During the 2016 presidential election, Saturday Night Live’s political skits became a regular feature on the Sunday morning news. Since Election Day SNL has continued to satirize Donald Trump, who in turn slams the show on Twitter. Though their media are new, both parties are continuing a tradition that is thousands of years old, and whose tropes and rules have not changed all that much.
Ralph Rosen, Vartan Gregorian Professor of the Humanities and professor and undergraduate chair in the Department of Classical Studies, is an authority on satire who has for many years thought about the continuities between ancient and modern satire. He’s even written a comparative study of the Roman poet Juvenal and rapper Eminem. We talked to him about the double life of the satirist.
Susan Ahlborn: What qualifies as satire?
Ralph Rosen: I would say the problem with satire is that is people think they know it when they see it. Satire presents itself as something that is straightforward, truthful, and honest, but it's actually very complicated because it depends on a highly specific relationship that the satirist has with the audience.
My short definition of satire is that it’s a form of performance—literary or dramatic, for example—in which satirists present themselves as aggrieved by individuals, classes of people, or institutions; take a stance of indignation and self-righteousness; and respond with ridicule, mockery, and invective against their targets. It's a genre of complaint. Satirists like to imagine themselves as oppressed by the world and by people or institutions that are more powerful than themselves. They say, here we are, angry and powerless, so we have to fight back against this. But they always need to claim to be morally in the right: Without that, no one in their audience would have much reason to be sympathetic to their complaining.
SA: How does the relationship between the satirist and his or her audience affect the work?
RR: With satire there are really two audiences. If I'm attacking politicians and saying that something has to change, there’s a kind of fiction that they’re supposed to be listening to me and hopefully will be persuaded of their evil ways. Of course, they almost never are, and as a satirist, I don't actually want them to be, because then I'd be out of a job!
Your ‘true’ audience is the people who are listening to you as a performer. This is one thing I just love about satire. Satire claims to be this agent of change, but in fact the people you're trying to please are already for the most part on your side.
SA: Does the satirist necessarily have to disagree with his target? Kate McKinnon, who portrayed Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live, actually hoped Clinton would win.
RR: Chris Wallace of Fox News once spent 20 minutes trying to get Jon Stewart to admit that Comedy Central and The Daily Show had a liberal agenda and ideology they were trying to promote. Stewart twisted and turned and denied that they did. Over and over he says, I may be liberal but we're doing comedy first, and everything I see has to be put into a kind of comedy ‘machine.’
What he’s saying is that it’s a performance. The first thing he has to answer to is his audience, to make it funny. If that's actually the most important thing, as comedians always say, that does call into question the idea that you're there just to speak truth and tell it like it is, because you're going to be the first one to alter and distort things to get a good laugh.
SA: How have politicians reacted through the years to being satirized? Is Trump different?
RR: Satirical works back to antiquity often include the idea that what they're doing is dangerous because they may anger people in power. It's like saying, you can go write your love poetry, but what I'm doing is really dangerous. In a way this makes satire more risky and more appealing. Sometimes satirists do get into to serious trouble, as we know all too well from recent events, and invariably someone will claim that the satirists’ comic goals were misunderstood—as if that is supposed to make the their mockery less threatening to targets. So the constant threat of danger had become thematized very early on, even if they were working in contexts where actual risks were low. Lenny Bruce, a comedian in the 1950s and ‘60s, is a really interesting example because he did get into trouble and was banned. In his last years, he also blurred the line between satire and preaching, by lecturing his audiences on constitutional law.
People often think, oh, satire, anything goes, but it actually doesn't. People get in trouble for different reasons at different times, but every period, and society, I think, has its limits and its pressure points. There's a kind of cultural rule book that people are supposed to follow and when it gets violated, all hell can break loose and sometimes does.
SA: What role does satire serve?
RR: You'll get different opinions about this, and I'm a little bit in the minority. I think whether it actually does anything beyond the entertainment—which I think is a good thing—is questionable. Of course everything depends on what one means by ‘does’ here. There's a famous example. Aristophanes is a famous Greek political satirist. In 424 B.C., he wrote the play The Knights, which is a violent, vitriolic rant against Cleon, an Athenian demagogue whose portrayal in the play bears a remarkable resemblance to Donald Trump. But the next year the Athenians voted Cleon in as general.
That doesn't prove that all satire is ineffective, of course, but it's a great example of how people seemed to like the show, but it didn't make a huge difference on actual policy. People seem to be able to take their comedy, go out of the comedy club, figuratively speaking, turn off the TV, and know that, okay, now I'm in a zone of real life.