The role of satire—and CBC's This is That—in a post-humorous world.
By Shannon Rupp, for the Tyee
In a world that has become so ridiculous as to render satire redundant, I think it's time to take the comedians behind CBC Radio's This is That to task for setting us up and mocking us down.
TIT's subversive wits deliver subtle "news" stories that leave their audience gasping with laughter or outraged that things have come to this. Then they feature disgruntled callers the following week.
I'm not sure this is fair to listeners. Let's face it: in a world where Christy Clark and Rob Ford can get elected, it's increasingly tough to tease out satire from stupidity. I fear exposure to TIT leaves many taxpayers feeling less than empowered. Especially if they experience a TIT snit and call in to the show, in good faith, to express their disgust over say, a French magazine ranking Canadians low on the hotness scale. Or federal employees invoking the Charter's freedom of religion rules when a coworker says "bless you" at a sneeze.
In light of the real news, I'm beginning to think it would be best if we just give satire a funeral and recognize that the world has become what I call post-humorous -- or PoHo for short.
The show first caught my attention more than a year ago with the tale of a Winnipeg department store that banned men from the lingerie department. (I'd call that less satire than wish fulfillment.) As most women can attest, there are few things as annoying as tripping over the lumpen doofuses who accompany their wives/girlfriends/rent-girls on shopping trips and then stand around, awkwardly, getting underfoot of every other woman. Some of the creepier ones hang about the changing room doors, which is no doubt the inspiration for this bit.
I appreciate skilled improv and hosts Pat Kelly and Peter Oldring, who do most of the voices, and give their collection of foolish spokespeople a realistic veneer. But the show didn't make me laugh out loud until a male friend began grousing about how tired he was of institutionalized man-hating.
He'd fallen for it in a very revealing way. The news-like structure of the interview, the reporter who sounded far more competent than most Vancouver broadcasters, and the upbeat tone of the woman enthusing over the store's man-excluding policy all had him convinced. It took a trip to the Google to persuade him that no one was denying men their right to traipse through lingerie emporiums with abandon (despite my wishes).
The following week brought a host of listeners just as perturbed as my pal to learn that there was man-banning in the shops of the nation. I collapsed in laughter all over again. Until it dawned on me that it was probably a worrisome thing that so many people were so gullible. In that moment I finally understood how Harper got elected.
Steve Pratt, director of digital music for CBC Vancouver, laughs as he admits that the show sparks plenty of cranky calls from listeners. The show's production team -- producer Chris Kelly, and hosts Pat Kelly and Oldring -- expected that eventually the audience would catch on to its Borat-like nature and the calls would dry up. It's not like they're hiding the comic intent of the show: the website announces they fabricate stories.
But apparently there are many people who don't read. Or check the sources quoted. Or even wonder if the stories bouncing around the Internet are true. And to be fair, the characters Kelly and Oldring construct are pitch perfect re-creations of the sort of politicians, PR spokesmen, and activists who claim the attention of reporters daily.
Pratt describes these characters as "confident morons," and his theory is that there's something so infuriating about them that listeners don't pause to wonder if it's true, they just give free reign to their long-simmering rage.
"Sometimes I want to use [the show] as a media literacy case study," Pratt says, emphasizing that they never set out to confuse audiences. "The shows hold a mirror up: the stories are almost believable, but there is something that is just off -- most people notice it."
Maybe. Or maybe the silent majority has just accepted resistance is futile. When I confess to Pratt that "confident moron" is the best description I've ever heard of the sort of official interviews that make up much of a reporter's work, he laughs.
I'm not joking. And therein lies the problem with the whole satire schtick. Although they never blend real world figures into their stories, TIT's world is sort of an alternate reality in which the stories are all too plausible. At TIT they sound less like comedians than visionaries.
The funny truth
Last month TIT's comic bit on an imaginary Texas town adding sugar to the water supply sparked international disgust in the Twitterverse. Pratt marvels that anyone would swallow a story about water that leaves you sticky after a shower. But in a country where corporate food producers keep trying to have ketchup declared a vegetable in school lunch programs, sugared tap water seems entirely possible to me.
Pratt suggests that the casual way people listen to radio, often catching the show midway through a story, contributes to the confusion, but I'd say that's a generous view. I suspect people are growing less skeptical due to a steady stream of nonsense delivered by politicians, marketers, and celebrities.
With silliness infecting even once dignified institutions, we're losing our ability to distinguish truth from bumf. This month the Pope takes to Twitter in the hopes of enhancing his brand and boosting his flock. No, I'm not making that up, but I understand why you might be suspicious. Despite that story moving on wires I trust, I'm still wary of @pontifex, who allegedly plans to tweet his blessings beginning Dec. 12.
The world has become so preposterous that at least once a week I read something that makes me double-check it's not the Onion. Frankly, I'm still not certain I believe a Walmart employee was trampled to death by crazed shoppers bent on snagging flat-screen TVs at 2008's Black Friday. As one of my editors used to say: if a story is too good to be true, it's not. The too perfect details on that one scream send-up to me and I keep waiting to hear about a Wag the Dog kind of scheme.
Watching reality's borders become increasingly hazy has left me with some sympathy for China's state newspaper, which recently fell for the Onion story declaring North Korea's chubby, moon-faced leader Kim Jung-un 2012's Sexiest Man Alive. They published a 55-page online photo spread celebrating his win, which caused a flurry of giggles around the digital free world. Although I'm not sure that a culture that invented the Sexiest Man Alive award for real should be so smug.
Still, the Communist Party's action photos of Kim are hi-larious and the Onion was gleeful, claiming the People's Daily as "one of our many fine Communist subsidiaries."
To be fair, there's not much sport in pranking the Chinese. You just can't expect a nation that invented the term "politically correct" to have any sense of the absurd. They've been post-humorous for decades.
But it illustrates the flaw underpinning the TIT formula and the reason satire is dead -- or at very least, on life support. It's a PoHo world, and you just can't invent anything more ridiculous than the truth. Oh sure, TIT's wits are still hilarious in an old-fashioned kind of way. But only to an ever-shrinking pool of people who still read and think and are likely to develop the self-awareness that breeds a sense of humour. I'm pretty certain the growing ranks of mummies desperate to be yummy, social media gurus, and business guys who celebrate Ayn Rand don't get their jokes. Or any jokes. If they did they wouldn't keep tempting the rest of us to the futility of giving satire a try.
This article was originally published by The Tyee, and has been re-printed here with permission.