One of my favorite films of the 1940s is “Sullivan’s Travels” by Preston Sturges. In it, Joel McCrea plays a successful comedy filmmaker who lives as a hobo in an attempt to prepare to make a pretentious, “serious” movie. By the end, McCrea learns the value of what he’s done for a living, and sums up the movie’s moral: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
As I write this, online newspaper The Onion has launched a campaign for a Pulitzer Prize. Like everything else it publishes, the absurdist joke is played completely straight, including an editorial by its fictional, centenarian founder and publisher emeritus entitled “I Shall Now Exact My Final Revenge Upon That Jack-Ass Joseph Pulitzer.”
Despite the obvious unserious nature of the entire thing, I genuinely agree that the Onion deserves recognition. The reason is simple: For years, its humor has placed a finger on the pulse of the country better than anything else. If you look at what a society laughs at, you often can tell what it hopes for, what it fears and what it accepts as the status quo.
Indeed, the Onion has a long history of being accepted as serious by some of the more credulous readers (a sampling of these poor souls is catalogued at the website Literally Unbelievable), and you can tell a lot about what issues are contentious in America by which articles are taken seriously. In a time when the abortion debate has been renewed, one of the articles most often posted as though it’s genuine is a recent one about Planned Parenthood opening a publicly funded “Abortionplex.” Readers should be able to tell this is patently ridiculous, but their fear of it being true causes them to take it seriously. God forbid these people should read one of the best-known examples of tongue-in-cheek humor, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which the satirist recommends the Irish resort to cannibalism to address both overpopulation and famine.
Humor as a reflection of the zeitgeist has a long history in this country; as early as the end of the 19th century, legendary humorist Mark Twain’s scathing essays satirizing American imperialism in the Philippines took on his own country’s foreign policy long before it was considered socially acceptable.
It’s only in more recent years, however, that humor has really become a cross-section of American attitudes. It’s common knowledge how large a role folk music played in the social and cultural upheaval of the late 1960s and early ’70s, but my favorite song on the subject is Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” It’s a brutally sarcastic expression of the New Left’s frustration with the Democratic establishment (“Ah, but now I’m older and wiser/And that’s why I’m turning you in”), and personifies the times even better than Bob Dylan or Joan Baez could.
The targets of humor have always understood its effectiveness as well. In “Nixonland,” a comprehensive study of 1960s America, Rick Perlstein tells of an incident in which Dick and Tommy Smothers’ satirical variety show made a joke about President Richard Nixon’s leadership ability. Perlstein describes how Nixon had White House aides write to the producers about how “the gag was inaccurate ‘in view of the great public approval of [Nixon’s] handling of foreign policy, etc., etc.’ The show was canceled one month later.”
Perhaps Nixon was right to be afraid, given how seminal humor and satire have been at shaping public perception. Chevy Chase’s impossibly clumsy Gerald Ford, Tina Fey’s glassy-eyed Sarah Palin and Darrell Hammond’s droning, “lockbox”-repeating Al Gore have been a huge part of how we as Americans interpret the real people they’re impersonating. Similarly, viewers of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” have consistently ranked among the best informed segments of the population, and Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear” last October blew away the attendance of the Glenn Beck-promoted rally it parodied.
What makes the Onion truly significant culturally is that it’s doing something that people have been doing for centuries: using the deliberately false to tell the truth. Yes, all of its articles are fictional, but hidden behind them is, on some level, a serious point about the world today (OK, maybe not “New Study Finds Best Sunscreen Is Layer of Human Blood”). When you’ve spent this long commenting on current events so eloquently without ever having to do any real reporting, I’d say a Pulitzer is in order.
Zack Budryk is a journalism major at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.