In the comedic Crapsack World depicted by Stewart and the rest, there’s no point in rooting for one figure or side, or getting particularly attached to any of them, or even getting involved at all — and that’s a terrifying thought to those who believe the ills of society are best addressed by doing everything possible to ensure the election of enlightened leaders who will tear down the old order and build a new one in its place.
But by flourishing and triumphing everywhere, satire may have somehow proven itself increasingly irrelevant. In the introduction to Spy: The Funny Years, a combination of anthology and the story of the magazine’s rise and fall, Spy’s founding editors, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, write:
If you worked at Spy, you can’t help seeing its memes everywhere these days, in print, on the Internet, on television. And Spy’s editorial spores and sensibility live on not only in obvious heirs like The Onion and The Daily Show but in publications from Entertainment Weekly to Maxim to Time and the [New York] Times itself, and on cable channels like VH1 and Nickelodeon and shows like Punk’d.
As we’re seeing with Senator Marco Rubio and his now-famous water bottle, political figures don’t get much time on the national scene before some quirk is identified and used to define them. (Paul Ryan got the same drinks-a-lot-of-water joke during Saturday Night Live’s debate parody.) The prominence bar for being satire-worthy seems to sink lower each year; the conservative contributor to MSNBC, S. E. Cupp, warranted an impression on the program earlier this year. Any conservative politics junkie knows and likes Cupp, but how many SNL viewers knew who she was? The fact that the actress tried to portray Cupp as a ditz with nothing to say suggests that perhaps even the SNL writers weren’t that familiar with her.
When everybody’s getting mocked, there’s not much consequence to the mockery. The audience becomes conditioned to just letting the microwave-worthy instant satire wash over them and moving on to the next topic, because they intuitively sense that the figure wasn’t chosen for any particular trait that deserves the mockery.
The older notion of satire as a tool for addressing some wrongdoing or social ill may be falling apart before us. We don’t hold many of our national political or cultural leaders in high regard, and yet somehow they keep on with business as usual. Some of the egos attracted to political power have proven that no amount of ridicule can deter them.
New Jersey senator Bob Menendez just keeps his head down and hopes the jokes about underage prostitution will go away. Idaho senator Larry Craig rescinded his resignation and served out his term after the humiliating details of his arrest for l ewd conduct in an airport restroom. Then there’s former congressman Anthony Weiner, talking up a political comeback. Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who left the state to meet his mistress in Argentina, is attempting a comeback now. Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer has hosted two talk shows since his embarrassing revelations that he used the services of prostitutes. How can you satirize figures who are already unbelievably ridiculous?
Google indicates that it can find 476,000 online uses of the phrase, “Life imitates the Onion.” Note that in the exaggerated, ludicrous, comedic alternative universe depicted by the Onion, there is no Onion.
In a real world that increasingly resembles the Onion’s satires, the Onion is superfluous.