With the miasma of crackdowns, collusions, and demonization that has become a weekly occurrence here in the United States, I wonder, where have all our Groucho Marxs’ gone. All those wry, witty, double entendre, in-your-face comic geniuses who makeup the American landscape of satirists and comics. They who make us squirm or double over in revealing life’s absurdities and injustices.
With a lineage that traces back to Aristophanes and Ovid, social satire has long been a form of social criticism and a voice of dissent. It is a sensibility that is iconoclastic and irreligious and challenges all the sacred cows of a culture. Sometimes at great expense: Ovid and Lenny Bruce being two salient examples. When power is thin skinned and reactive it resorts to brute force to silence or exile its unrepentant critics.
Here in America we have a gilded tradition. Mark Twain, H.L. Menken, Groucho Marx, Mae West, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Mort Sahl, Robert Altman, Russell Baker, George Carlin, to name but a few. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about genocide, imperialism, capitalism and industrialism, racism, environmental destruction, are to be found here. It is a tradition, that cuts across genres that has long informed the American experience and the spirit of social critique. And yet, what school, what middle or high school humanities program, has considered this tradition as legitimate a form to study as ancient civilizations or chemistry? It would appear, that we are missing out on something that is an essential vehicle for cultural critique.
We live in a time of the narrowing of discourse and plurality of viewpoints. Is there not a better time, with democratic ideals at risk, to expose young people to this boisterous, often unrepentant tradition of satirists? The world has always needed a dangerous comic tradition and needs one now more than ever before. It needs voices that are inimical to greed, mendacity, shortsightedness, and intimidation. A nation that cannot laugh at itself, is a country that takes itself too seriously or too sanctimoniously. Both are omissions of resilience and humility. Call it an elective, an extra. Name it independent study. Where it fits into your curriculum doesn’t really matter. What does, is connecting the young to a tradition that has often been at the forefront of upholding civil liberties and the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Is there not be a more propitious time to insert a study of social satire in the curriculum? Unless we see no place for humor in the expansive lists of 21st century skills. Or in the words of Groucho Marx: “Humor is reason gone mad.” In America, it is time to get mad.