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Satire is hard to write, not for everyone

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Oh, that dreaded satire tag. It’s made fools out of us all.

Ever since Blogcritics began allowing authors to label their pieces as “News,” “Opinion,” “Review,” “Interview” or “Satire,” it seems that more people have attemped humor writing.

Occasionally it’s executed wonderfully. Usually it’s not.

Does that mean that Blogcritics as a collective sucks at humor writing? Well, yeah. But round up any cross-section of writers and essayists and only a few will stand out as good humorists.

That’s because it’s hard. Damn hard. Harder than being a good columnist.

Reporting the news is easy: witness an event, ask a few questions, write it down. Opinion writing seems easier because it requires less work. You can do it from the comfort of your bedroom while drinking Diet Vanilla Pepsi. But it requires putting that event into some context along with deep analysis and — maybe, if you have time left — what you think about it.

Bad writers skip to the final step because it’s the easy part. But nobody cares what some blogger thinks. As a former college newspaper’s opinion editor, I’ve seen plenty of bad columnists.

Humor and satire fall under the opinion umbrella. It’s a very specific perspective. Whereas traditional news op-eds are confined to the truth, humor columns must generate their own reality.

And it has to be funny.

Dave Barry once said that the biggest fault humor writers make is that they’re not funny. “Those people make their friends and family laugh all the time, so they think they can write humor. Often they can’t,” Barry said.

But perhaps a way to understand humor is through osmosis. Take this passage from Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits:

I have never gotten into wine. I’m a beer man … Your beer drinker tends to be a straightforward, decent, friendly, down-to-earth person who enjoys talking about the importance of relief pitching, whereas your serious wine fancier tends to be an insufferable snot.

I realize I am generalizing here, but, as is often the case when I generalize, I don’t care.

This passage has it all. Tension, subtlety, irony, and one key element: Barry makes fun of himself.

This is where so many writers stumble. Often a bad, offensive humor writer will canonize itself above his readers. A good reporter converses with real people and is read and understood by other people. Same with humorists.

It’s not about having the most intelligent reference that 3 people understand. It’s about relating a point to a range of readers — and on a site with 10 million unique hits, appealing to the masses makes all the difference.

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About Suss

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Was this re-published, or is it new? I seem to remember it

  • Eric Olsen

    For some reason it was back in draft, but I thought if it had already been published the time stamp wouldn’t change, but I guess it did.

  • Eric Olsen

    good post, by the way, but I think we have a number of funny writers: no one is on all the time

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    It’s exceptionally difficult to be funny in print on an ongoing basis. Satire, me thinks, is even harder.

    It’s true that some satire pieces could use a little more work/thinking. But they’ve been improving as a lot of late.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    my mum thinks i’m hilarious.

  • http://leoniceno.journalspace.com Leoniceno

    Well, perhaps the reason that the piece that you cited as failed satire fails because it is not satire. It’s a news piece about the ludicrous schemes McDonald’s is drawing up.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    The McDonald’s one is cited as “executed wonderfully.”

  • http://www.bhwblog.com bhw

    I think the biggest problem we have around here with satire posts is that nobody seems to know what the fuck satire means.

    Satire and humor are not the same thing. A post can be funny without being satirical at all.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Like it Matt. Dead on. It is insanely hard to write good humor, period. To be topical and riff is harder still.

    I have to work VEEEEEEERY hard at it and often I know I’m only amusing myself. But sometimes that’s enough for me.

    Our April 1 humor posts brought out a lot of good work, however. I remember those posts fondly.

  • http://sussfr.blogspot.com Matthew T. Sussman

    Holy shit, this got published. LOL.

    I nearly forgot about it. Thankfully it ties together, for the most part.

    My suggestion to everyone: if you’re trying to be funny, don’t necessarily put it in “satire.” In fact, I’ve been removed from humor writing for so long (3 whole months!) that I want to get back into it with a weekly piece (I’m working on one right now about the state of bacon in America) and labelling it as Opinion but putting it in the Humor and Satire section.

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    For my part, I’ve labeled a couple of columns “satire” that I didn’t quite intend as such. I’m just real concerned with not wanting a joke to be taken literally in the Google News or some such. “Satire” is the one clear categorical label here that says “NOT LITERALLY TRUE.”

  • http://sussfr.blogspot.com Matthew T. Sussman

    Here’s a good rule of thumb:

    If you think someone might believe a story to be true, then it’s not good enough.

  • http://obnoxiouscouple.blogspot.com Chelsea Lou

    Thing is, Matthew Sussman says this like he’s funny.

    He’s not. HE’S NOT!

    Sincerely,
    The Future Mrs. Matthew T. Sussman

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    We’ll take your word for it:)

  • alethinos59

    Satire is tough… As is humor. I’m a scriptwriter, with a script before two HUGE A-List actors this very week. It is a romance/comedy/action thing. I gave up long ago trying to figure out why some people will “get it” immediately and others need an hour long Power Point presentation.

    I will say that a lot of people are confused about what satire is. But the other reason its tough to “sell” satire these days is that sadly people’s language skills are degenerating.

    I raised my kids on watching reruns of M*A*S*H… My son, the oldest first found it boring, then mildly amusing then he began to love it. Along the way I explained to him all the double entendres the joke within the joke within the joke… Then his sister began to watch… Same thing. Now both love it, can quote lines at random… They’ve tried to explain it to their friends… Who are completely lost. I explained to Chase that the problem was that in order to “get” M*A*S*H you have to be – to some degree – literate. You actually have to KNOW things…

    And that’s where satire fails these days. It is the audience most the time that “doesn’t” get it. Sure, there are writers who think they’re a great wit… Actually they’re just crude rip-offs (often) of THE DAILY SHOW for instance…

    Here’s a bit of a litmus test… When you have to stop and explain to your listeners what “double entendre” is… Well, it’s an uphill battle…

    Fortunately there are ESL programs just about everywhere… I can only hope Americans will avail themselves of them more often.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    alethinos – How do you go about developing your scripts? Do you outline / write a full treatment / fully develop characters before banging out the script or do you just dive in?

  • Shark

    Sussman: “If you think someone might believe a story to be true, then it’s not good enough.”

    This used to be true, but not any more. Contemporary events are making satire almost impossible. Reality is more insane than anything we satirists can invent.

    BTW: Just a few points:

    * Good satire is incredibly rare in any media — and Blogcritics is about average, ie 90% crap, 8% mediocre, with about 2% really excellent stuff.

    * Duke De Mondo is possibly the best satirist on BC. Curt Fisher used to be — before he left in disgust.

    …and I’m up there near the top. Or at least I used to be — back when I still thought things were funny. Now I just think things are scary.

    * Writing takes practice — and most of the young yahoos on BC don’t have any. They think they’re highly experienced experts because they blog daily about their favorite rock bands and TV celebrities.

    * It seems that the last generation or so grew up thinking the fart-belch-puke-toilet- dumb & dumber humor of Saturday Night Live and related bipedal viruses such as Adam Sandler, Rob (please kill yerself!) Schneider, and Will Ferrell are examples of “satire” — although one can also find great satire nightly on The Daily Show — and on reruns of The Simpsons.

    * Writing satire requires a keen intellect, acute observational skills, a knowledge of cultural history, politics, and a nasty, misanthropic streak. (more reasons why it is so rare)

    * My comments aren’t funny OR satirical; so ya see — I’m just… afraid…

  • http://www.pippensqueak.blogspot.com gypsyman

    In my younger and innocenter days I registered to take a course in satire in first year universtiy. I remember when we got the reading list being depressed.

    I had never found Gulliver’s Travel’s funny; Alender Pope aint no barrel of laughs either and something with the title of “The Rape of the Lock” just didn’t look like a knee slapper.

    Than I heard a k-chunk, which was the sound of my brain finally making the connection, satire isn’t funny. Its a distortion of reality to throw the absurdity of our situation into stark relief…or at least that’s what I think my T. A. in that course said.(that was over twenty years and way too mind altering influences ago)

    But if art is supposed to hold a mirror up to society, than satire hold up one of those fun house mirrors that distorts the image. The purpose is to make us think, not laugh. If it’s funny at all its only because we see the absurdity in life and our laughing at ourselves.

  • alethinos59

    Eric B…

    I figured it would be better to answer in both places…

    Nearly always the story is rather full-blown in my mind. Then it is a matter of sketching out details… Where almost always things begin to evolve and or change.

    There are times I get “ideas” that I usually classify as: this would make a great 15 minute skit on SNL but…

    So I sketch things out to a degree. Sometimes like with the first script I did that was a QFer at the Nicholl Fellowship – it was a short story before.

    The one that is (God willing) gonna sell here soon literally came to me in a flash one morning as I was hearing a story on NPR. I literally saw the entire thing in my mind in a second. All that was left was writing it and tweaking it along the way…

    Feel free to write me…

    J.M. Harrison

    “What a know-it-all!”
    “I’m only semi-omniscient…”
    “Which means?”
    “I know half of everything, every other day…”
    (from the forthcoming novel, MEGALOMART)

  • http://www.magicjunk.com/blog/ Mark Sahm

    Perhaps to preserve the sanctity of the ‘satire’ option in the BC posts, the editors could introduce more post types. This way, all of the ‘satires by default’ (to which I also confess to being guilty of) could be properly labeled as something else, and Mr. Sussman will have an optimal web viewing experience at BC.

    Potential options include (but are not limited to):
    1. Blatant Lambasting
    2. Ambiguous 2-Paragraph Post
    3. My Wife Laughed, So I’m Telling You Too
    4. Having Bad Day So Writing Sarcastic Discourse
    5. Half-hearted David Sedaris Imitation
    6. Clever Use of Celebrity Bashing To Garner Attention By Sensitive Fans Or The Celebrities Themselves

    In addition, here’s some other post-types to one day help us all in getting properly classifed:
    7. Anti-Bush Related Rant
    8. Pro-Peace Rant
    9. Subliminal Religious Fervor
    10. Religious Confusion As Result of College Drinking Days
    And my personal favorite:
    11. Review of Movie or Book Already Reviewed 15 Times at BC, But I Didn’t Check the Archives To See If It’s Exactly The Same

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    Excellent comments by Sharky poo and Mark Sahm, who offered a satire of satirists.

    Gypsyman, you should have read Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” about eating the Irish, much funnier than Gulliver’s Travels and perhaps the ultimate spoof of prejudice and discriminatory attitudes among self-proclaimed cultural elites and policymakers:

    [Note: Thank you to whichever editor fixes these links for me, because I don’t know HTML much less how to use it in a comment here.]

    Shark, am I a satirist?

    I think I’m more of an analytical wit. But I could write a mean Simpsons teleplay if someone put a gun to my head.

    Yes, I forgot the “t” before that last word.

    That is all.

  • http://www.magicjunk.com/blog/ Mark Sahm

    Booey: I’d think you’d have come up with a more unique way of describing your style than ‘analytical wit’. Surely you can do better.

  • Shark

    Mark Sahm, great list(s)!

    You left out:

    “Digital Grafitti Pissed On A Back-Alley Wall Just Off The Internet Highway”

    =====

    Booey, I prefer to think of you as a Drive-By Guerrilla Metapolitician.

    Or maybe an Amateur Agriologist?

    Pick one.

    That is [almost] all.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Excellent/funny list, Mark!

  • Shark

    Just an aside to alethinos and EBerlin:

    Start an entry on “Advice to ASPIRING Screenwriters” and I guarantee it’ll make “Top 100 Guitarists” look like Chernobyl at 3 AM on a Sunday morning.

    [but please, for the love of gawd… DON’T!!!!!]

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Heh, he said sheepishly as a potential “blockbuster” screenplay sits on the backburner…

    Question for the group — something I kick around from time-to-time: is it harder to publish a first novel or sell a first screenplay?

  • http://www.magicjunk.com/blog/ Mark Sahm

    Berlin: From people I’ve talked to, the screenplay is much harder to sell. But that’s only because there are many more publishing houses that will publish your book, but not necessarily with a big (or any) advance.

    How far along are you with your novel?

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Thanks Mark.

    I’m about a third of the way through what would probably be considered a semi-polished second draft. I’d love to get the thing finished off by Thanksgiving so that I can get on with my life!

  • Shark

    A novel might cost $15-20K to produce.

    A film costs $15 to 100 MILLION to produce.

    Whatta you think?

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I think the Shark is wise…

  • Shark

    BTW:

    It takes a LOT MORE THAN JUST WRITING — and you have to move to L.A.

    I have a best friend who is ‘currently’ an A-List screenwriter in Hollowood.

    He’s been out there 20 some-odd years doing lunchs, meetings, pitches, yakkin’ yakkin’ yakkin’ yakkin’ shakin’ hands shakin’ hands shakin’ hands etc etc…

    He just got hot about a year ago — after starving and hearing “yeah, we’ll do it…” or “yeah, we’ll get back to you…” for almost two decades.

    It’s a young man’s game — a huge crap shoot, and one must have the patience of Job.

  • http://www.magicjunk.com/blog/ Mark Sahm

    Berlin: Second draft is the worst stage, because you revisit everything for the first time from months before when you were jacked up on espresso ending tapping keys like a madman.

    Good luck, man. It’s a major trip to see your book printed and on the shelf, which is a nice goal to envision.

  • Shark

    EricB, do the novel as ‘cinematically’ as possible — and then hope it gets optioned.

    That’s probably the quickest and/or “easiest” route.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I’m a writer who just happens to have moved to LA about 18 months ago, which in no way had to do with my writing “career.”

    Yes, from what I’ve heard, the screenwriting game is cut-throat, ferocious, and not for the weak willed.

    And I’ve heard a bunch of “It was about to get green-lighted when…” stories, many from very successful, talented, intelligent peeps.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    Sharky poo,

    What has your friend written that I might have seen? Sounds like a fun life.

    I don’t write creative fiction or screenplays. I’m more about the prose. I’m not really artsy or in touch with my emotions, but I think I could write comedy if I had to.

    I’m pretty sure it’s harder to publish your first novel legitimately. There are ways to get noticed in Hollywood — you work as a PA or you intern at a studio or try to work your way up as a script reader or if you’re a comedy writer, you work the stand-up comedy or improv class circuit (Groundlings, Chicago’s Second City or Improv Olympic) until someone notices you as a potential writer.

    I honestly have no idea how an undiscovered young fiction writer gets their manuscript read, much less published and promoted, by a major publishing house. My friends who rate bad the bad kind of bildungsroman that everyone seems to write in their 20s seem to go through small independent presses or even online publication. No major publisher seemed to want to give them a sniff, and some are pretty smart kids with degrees from some major schools. If you write non-fiction prose or essays, you usually need the requisite academic or journalistic background and to have published academic or print work before you can write a book of any interest to anyone.

    That is all.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    I wasn’t trying to sound hip with the “rate bad the bad” sentence there.

    I had some sort of problem deleting words and letters, but I meant to write “write bad …”

    You know the rest, darlings.

    By the way, most people’s fiction, novels, and poetry is horrid. It’s not their fault — literature is dead, they don’t have good role models writing today, and the books they do read in English Lit classes in college are way beyond the scope of learning and skill afforded to young, semi-literate people learning creative writing today.

    That is all.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    “are horrid.” Yeah, I have issues with typing and grammar when I’m up this late.

    That is all.

  • http://sussfr.blogspot.com Matthew T. Sussman

    Another drawback of many satire pieces is a lot of people think it’s just “making fun of people,” similar to the shortcoming of a good op-ed as just being “someone’s opinion.”

  • http://blogcritics.org/author.php?author=Cerulean Cerulean

    Eric Olsen, we need three more categories: Humor, Unintentional Humor, and Black Humor.

    Niether post named above was satire. They were both Humor but one was labeled Opinion and one Satire,for lack of other options. I thought that both posts were fine.

    Humor is hard to write successfully.

    How about some more categories here so people at least know what they are reading?

    Also, Google News searches contain satirical articles, labeled as such, from PugBus and Chortler. They are often high on the list when you do a news search on a celebrity name. Why can’t we feed our satirical articles to Google News? How does that work?