The year began with death, and ended with new life for the world of satire. The new life was metaphorical, but the death was all too real. On January 7, 2015, terrorists murdered 11 writers and employees of satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo after the satirical news source published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The event rocked the satirical and comedic world to the core as the Internet debated the issues of free speech and offense in the wake of the attack. Meanwhile in America, the satirical and comedic world would come to discover it was in the midst of what would be seen as the collapse of the golden age of contemporary political satire—The Colbert Report had ended, and Jon Stewart would soon announce his retirement. By the middle of February, 2015 was beginning to look like the year satire would be weathered down into something weak and unrecognizable. In June, The Daily Beast announced “The Death of Satire” with a “comedy has changed” article decrying such things as that blasted Internet with its clickbait, and those damned kids with their trigger warnings. The future of satire looked bleak for some.
But just as its greatest personas whet their biting wit on the grating world, satire sharpened its fangs and bit back. Comedy endured the free speech debate; late night television survived the shake up and brought about the rise of new perspectives from Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore, a stronger voice from Seth Meyers, and the return of Stephen Colbert; sketch comedy shows like Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer pushed boundaries and challenged the stereotypes of race and gender roles; and John Oliver solidified himself as the heir apparent to Jon Stewart’s fury. So, even as the golden age of political satire was ending with Stewart and Colbert, it is clear now that the silver age (or, possibly, new golden age) had already begun. But it had begun in a world challenged anew by the changing social sphere.
For those concerned with trigger warnings and offenses, a post-Charlie Hebdo satire is a satire that walks on egg shells. The Onion’s response to the attack, “It Sadly Unclear Whether This Article Will Put Lives At Risk,” addressed the implications of a question many comedians and think piece writers were asking after the attack: Who decides how far is too far? Comedy currently operates in a world in which every person has a voice thanks to social media, and that small voice can reverberate through the twitterverse and blogosphere until it becomes accepted or bolstered by like-minded individuals, or advocates. As a result, microaggressions and offenses are taken seriously. The question of whether or not they should be cannot be easily answered, because every aggression or offense bears its own history and context, its own reasoning, and its own response.
In the case of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the offense was made real by the response. The attackers were offended by satirical images of Muhammad and killed the satirists responsible. In the wake of the attack, many rallied around the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (French for “I am Charlie”), standing in solidarity for the right of the satirists to use their free speech to mock religion. However, three counterarguments arose to combat the hashtag. The first was that those claiming to be Charlie in solidarity were overreaching, because they could not claim to speak so freely or so boldly as the fallen satirists, who laughed in the face of danger. The second was that the satirists were too bold and should not have tempted terrorists after they had been warned before; some even went so far as to suggest that maybe the satirists deserved to be killed. The third counterargument was similar to the first, and claimed that many who shouted #JeSuisCharlie to support the murdered satirists were also those who censor free speech by championing “PC culture” and coddling microaggressions, or, in the case of some of the world leaders who marched in Paris in support, actually censor free speech through legislated censorship. There is no simple response to any of these arguments, and unfortunately, it only took a few weeks before the event was forgotten and the think pieces and hashtags moved on to the next issue. But the arguments are typical of the broader issues revolving around offense and comedy.
Last year, Chris Rock revealed that he no longer performs at colleges because young people get offended too easily. This year, Jerry Seinfeld said the same. In “The Death of Satire,” Ted Gioia laments the lost days of George Carlin, saying that young people today have “the thinnest skin of all,” essentially creating a straw man akin to what the New Yorker’s Hua Hsu calls “the imaginary college student,” which is “a perverse distillation of all the self-regard and self-absorption ascribed to what’s often called the millennial generation,” a phenomenon described by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf in “The Rise of Victimhood Culture.” It is true that many college students have called for safe spaces away from microaggressions, and it is true that many have not. It is also true that many microaggressions are deeply rooted in a history of racial or sexual oppression and should not be taken lightly, and a satirist must approach these subjects with knowledge of that history. This year, perhaps more than ever, satirists found a way to do just that as sketch shows Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer satirized racial and sexist stereotypes by using personal knowledge of the oppression inherent in those stereotypes and pushed boundaries without resorting to cheap or obvious offenses.
Key & Peele aired its final episode in 2015, but the show will endure as a staple of pop culture thanks to its vibrant characters, repeatable quotes, and most importantly, the force of its satire. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key are both of mixed race and look ethnically ambiguous, so they not only represented and challenged black and white characters, but even Hispanic and Arab stereotypes, pushing the boundaries of racial satire and exposing the folly of the American race and class systems. They did it best in sketches like “Auction Block” and “Soul Food,” and this year’s “Negrotown,” which was a perfect summary of everything they represented throughout their five season run: challenging racial and social stereotypes in the most colorful (and off-color) way.
Just as they reached their final season, Amy Schumer replaced the void, taking over as Comedy Central’s leading sketch comic as her show became a powerful force for feminist satire in its third season. With segments like “Last F**kable Day” and “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” the full episode parody that put Amy’s beauty on trial, the show challenged outdated (but still prelevant) notions of beauty and age. So, as one great satire show ended, another rose to the occasion to fill the void. That also turned out to be a theme with late night television this year.
At the end of 2014, The Colbert Report aired its last episode and it seemed that the golden age of political satire was coming to an end. In February, it definitely came to an end as Jon Stewart announced his retirement and the godfather of contemporary political satire left late night audiences wondering if things would ever be the same. Then a host of new hosts showed that things didn’t have to be the same—they could keep something of the old, while bringing something new and exciting to late night television. Larry Wilmore took over Colbert’s time slot with a show that consistently delves into race issues in a way its predecessors never could. John Oliver became known for his thorough investigative journalism and long segments devoted to a single issue that many would otherwise never discover. Trevor Noah has begun to find his footing as the new host of The Daily Show with a young and unique perspective. Stephen Colbert returned to late night as host of The Late Show with the same brilliant wit he’s always had. And perhaps the most improved satirist of the year, Seth Meyers, filled the late night void by moving his monologue behind his desk, essentially returning to the Weekend Update format that made him famous, and using his recurring “A Closer Look” segment to put his own wry smirk on Daily Show-style satire.
These sources for satire rose from the ashes just in time to ensure that the presidential election was properly mocked, and nothing could have breathed more life into the political satire arena than the Donald Trump candidacy, which has been monologue fodder since June. But Trump is his own self-parody, and satire against him has only bolstered the anger of his opposers. The most powerful satire has always been a catalyst for change, when someone exposes the emperor for wearing no clothes, so it is important to note that perhaps the most important result of satire this year was not the mockery of a bombastic candidate, but the downfall of a household name and comedy hero—at the hands of another comic.
In October 2014, a shaky video went viral showing stand-up comic Hannibal Buress calling Bill Cosby a rapist, then telling his audience to Google “Bill Cosby rape” to find out what no one was willing to talk about. Within days of the video’s release, women began coming forward with stories they were always too afraid to tell about their sexual assault at the hands of the former comedy hero. In 2015, we saw the result of that shaky video as the number of women to come forward grew to an astounding 50 and Cosby was charged with sexual assault by seven of them. All this from a stand-up comic with the balls to joke about a suppressed truth, proving that satire still has the force to change the way America views even its most beloved institutions.
If this has not been proof enough that satire is not dead, look to the internet. Ted Gioia said the internet has destroyed satire because fake news sites are too ubiquitous, The Onion sometimes chooses lighter fare over hard-hitting criticism, and Clickhole “creates clickbait by parodying clickbait,” which he says is “a change from the days when a brave satirist would take on totalitarian rulers,” as if that were an option in America, and as if the internet itself were not an important enough part of society to warrant mocking. The most damning aspect of this misguided article is that it completely ignores the internet as a whole. Gioia has apparently never browsed Reddit, Imgur, Twitter, or 4chan, where hashtag activism and the meme-ification of life have become the most swift and brutal forms of satirical subversion. On an internet where anything goes, anyone and anything is fair game, and the response is immediate. Remember Romney’s #bindersfullofwomen? That’s nothing compared to the onslaught of viral campaigns against Donald Trump this year. And if you think internet satire hasn’t had an effect on Trump, ask Tumblr users how they’ll be voting this year.
The internet has also become the most reliable source for all forms of satire, emerging and traditional, and the only place many viewers now consume satirical content. Every Monday after Last Week Tonight airs on premium cable, HBO makes John Oliver’s long segment available on YouTube where anyone can share it, then millions of users view subversive journalism about net neutrality, televangelists, and transgender rights, see the folly exposed by Oliver’s biting wit, then discuss the issues with friends and strangers in real time.
Satire is evolving, to be sure. But it’s alive and well, perhaps now more than ever.