the country.
There's something almost biological about the determination of students to lambast authority. This impulse--fleeting in some, permanent in others--can be harnessed to create more humane, more thoughtful, more skeptical people--and have fun in the bargain. That's the theory, at least.

If this instinct isn't present, it's being repressed, usually by vague hopes of being cut in on a sweet deal. Yale and places like it are the epicenter of the Establishment, where the status quo is transmitted from generation to generation; I have a romantic hope that investing in the right students at the right time, in the right way, can make a difference, if not to the Establishment, then at least to the individuals. And if it works in New Haven, where ads are scarce and the incentive to sell out omnipresent, I'm hoping to bring it to other campuses as well--especially ones full of kids that see themselves as the ants, not just the man judging from a great height.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at October 8, 2008 10:45 PM


I'm glad you've read Ayn Rand. Now for the kicker: it's easy to create scenarios to fit your preconceived notions when you're writing FICTION. Doing the same when writing economics treatises is much harder.

Oh, and health care is a right, by it's prerequisite standing regarding the three fundamental, universal rights enumerated in the DoI.

I don't think you have any argument other than your emotional response to what you thought was anti-semitism (and which I don't even see.)

I think you're right. There certainly isn't any historical precedent for blaming wealthy European Jews, leftists, and non-whites for an economic collapse.

Should I be offended by the pokes at the President's intellegence?

Making fun of the mentally deficient is off limits, unless they graduate from an ivy league university and end up responsible for directing the activities of millions of employees and trillions of dollars. Then I think it's probably not only OK, but your patriotic duty to poke at them for being unable to remember to chew before swallowing.

I was always made fun of for being a dumb pollock.

Short of the ethnic slur, that pretty much sums it up, eh?

Posted by: James Cape at October 8, 2008 10:56 PM

"create scenarios to fit your preconceived notions ... when writing economics treatises is much harder"

Assume a can-opener...

Posted by: buermann at October 8, 2008 11:53 PM

James Cape:

Oh good Lord where to begin.

I assume you are confusing objective with Objectivism.
I don't think to convince you of your ignorance, but just for the heck of it, think about this. What about the rights of the people whose money is taken by force to pay for your health care? How can there be a right which tramples over the right of another? From the seeds of your kind ofignorance have sprung tyrannies of all flavors.
Do read some history.
I do believe health care was listed in the Universal Declaration of Rights, which I suppose is the source of this particularly stupid meme. (And also is another example of using progressivism to make people civically ignorant)

As for placing the blame for any economic crises, I don't place the blame anywhere but the American people and their ignorance. I don't think there would be central banking or national socialism if people were educated in civics (or history).

As for the president's stupidity, I believe he has you hook, line, and sinker. This economic 'crisis' is the perfect parting gift to cripple the next administration, and $700 billion of your money is a parting gift for his banking cronies.
8 or so years of war for the MMIC. A plan perfectly executed. If you think his 'stupidity' is anything but a clever mask for a nefarious bastard and his handlers, I've got some large public civic works to sell ya' at a cheap price.

As for my stupidity, oh well. Also, you can read my previous posts, and you will notice no ad hominem attacks from me. In my
opinion, they diminish your argument, and make you look less intelligent. I respect Jonathan's opinions enough that I only aim to give my perspective of what I consider the truth. I'm sure he knows that, and he appropriately ignores me when he thinks I'm being a moron. I only aim to help people see my perspective, which I feel is objective (notice the lowercase)

Posted by: tim at October 9, 2008 01:18 AM

People, for a moment, check out Tim's website, on which he announces that America is doomed because it is so dominated by leftists, and how only the Internet can save it.

It would be amusing if it were not that in the United States people who believe that are allowed to vote.

Tim is not a troll; he is mentally deficient and, like most mentally deficient people, unaware of this fact.

Posted by: MFB at October 9, 2008 04:36 AM

No matter what the circumstances, I would prefer this site not become a venue for us to call each other mentally deficient.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 9, 2008 06:25 AM

At his website Tim has a picture of a couple of soldiers, apparently in an Iraqi town, posing with a group of Iraqi schoolboys, with the caption: "The troops sweat and bleed fighting the terrifying Arab menace." I presume this is not parody.

The caption not only doesn't match the cute picture, it doesn't match reality. The U.S. invaded Iraq in order to better control its oil and the oil in the region. This was done in order to increase profits for oil companies and military contractors, not for the benefit of America's "defense" or the defense of our "democracy". It's certainly wasn't done for the benefit of the individuals who live in Iraq.

And as a veteran I can assure Tim that being in the military is a lot more "collective" than living in liberal San Francisco.

Tim further writes: "There is a division among the people of the United States. This division draws a sharp line between those who value individual liberty and those who value collectivism, coercion in the form of privacy violations, socialism called "liberalism", corporatism called "conservatism", illegal taxation, central banking, and all around exploitation of the public treasure for private benefit."

While there are some things in that paragraph that I can agree with, Tim has placed the poles of his universe in the wrong places. One can be "liberal" and respect individual liberty and privacy. For example, the ACLU. There is no society that doesn't embrace aspects of "the greater good", and this goes back to hunter gatherers. Think about it, Tim: there is no society that isn't in some way "social". It is part of human nature. I imagine Tim didn't build his own car or bicycle or weave his own clothes from fibers he harvested in the forest, and he didn't build his own roads to drive on. That Tim sees the "exploitation of the public treasure for private benefit" shows some instinct for "socialism" but he doesn't seem to see his self-contradiction. He rails against "corporatism" but doesn't see the mechanisms of corporate profit-making in the killing of people overseas and the looting of their own treasure.

There is always going to be a struggle between the individual and society. The question will always be where the line is drawn, not whether there is a line.

Tim seems to be burdened with a lot of old-fashioned reactionary talking points and seems to be compelled to fingerpoint towards traditional scapegoats. To embrace a military invasion of Iraq as some "protection" of the "individual" against the "terrifying Arab menace" is laughable.

Just saying.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at October 9, 2008 10:08 AM

Mike of Angle

Very interesting. How could we talk?

Posted by: donescobar at October 9, 2008 11:22 AM

Bob in Pacifica:

FYI the soldier in the picture is me. And the captions were meant to be sarcastic, contrasting the Commander in chief playing games with what his soldiers are doing. Poorly done I suppose.

Above all I am against American Empire and any attacks against liberalism are quoted to emphasize that the "liberalism" I am criticizing is not actually liberal in my eyes.

Posted by: tim at October 9, 2008 12:14 PM


If that's true, then you need to take some writing classes, because what you are saying here and on your website does not match up at all with what you purport to be your actual premise. You're not communicating what you actually believe very well.

Posted by: anonymouse at October 9, 2008 02:34 PM


0. I am fully aware you were using the phrase "objective" and that Rand's viewpoints are collectively labeled "Objectivism". That said, your arguments and the philosophy which underlies them may just as well be from an editorial to the Galt Gulch Journal.

1. I am more than aware of the blunt realities of the state's monopoly on force. Please do not presume to tell me about them as though you have some special insight. Thanks.

2. Your ability to accumulate capital is a direct result of that same monopoly who's powers you despise.

3. Your "right" to get rich is also less important than other peoples' right to live.

4. If you in fact have a right to live, as enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, then it logically follows that you have a right to those preconditions of life: food, clothing air, water, shelter, and health care.

5. The SNL skit in question blamed wealthy Jews, left/liberals, and non-whites for this crisis--a rhetorical stance previously adopted by such scumbags as the Nazis. Your personal views on the crisis are not relevant, as the debate was about what the skit was saying, not you.

6. I suppose the collapse of the commercial paper market is also a fraud perpetrated by Bush?

But I do not mean to make an argument; I mean to point and laugh at yours.

Posted by: James Cape at October 9, 2008 06:53 PM