Years ago, a creative writing professor told me a story about novelist Robert Coover.
Coover had spent years working on “The Public Burning,” his dark and humorous novel about the Rosenbergs that featured a foul-mouthed Uncle Sam and a conniving Richard Nixon. According to my professor, Coover had started writing the book before Watergate, only to have Nixon far outdo any portrayal of venality Coover could come up with.
I’ve never been able to confirm the story — feel free to correct me, Mr. Coover, and I’m sorry I never finished my senior thesis on you — but certainly by the time the book came out in 1977 there was little about Nixon that Nixon hadn’t already surpassed.
Which brings up this election year. What do you do when real life is more outrageous than any joke you can think of?
The Onion is not laughing, and neither is “The Thick of It” and “Veep” creator Armando Ianucci. They’re the subject of my Sunday reads.
In The New York Times Saturday, reporter Sarah Lyall visited the Chicago offices of the Onion. This is a website that managed to find humor in 9/11, but it’s been somewhat flummoxed by Donald Trump.
“We feel like we’ve passed every single stage of despair, hopelessness and rage,” [Onion editor Cole] Bolton said. “This last week is just us strafing to find new angles, to put into words how horrible this experience has been.”
Ianucci can sympathize, though he sees things from another direction. The man who helped write such glorious profanity for Malcolm Tucker worries that comedians are being too careful — especially when they should be even more offensive.
“I’ve found this very worrying, the idea that if anyone says anything that might offend anyone, they mustn’t be given a platform. It’s like when a complaint is made about a satire show, the reply goes out immediately: ‘The intention was never to offend.’ The intention was to offend. If it hadn’t offended, it wouldn’t be funny. If we have beliefs, religious or political, and they’re not strong enough to stand up to a joke, then they can’t be that good.”
Yet this new respect for offence-taking doesn’t touch the people who are actually offensive. Iannucci’s example is: “Donald Trump’s campaign manager said this morning, ‘This thing about locking Hillary up in prison, that was just a quip.’ Trump saying ‘if I were in charge, you’d be in jail,’ doesn’t sound like a joke. There’s nothing to signify that it’s a joke. There’s no set up and no punchline. If it’s a bold statement that then takes 24 hours to clarify that it’s a joke …” –- he has reached a beautiful crescendo, like a Gettysburg Address to the honour of the joke –- “That’s not a joke!”
Satire, like Monty Python’s Dead Man in “Holy Grail,” isn’t quite dead yet. John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers are getting their digs in. But such is the state of this election that they sound as despondent — or furious — as they do bitterly amused. (Oliver has it right every time he introduces the campaign in increasingly outlandish terms, most recently “The Shit-Filled Cornucopia That Keeps On Giving 2016.”) What will they do on November 9?
It makes you want to cry.