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Satire, Must Skirt Its Own Cliches

By Jules Feiffer

What follows is taken from a speech Mr. Feiffer delivered at Sanders Theatre on February 25. The cartoonist's comments on American humor helped round out a Poet's Theatre production based on his strips and his one-act play, Crawling Arnold. That show is being repeated tonight (8:30) and tomorrow (7:00 and 9:30) at the Loeb Drama Center.

SOME of our colleges are now giving courses in what is and what is not funny. I spoke to an English class some weeks ago on the subject. They took lots of notes and never smiled. I can't think of anything more likely to put humor back in its place than a really good academic study.

Unfunny humor has been the normal state of affairs in this country for quite a while now. The glib and easy market researched laugh. 20 years ago the laughs came when the comic said Brooklyn. Today it comes when he says Madison Ave. The joke remains the same. It's just moved a little uptown.

For years we've been taking the same old humor out of the same old bag. We've been polishing it with up to date references; we've been using it, laughing at it and seeing our society as a reflection of it. Through humor we create a stereotype, forget after a while that the stereotype is only a stereotype and begin to take it for the real thing. So all minority groups become in the eyes of the majority the exact image the jokesters turned them into: good natured, easy going Rastus and Mandy, shrewd money loving Ikie and Abie, alcoholic and irresponsible Pat and Mike. No offense intended mind you.

It's all good natured kidding. Kidding, unfortunately, is often on the square. The gag becomes real to the gagsters. Family life becomes Dagwood and Blondie. And who really can take seriously the dream of equality of an Amos and Andy?

Out of this tasty assortment just mentioned let's take marriage humor for a moment. Humor written by men about how good natured and understanding father is, how dominating and overbearing mother is, how demonic and spoiled the kiddies are; or humor written by women about how helpless and bumbling father is, how put upon but perservering mother is, how demonic and spoiled those very same kiddies are.

The Kiddies being too young to write family humor for the Ladies Home Journal or McCalls must wait till they grow up when they can hit back by writing sensible novellas about their misunderstood childhoods.

And when our humor doesn't see American marriage as Dagwood and Blondie it sees it as the Thurber man and the Thurber woman--which is about as accurate as seeing Mary Worth as the symbol of maternal love. And with all that attention focused upon it one fine point is always studiously avoided. The attraction that brought father and mother together in the first place. Sex.

I've always found it interesting that while a wife's defeat and castration of her husband is considered a good, clean subject suitable for lots of laughs--sex is not. In the regulation school of marriage humor, Mother and Father are either really Mother and Son or just good Buddies--practically two men really--or friendly acquaintances who kiss twice a day--in the morning to say "Goodbye dear" and in the evening to say "Hello dear."

In the clean school of humor sex is handled with leers, winks, double entendres, secret guffaws and the poking of elbows. Only in jokes does it appear out in the open.

Our cleanest sex humor is the dirtiest joke. Also it's the funniest. Or at least the funniest according to my definition of humor. My definition of humor is that to be really funny a joke, a story, a comic routine must make an observation on an existing situation, not the myth that we've come to know the situation by. for me the quality of the humor lies in its closeness to the core of the situation on which it is making a comment. The best humor has always had the ability to cut through the carefully constructed cliches we have built around ourselves. We've had in this country a number of deft practitioners of the art. Twain, Lardan Benchley, Thurber, E. B. White, and more. We've had a good number of them.

The Spirit of Satire

I consider subversion the legitimate province of the satirist. If he's not in the business to overthrow one institution or another; if he's only in the business to poke irreverent but gentle fun, to amuse without biting, to comment without caring then, in my terms, he may be a lampoonist or a parodist or a light humorist, but he's not a satirist. A humorist will hold up a mirror, look at its reflection chuckle warmly and say "Well it's silly but its not such a bad reflection after all"; a satirist will have a darker view. That's why the night satirists were mislabelled as sick comedians. They weren't sick. But they had to be handled, tagger, pinned down somehow because the were dangerous. They were throwing out the old stereotypes.

Dagwood, Blondie, Pat and Mike, Ikie and Abie--you know--the . And they were replacing them with a new image based on their own view of their own generation. The Post World War II American--more and more white collar; more and more a suburban thinker if not a suburban dweller, more and more concerned with only his own. A citizen in a land which suddenly had world leaders , prosperity, nuclear power, sound, small foreign playboy magazine, Fidel Castro Dwight David Eisenhower thrust it.

Too damn much was happening. who once was proud of his constant changing was now for a status quo. For no sooner he adjust from an isolationist America to America as an international leader than he faced, via Lunik, and in his own backyard, Beatnik, with the possibility of America as a second class power.

driven totally uncertain with the of events he retreated into , power tools and Have Travel. He quit having opinions. After all he could be wrong that could always mean a congressional subpoena.

And this was the American the new used as its target. They made openly on his values, his sex his leaders. It was frightening. to Mort Sahl in the middle was like listening to Radio Europe in East Berlin or singing Civil War Songs at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We all felt like memories of the underground and our laughter was based very much on a sense of conspiracy. Laughing at McCarthy in those dear gone days was like laughing at God--or worse--J. Edgar Hoover.

Mort Sahl who can still be quite funny has never been as hilarious to me since I began to feel free to laugh at him without fearing the F.B.I. was photographing me in the act. Any against authority was a dangerous joke in those days. This was losers' school of humor. Robert little man would have it instantly. So would . In one case it was Sahl being overcome by the Government, in the case it was Mike and Elaine being overcome by sexual mores; in another case it was Lennie Bruce being overcome by everything.

People listened, understood and got the message. Time magazine arrived at the scene and suddenly satire had become commercial. Everybody was it. "Attack us!" came the cry from the audience across the land, attack our corrupt middle class values. We will laugh as long as you don't make us listen. We will applaud as long as you don't ask us to think."

So, with success, the new school grew and the field became rich with volunteers: making Jackie Kennedy jokes (very dangerous), Khrushchev jokes (very controversial); "I caught a piece of spinach in my teeth" jokes (very insightful). The attitude had shifted. We were back where we started. We had thrown out the old inaccurate stereotype for a new inaccurate stereotype....

The humor of the loser as it's performed today has in all but a few cases become the humor of the master. And it retains not the vaguest memory of the dissatisfied, underfed, rebellious child it used to be. Its observations are easy to come by. It has gone from "I'm not kidding about everything being wrong" to "I'm only kidding about everything being wrong." It has become button down. It has grown up

Our cleanest sex humor is the dirtiest joke. Also it's the funniest. Or at least the funniest according to my definition of humor. My definition of humor is that to be really funny a joke, a story, a comic routine must make an observation on an existing situation, not the myth that we've come to know the situation by. for me the quality of the humor lies in its closeness to the core of the situation on which it is making a comment. The best humor has always had the ability to cut through the carefully constructed cliches we have built around ourselves. We've had in this country a number of deft practitioners of the art. Twain, Lardan Benchley, Thurber, E. B. White, and more. We've had a good number of them.

The Spirit of Satire

I consider subversion the legitimate province of the satirist. If he's not in the business to overthrow one institution or another; if he's only in the business to poke irreverent but gentle fun, to amuse without biting, to comment without caring then, in my terms, he may be a lampoonist or a parodist or a light humorist, but he's not a satirist. A humorist will hold up a mirror, look at its reflection chuckle warmly and say "Well it's silly but its not such a bad reflection after all"; a satirist will have a darker view. That's why the night satirists were mislabelled as sick comedians. They weren't sick. But they had to be handled, tagger, pinned down somehow because the were dangerous. They were throwing out the old stereotypes.

Dagwood, Blondie, Pat and Mike, Ikie and Abie--you know--the . And they were replacing them with a new image based on their own view of their own generation. The Post World War II American--more and more white collar; more and more a suburban thinker if not a suburban dweller, more and more concerned with only his own. A citizen in a land which suddenly had world leaders , prosperity, nuclear power, sound, small foreign playboy magazine, Fidel Castro Dwight David Eisenhower thrust it.

Too damn much was happening. who once was proud of his constant changing was now for a status quo. For no sooner he adjust from an isolationist America to America as an international leader than he faced, via Lunik, and in his own backyard, Beatnik, with the possibility of America as a second class power.

driven totally uncertain with the of events he retreated into , power tools and Have Travel. He quit having opinions. After all he could be wrong that could always mean a congressional subpoena.

And this was the American the new used as its target. They made openly on his values, his sex his leaders. It was frightening. to Mort Sahl in the middle was like listening to Radio Europe in East Berlin or singing Civil War Songs at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We all felt like memories of the underground and our laughter was based very much on a sense of conspiracy. Laughing at McCarthy in those dear gone days was like laughing at God--or worse--J. Edgar Hoover.

Mort Sahl who can still be quite funny has never been as hilarious to me since I began to feel free to laugh at him without fearing the F.B.I. was photographing me in the act. Any against authority was a dangerous joke in those days. This was losers' school of humor. Robert little man would have it instantly. So would . In one case it was Sahl being overcome by the Government, in the case it was Mike and Elaine being overcome by sexual mores; in another case it was Lennie Bruce being overcome by everything.

People listened, understood and got the message. Time magazine arrived at the scene and suddenly satire had become commercial. Everybody was it. "Attack us!" came the cry from the audience across the land, attack our corrupt middle class values. We will laugh as long as you don't make us listen. We will applaud as long as you don't ask us to think."

So, with success, the new school grew and the field became rich with volunteers: making Jackie Kennedy jokes (very dangerous), Khrushchev jokes (very controversial); "I caught a piece of spinach in my teeth" jokes (very insightful). The attitude had shifted. We were back where we started. We had thrown out the old inaccurate stereotype for a new inaccurate stereotype....

The humor of the loser as it's performed today has in all but a few cases become the humor of the master. And it retains not the vaguest memory of the dissatisfied, underfed, rebellious child it used to be. Its observations are easy to come by. It has gone from "I'm not kidding about everything being wrong" to "I'm only kidding about everything being wrong." It has become button down. It has grown up

The Spirit of Satire

I consider subversion the legitimate province of the satirist. If he's not in the business to overthrow one institution or another; if he's only in the business to poke irreverent but gentle fun, to amuse without biting, to comment without caring then, in my terms, he may be a lampoonist or a parodist or a light humorist, but he's not a satirist. A humorist will hold up a mirror, look at its reflection chuckle warmly and say "Well it's silly but its not such a bad reflection after all"; a satirist will have a darker view. That's why the night satirists were mislabelled as sick comedians. They weren't sick. But they had to be handled, tagger, pinned down somehow because the were dangerous. They were throwing out the old stereotypes.

Dagwood, Blondie, Pat and Mike, Ikie and Abie--you know--the . And they were replacing them with a new image based on their own view of their own generation. The Post World War II American--more and more white collar; more and more a suburban thinker if not a suburban dweller, more and more concerned with only his own. A citizen in a land which suddenly had world leaders , prosperity, nuclear power, sound, small foreign playboy magazine, Fidel Castro Dwight David Eisenhower thrust it.

Too damn much was happening. who once was proud of his constant changing was now for a status quo. For no sooner he adjust from an isolationist America to America as an international leader than he faced, via Lunik, and in his own backyard, Beatnik, with the possibility of America as a second class power.

driven totally uncertain with the of events he retreated into , power tools and Have Travel. He quit having opinions. After all he could be wrong that could always mean a congressional subpoena.

And this was the American the new used as its target. They made openly on his values, his sex his leaders. It was frightening. to Mort Sahl in the middle was like listening to Radio Europe in East Berlin or singing Civil War Songs at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We all felt like memories of the underground and our laughter was based very much on a sense of conspiracy. Laughing at McCarthy in those dear gone days was like laughing at God--or worse--J. Edgar Hoover.

Mort Sahl who can still be quite funny has never been as hilarious to me since I began to feel free to laugh at him without fearing the F.B.I. was photographing me in the act. Any against authority was a dangerous joke in those days. This was losers' school of humor. Robert little man would have it instantly. So would . In one case it was Sahl being overcome by the Government, in the case it was Mike and Elaine being overcome by sexual mores; in another case it was Lennie Bruce being overcome by everything.

People listened, understood and got the message. Time magazine arrived at the scene and suddenly satire had become commercial. Everybody was it. "Attack us!" came the cry from the audience across the land, attack our corrupt middle class values. We will laugh as long as you don't make us listen. We will applaud as long as you don't ask us to think."

So, with success, the new school grew and the field became rich with volunteers: making Jackie Kennedy jokes (very dangerous), Khrushchev jokes (very controversial); "I caught a piece of spinach in my teeth" jokes (very insightful). The attitude had shifted. We were back where we started. We had thrown out the old inaccurate stereotype for a new inaccurate stereotype....

The humor of the loser as it's performed today has in all but a few cases become the humor of the master. And it retains not the vaguest memory of the dissatisfied, underfed, rebellious child it used to be. Its observations are easy to come by. It has gone from "I'm not kidding about everything being wrong" to "I'm only kidding about everything being wrong." It has become button down. It has grown up

Dagwood, Blondie, Pat and Mike, Ikie and Abie--you know--the . And they were replacing them with a new image based on their own view of their own generation. The Post World War II American--more and more white collar; more and more a suburban thinker if not a suburban dweller, more and more concerned with only his own. A citizen in a land which suddenly had world leaders , prosperity, nuclear power, sound, small foreign playboy magazine, Fidel Castro Dwight David Eisenhower thrust it.

Too damn much was happening. who once was proud of his constant changing was now for a status quo. For no sooner he adjust from an isolationist America to America as an international leader than he faced, via Lunik, and in his own backyard, Beatnik, with the possibility of America as a second class power.

driven totally uncertain with the of events he retreated into , power tools and Have Travel. He quit having opinions. After all he could be wrong that could always mean a congressional subpoena.

And this was the American the new used as its target. They made openly on his values, his sex his leaders. It was frightening. to Mort Sahl in the middle was like listening to Radio Europe in East Berlin or singing Civil War Songs at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We all felt like memories of the underground and our laughter was based very much on a sense of conspiracy. Laughing at McCarthy in those dear gone days was like laughing at God--or worse--J. Edgar Hoover.

Mort Sahl who can still be quite funny has never been as hilarious to me since I began to feel free to laugh at him without fearing the F.B.I. was photographing me in the act. Any against authority was a dangerous joke in those days. This was losers' school of humor. Robert little man would have it instantly. So would . In one case it was Sahl being overcome by the Government, in the case it was Mike and Elaine being overcome by sexual mores; in another case it was Lennie Bruce being overcome by everything.

People listened, understood and got the message. Time magazine arrived at the scene and suddenly satire had become commercial. Everybody was it. "Attack us!" came the cry from the audience across the land, attack our corrupt middle class values. We will laugh as long as you don't make us listen. We will applaud as long as you don't ask us to think."

So, with success, the new school grew and the field became rich with volunteers: making Jackie Kennedy jokes (very dangerous), Khrushchev jokes (very controversial); "I caught a piece of spinach in my teeth" jokes (very insightful). The attitude had shifted. We were back where we started. We had thrown out the old inaccurate stereotype for a new inaccurate stereotype....

The humor of the loser as it's performed today has in all but a few cases become the humor of the master. And it retains not the vaguest memory of the dissatisfied, underfed, rebellious child it used to be. Its observations are easy to come by. It has gone from "I'm not kidding about everything being wrong" to "I'm only kidding about everything being wrong." It has become button down. It has grown up

Too damn much was happening. who once was proud of his constant changing was now for a status quo. For no sooner he adjust from an isolationist America to America as an international leader than he faced, via Lunik, and in his own backyard, Beatnik, with the possibility of America as a second class power.

driven totally uncertain with the of events he retreated into , power tools and Have Travel. He quit having opinions. After all he could be wrong that could always mean a congressional subpoena.

And this was the American the new used as its target. They made openly on his values, his sex his leaders. It was frightening. to Mort Sahl in the middle was like listening to Radio Europe in East Berlin or singing Civil War Songs at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We all felt like memories of the underground and our laughter was based very much on a sense of conspiracy. Laughing at McCarthy in those dear gone days was like laughing at God--or worse--J. Edgar Hoover.

Mort Sahl who can still be quite funny has never been as hilarious to me since I began to feel free to laugh at him without fearing the F.B.I. was photographing me in the act. Any against authority was a dangerous joke in those days. This was losers' school of humor. Robert little man would have it instantly. So would . In one case it was Sahl being overcome by the Government, in the case it was Mike and Elaine being overcome by sexual mores; in another case it was Lennie Bruce being overcome by everything.

People listened, understood and got the message. Time magazine arrived at the scene and suddenly satire had become commercial. Everybody was it. "Attack us!" came the cry from the audience across the land, attack our corrupt middle class values. We will laugh as long as you don't make us listen. We will applaud as long as you don't ask us to think."

So, with success, the new school grew and the field became rich with volunteers: making Jackie Kennedy jokes (very dangerous), Khrushchev jokes (very controversial); "I caught a piece of spinach in my teeth" jokes (very insightful). The attitude had shifted. We were back where we started. We had thrown out the old inaccurate stereotype for a new inaccurate stereotype....

The humor of the loser as it's performed today has in all but a few cases become the humor of the master. And it retains not the vaguest memory of the dissatisfied, underfed, rebellious child it used to be. Its observations are easy to come by. It has gone from "I'm not kidding about everything being wrong" to "I'm only kidding about everything being wrong." It has become button down. It has grown up

driven totally uncertain with the of events he retreated into , power tools and Have Travel. He quit having opinions. After all he could be wrong that could always mean a congressional subpoena.

And this was the American the new used as its target. They made openly on his values, his sex his leaders. It was frightening. to Mort Sahl in the middle was like listening to Radio Europe in East Berlin or singing Civil War Songs at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We all felt like memories of the underground and our laughter was based very much on a sense of conspiracy. Laughing at McCarthy in those dear gone days was like laughing at God--or worse--J. Edgar Hoover.

Mort Sahl who can still be quite funny has never been as hilarious to me since I began to feel free to laugh at him without fearing the F.B.I. was photographing me in the act. Any against authority was a dangerous joke in those days. This was losers' school of humor. Robert little man would have it instantly. So would . In one case it was Sahl being overcome by the Government, in the case it was Mike and Elaine being overcome by sexual mores; in another case it was Lennie Bruce being overcome by everything.

People listened, understood and got the message. Time magazine arrived at the scene and suddenly satire had become commercial. Everybody was it. "Attack us!" came the cry from the audience across the land, attack our corrupt middle class values. We will laugh as long as you don't make us listen. We will applaud as long as you don't ask us to think."

So, with success, the new school grew and the field became rich with volunteers: making Jackie Kennedy jokes (very dangerous), Khrushchev jokes (very controversial); "I caught a piece of spinach in my teeth" jokes (very insightful). The attitude had shifted. We were back where we started. We had thrown out the old inaccurate stereotype for a new inaccurate stereotype....

The humor of the loser as it's performed today has in all but a few cases become the humor of the master. And it retains not the vaguest memory of the dissatisfied, underfed, rebellious child it used to be. Its observations are easy to come by. It has gone from "I'm not kidding about everything being wrong" to "I'm only kidding about everything being wrong." It has become button down. It has grown up

And this was the American the new used as its target. They made openly on his values, his sex his leaders. It was frightening. to Mort Sahl in the middle was like listening to Radio Europe in East Berlin or singing Civil War Songs at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We all felt like memories of the underground and our laughter was based very much on a sense of conspiracy. Laughing at McCarthy in those dear gone days was like laughing at God--or worse--J. Edgar Hoover.

Mort Sahl who can still be quite funny has never been as hilarious to me since I began to feel free to laugh at him without fearing the F.B.I. was photographing me in the act. Any against authority was a dangerous joke in those days. This was losers' school of humor. Robert little man would have it instantly. So would . In one case it was Sahl being overcome by the Government, in the case it was Mike and Elaine being overcome by sexual mores; in another case it was Lennie Bruce being overcome by everything.

People listened, understood and got the message. Time magazine arrived at the scene and suddenly satire had become commercial. Everybody was it. "Attack us!" came the cry from the audience across the land, attack our corrupt middle class values. We will laugh as long as you don't make us listen. We will applaud as long as you don't ask us to think."

So, with success, the new school grew and the field became rich with volunteers: making Jackie Kennedy jokes (very dangerous), Khrushchev jokes (very controversial); "I caught a piece of spinach in my teeth" jokes (very insightful). The attitude had shifted. We were back where we started. We had thrown out the old inaccurate stereotype for a new inaccurate stereotype....

The humor of the loser as it's performed today has in all but a few cases become the humor of the master. And it retains not the vaguest memory of the dissatisfied, underfed, rebellious child it used to be. Its observations are easy to come by. It has gone from "I'm not kidding about everything being wrong" to "I'm only kidding about everything being wrong." It has become button down. It has grown up

Mort Sahl who can still be quite funny has never been as hilarious to me since I began to feel free to laugh at him without fearing the F.B.I. was photographing me in the act. Any against authority was a dangerous joke in those days. This was losers' school of humor. Robert little man would have it instantly. So would . In one case it was Sahl being overcome by the Government, in the case it was Mike and Elaine being overcome by sexual mores; in another case it was Lennie Bruce being overcome by everything.

People listened, understood and got the message. Time magazine arrived at the scene and suddenly satire had become commercial. Everybody was it. "Attack us!" came the cry from the audience across the land, attack our corrupt middle class values. We will laugh as long as you don't make us listen. We will applaud as long as you don't ask us to think."

So, with success, the new school grew and the field became rich with volunteers: making Jackie Kennedy jokes (very dangerous), Khrushchev jokes (very controversial); "I caught a piece of spinach in my teeth" jokes (very insightful). The attitude had shifted. We were back where we started. We had thrown out the old inaccurate stereotype for a new inaccurate stereotype....

The humor of the loser as it's performed today has in all but a few cases become the humor of the master. And it retains not the vaguest memory of the dissatisfied, underfed, rebellious child it used to be. Its observations are easy to come by. It has gone from "I'm not kidding about everything being wrong" to "I'm only kidding about everything being wrong." It has become button down. It has grown up

People listened, understood and got the message. Time magazine arrived at the scene and suddenly satire had become commercial. Everybody was it. "Attack us!" came the cry from the audience across the land, attack our corrupt middle class values. We will laugh as long as you don't make us listen. We will applaud as long as you don't ask us to think."

So, with success, the new school grew and the field became rich with volunteers: making Jackie Kennedy jokes (very dangerous), Khrushchev jokes (very controversial); "I caught a piece of spinach in my teeth" jokes (very insightful). The attitude had shifted. We were back where we started. We had thrown out the old inaccurate stereotype for a new inaccurate stereotype....

The humor of the loser as it's performed today has in all but a few cases become the humor of the master. And it retains not the vaguest memory of the dissatisfied, underfed, rebellious child it used to be. Its observations are easy to come by. It has gone from "I'm not kidding about everything being wrong" to "I'm only kidding about everything being wrong." It has become button down. It has grown up

So, with success, the new school grew and the field became rich with volunteers: making Jackie Kennedy jokes (very dangerous), Khrushchev jokes (very controversial); "I caught a piece of spinach in my teeth" jokes (very insightful). The attitude had shifted. We were back where we started. We had thrown out the old inaccurate stereotype for a new inaccurate stereotype....

The humor of the loser as it's performed today has in all but a few cases become the humor of the master. And it retains not the vaguest memory of the dissatisfied, underfed, rebellious child it used to be. Its observations are easy to come by. It has gone from "I'm not kidding about everything being wrong" to "I'm only kidding about everything being wrong." It has become button down. It has grown up

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