It's Not A Joke. It's Satire.

I first noticed the novel Look Who's Back (In German: Er Ist Wieder Da, literally "he is there again") on top of a bookstore counter thanks to its minimally designed cover.

On this cover, curved black hair hangs in a white space beneath the author's name (Timur Vermes) and above the title, which is arranged in a black square. The title looks like a Hitler/Chaplin moustache.

Like a good first line, the title raises a question — who's back? I can confirm that it's not happy chappy Chaplin.

The outrageous pitch goes that Adolph Hitler — yes, the genocidal maniac who started the second world war — has just woken up. In Berlin. In 2011.

Who's back? I can confirm it's not Charlie Chaplin.

In a state of shock and with no memory of his own suicide, Hitler tries to re-piece what has happened since he has gone, expressing his surprise that the 'Volk' have survived his attempt to destroy much of Germany's infrastructure ("every single material asset must be destroyed. Not just houses, but doors too. And door handles. Then the screws, and not only the long ones.") before deciding that the number of Turks in Berlin and the lack of bombshells mean that Turkey has helped Nazi Germany to turn the tide of the war — and that Hitler's been unconscious for a while.

The whole narrative is spoken from Hitler's point of view as he overcomes his initial confusion and turns into a Youtube/television sensation as some kind of Hitler impersonator. From the internet and the TV screen Hitler can express his political views. Views that we laugh at before we think about them.

This is especially true in the movie I watched a few days ago, based on the book (well sort of, let's just say that it's ingenious how they tie the two together), where crowds are shown laughing at this crazed Hitler actor before they begin to listen and agree with what he is saying: get rid of the refugees that are 'swamping' Germany, reduce poverty, unemployment and make Germany great again (which is actually a newspaper quote from within the movie).

This putting out of the political platform takes place on a satirical television show, "Whoa, Dude!", whereas the host appears in different costumes "to make a mincemeat of current politics" (to quote Look Who's Back's Hitler). This form of satire is also a target of Hitler's opening tirade since it shields the Volk's eyes from "the abyss" they are approaching.

That is to say, the satire of a show like "Whoa, Dude!" is making Germany not-so-great again. Like Weimar Republic with super-duper high inflation not-so-great.

Satire like that shown in "Whoa, Dude!", as well as the cooking shows that Hitler goes on to criticise, are also targets of what follows. Especially cooking shows. I mean I hate to stir the pot but cooking shows are a recipe for disaster.

Satire can also be a recipe for disaster, if it isn't done right.

What even is satire?

Satire is defined by Google as "the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues". And we can trust in Google.

*insert illuminati symbol here*

Satire is generally split into two categories, both named after the Romans who are credited with using them. Perhaps the one we are most used to is 'Horatian' satire whereas the comedy is a little bit mild, treating the "stupidity or vices" of people are as mere folly rather than evil.

The other category is 'Juvenalian' where the satire has more of a sting. It's often pessimistic with a contemptuous and abrasive tone battling the "stupidity or vices" of man(and woman)kind as if they were social evils rather than simple mistakes.

A good example of Juvenalian satire is Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. In this essay, the 18th century writer claims he has a solution "for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public". In a caring and humble tone of voice, he then goes on to argue for the cannibalism of infant Irish children.

This, he argues, will provide an income for the children's mothers while reducing the number of children in poverty and of the Catholic population in general (preventing them "from being a burden"). Not to mention making "four dishes of excellent nutritive meat" ("making them beneficial to the public".

To this "modest proposal", Swift "can think of no objection that will be raised".

The essay is satire at its finest. It isn't a funny read and any humour is provided by the sheer nerve of the writer, how ludicrous it is to suggest that eating infants is a better solution than them living their lives in extreme poverty. Which gets you thinking, what is a better solution?

Like Hitler in Look Who's Back, we laugh and then we think (though you'd be forgiven for not laughing at Swift's 'joke').

[A note on the side: I'd like to see A Modest Proposal approach taken with the refugee crisis and Australia's imprisonment of "illegal"* asylum seekers.]

Unfortunately, most satire aims to be funny rather than to expose problems and contradictions (whether these be through human folly or evil).

I've found that this is the case with two of my favourite satirical programs, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and Shaun Micallef's Mad as Hell **.

The Late Show With Mad As Hell

Colbert delivers his jokes with aplomb as he plays the cool American comedian who knows his audience is going to laugh at his jokes whether they're funny or not. Fortunately, Colbert's jokes are usually on the extremely funny end of the humour spectrum so I have no qualms about laughing along with the audience (whereas I do with when Jimmy Fallon starts banging the desk as he fake laughs at a guest's unfunny joke, but I digress).

The wit of the man (and his writing crew) is especially evident in the first ten minutes of the show (the part I normally watch because it's readily available on YouTube). In this section of the show, Colbert talks about what's happened since we last met, releasing jokes on various political topics like salve on the bruised American dream (which perhaps runs parallel to our own egalitarian/'fair go' dream here in Australia). With Colbert presenting US politics as something closer to the never ending yet nothing-ever-happens sitcom, things seem a lot better than they are.

Which is where the show doesn't work.

It's 'too' funny and, while not forgetting its first love of ridiculing the faults of politics, it doesn't do much to improve the situation. I doubt any policy changes have come out of Colbert's comedy. But then, is that too much to ask of an hour long TV show? Perhaps.

Nevertheless, being funny doesn't help the issue. Even worse, it can shield "the abyss" that is right in front of us.

"Satire," says Malcolm Gladwell in his excellent Revisionist History podcast, "works best when the satirist doesn't go for the joke".

Somebody best tell Shaun Micallef that. Shaun Micallef goes for a lot of jokes.

Further to this problem is that Mad as Hell only gives him half an hour to fit them all in, not to mention that most of his jokes require pretty high levels of concentration to understand what this former lawyer is getting at (I use lawyer here as shorthand to say that Micallef is smart, though it may be incorrect to imply that lawyers are smart and can thus be used as shorthand for smartness (case in point, I've just had to explain myself at length which defeats having hands the length of Donald Trump's hands (which is to say, short (because he has small hands so therefore it is logical to assume that they are also short (but we must never assume anything))))).

Micallef's show (as with, I hope, that last sentence of mine) can be summed up with a quote from Gladwell's podcast, made by Heather LaMarre: "you're spending all this time thinking about the nature of the comedy which leaves very little mental resource to think about whether the comedy has truth". If you're unsure whether the comedy has some truth (i.e whether or not it's not alternative news), then you're unlikely to take action on whatever it's talking about.

Instead, you're more likely going to laugh along with the crowd and forget that Pistol and Boo have real concerns that we share (i.e. not being killed for coming to a country) or that America's first orange President doesn't bode well for whites (oKay, oKay, oKay, it bodes very well) or that Trunbull (sorry, Turnbull) has Bubble O'Bill Shortens for breakfast.

In fact, Turnbull's recent attack on Shorten could probably be said to be the best piece of satire for quite a while. That rant had as much bite as it did bark (though it's being spun that Turnbull is a wounded dog in this metaphor).

Look Who's Back To What We Were Talking About in the First Place

Like with Turnbull's rant (if you'll forgive me mentioning it for a good segway), the satire in Look Who's Back is satire done right.

The book and film are comedies but any jokes plot towards an inevitably sharp and pointy ending that forces you to think.

In the film, as the characters begin to trust the most famous anti-Semitic (there's been a few) we realise that the message of the whole thing isn't "look at Hitler making a fool of himself" (going for the joke) but rather "look at Hitler making a fool of us".

This is never more clear than when upon reflecting on the state of the world, Hitler states, "I can work with this".

Are you done laughing? Now's the time to think. Roll credits.

J/R


*I use "illegal" in quotation marks here because it's an incorrect term. There is no such thing as an "illegal" asylum seeker. Oh, and upon rereading this I realise how it might sound. I don't want us to eat the people we are imprisoning for seeking peace but for us to approach the issue with the courage and wit of Jonathan Swift. I'm half tempted to write my own "modest proposal".

** Another satirical show I love is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver but I believe it has more teeth than the other programs, shown perhaps through Oliver's frequent calls to action that he has at the end of the show and the real concern he displays on his face when speaking about some topics. Perhaps he seems less of a character and more of a human, especially when compared with Micallef's on-screen persona.


In addition, the cover picture for this post is the cover for Look Who's Back. You can find the cover picture here.


Photo of my Week

Where I post an image that sums up an aspect of my week.

Sam and I found one of the creepiest places in Narrogin this week, the part of town that holds 'Revheads' every year. From my limited knowledge of the event, it's where a bunch of bogans come into town and watch cars, motorbikes and things that generally have engines go through several thousand revolutions per minute.

Fortunately we found it a few days before the south-west experienced one of its wettest days on the 9th of February. This not only meant that we didn't get bogged (most of the roads are dirt — now mud) but also that the incoming storm created overcast skies and an even creepier, moodier atmosphere. Hopefully that shows through in this image of the velodrome above.

Joel Gibson

Read more posts by this author.

Perth, Western Australia

Subscribe to PROVING SUNSHINE

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox.

or subscribe via RSS with Feedly!