Satire is Dead, Long Live Satire
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room.”
I had many thoughts while watching the movie Don’t Look Up, I even laughed a few times. Many of the movies’ jokes are tendentious, but there are funny moments. There is a great running gag about an Air Force general who brings the main characters to the White House and then charges them for free snacks.
Would that there were more of those moments in the movie. What I was mostly thinking while watching Don’t Look Up was that, for all its commitment to sending a message, it is completely unwilling to take the chance that you might not get the message. And that got me thinking that satire as an art form may really be dead.
First, let me say that I do not claim to speak definitively. I don’t watch every movie or read every book. There are a lot of TV shows that I have not gotten around to seeing. There may well be a lot of good contemporary satire that I am missing. I am open to this possibility. If you have examples, please share. Short of that, I really do believe that the deep-seated risk aversion of the current moment makes good satire difficult to pull off and even harder to sell.
The last prominent work of literary satire that comes to mind is Paul Beatty’s fantastic novel The Sellout, which was published in 2015. In geological time, seven years is not that long, but in cultural time it might as well be eons. It might be difficult today to publish a book centered around a black man defending himself before the Supreme Court for reinstating the institution of slavery. The book’s labeling of a certain class of black activists as “weren*ggers” would be marked problematic at the very least.
I’ve seen and read bits of other satirical fiction. And yes, there are any number of movies, TV shows, internet things, etc. that broadly fit into the category of satire. Unfortunately, most of it is bad satire, by which I don’t necessarily mean bad art. I mean something different, like Andy Borowitz columns or The Babylon Bee. Things so on the nose that they obviate the need for satire.
A lot of this may have started with Jon Stewart taking over The Daily Show. The prior incarnation of the show, hosted by Craig Kilborn, was something different, closer to Joel McHale’s run on Talk Soup or SNL’s Weekend Update. Under Stewart, the show went from wisecracks to takedowns, from taking itself not too seriously to taking itself way too seriously. I don’t put this on Stewart, who has a talent for reaching increasing heights of comic exasperation without ever quite going over the line into total self-seriousness. It’s more about what was happening around Stewart.
The fullest realization of The Daily Show’s turn to non-satire is probably found in Stephen Colbert and his eponymous character, which is less a portrayal of a right-wing media figure than a collection of stereotypes about right-wing media figures.1 In the case of Colbert, it worked, largely because right-wing media figures had indeed become stereotypes of themselves. More often than not, though, it doesn’t work. It’s this difference between satire and stereotype that I want to talk about.
Don’t Look Up is a black comedy about two scientists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who discover a comet on its way to destroy life on earth. When the scientists try to warn the world, they are met with apathy from politicians (namely, President Trump channeled through Meryl Streep), the media, and the general public, all of whom are more preoccupied with pursuing their own political and financial interests or just plain busy entertaining themselves to death.
The synopsis alone is enough to separate the audience into two groups, one who raise a fist in solidarity and another who raise their hand only to palm their faces. The movie itself follows the same vein. Go and read the reviews and you will see that some view Don’t Look Up as “a timely, unique allegory,” while others see it as “a harangue.”
If you want a good rundown of the problems with the movie, I recommend Scott Alexander’s post here, though I warn that it is long. The short version is that Don’t Look Up’s epistemology is all messed up, which is a problem for a movie that is a thinly-veiled allegory about climate change and knowing when to trust and not trust the science.
In the movie, the science works when the plot needs it to work and fails when the plot needs it to fail. The script tries to escape this conundrum with numerous allusions to peer review. Good science is peer-reviewed; bad science is funded by rich people. This isn’t quite how scientific research works, but it is OK as a plot device, so long as you don't think about it too much.
This not thinking too much became a theme for me with Don't Look Up. The more I detached from it, the more palatable it got. Take for example that running gag about the free snacks. It’s funny. It’s funny when it happens and funny when it recurs throughout the movie, as Jennifer Lawrence’s character can’t help but fixate on why this general would charge them for free stuff. It’s funny, but I can’t help but wonder if the movie sees the gag as some kind of incisive critique of the military-industrial complex, at which point it just feels.. smarmy?
Don’t Look Up was directed by Adam McKay, and while it is a comedy, it would be unfair to compare it to McKay’s earlier comedic work, like Anchorman or Step Brothers. The more apt comparisons are with McKay’s more serious movies, a turn he took with The Big Short, which is a good movie, and Vice, which I have not seen. McKay is a good director, and it would be hard for him to make a bad movie with Don’t Look Up’s cast. But The Big Short is such a more fully realized film, which is odd, because it was made on a smaller budget than Don’t Look Up.
On an episode of his podcast, Brett Easton Ellis made an interesting point about how, in the TV era, the writer’s room has to some extent displaced the director’s eye as the primary composition tool. Don’t Look Up falls in that TV camp in that it is less driven by visual storytelling than by the exchange of dialogue among characters. I suspect that a lot of the movie’s budget went to the actor’s salaries, leaving much less for other things, like visually interesting set locations. Although, Don’t Look Up was shot during Covid, which probably imposed limits on where it could shoot.
McKay’s camerawork has always been a strong point for me, from the sight gags of his earlier movies to the inventive way that he used the camera to turn Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the Global Financial Crisis into a compelling feature film. In The Big Short, the camera does a great job of using motion to capture the frenetic pace of the mortgage securities’ market and distance the inaccessibility of some its corners. I don’t see much of that flair for visual storytelling in Don’t Look Up, which is too focused on its role as commentary. Ironically, this focus on commentary is one of the reasons that it fails as satire.
What is good satire?
If I am going to make the argument that good satire has come to be replaced with pale imitations, I should probably define what I mean.
As with many literary terms, satire is rooted in the classical period. But here is where it gets weird. The word satire comes from the Latin satura, which was a form of Roman verse that grew to encapsulate a wider category of humorous writing. However, the descriptive word “satirical” is more likely derived from the Greek word satyr, which is a reference to the Satyr plays, which used a particular blending of tragic and comic forms. Apparently, the two etymologies are unrelated.
In the history of the form, we can find related but somewhat separate notions of satire that go back to the Greek and Roman origins. The point here is not that there are two distinct strains of satire that can be traced back to different roots, but rather that satire as a tool has developed along several axes, some of which are about wielding satire as an offensive weapon and others that are about wielding it as kind of mirror that we hold up to ourselves. My contention is that good satire, fully realized satire, should do both.
I watched two more movies while digesting Don’t Look Up. One was the above-mentioned The Big Short. The other was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which quite frankly served as a palate cleanser.2
Dr. Strangelove is a satire about the end of the world, in this case brought on by a mad Air Force general who orders a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union expecting that the Unite States will have no choice but to escalate. Kubrick’s film is a great example of what can happen when an artist masters the form of satire and elevates it to something beyond just a cudgel with which to bash your enemies.
Take the War Room line that I quoted above. These words come from an exasperated American president, played sublimely by Peter Sellers, as he tries to break up a spat between his top general and the Ambassador from the Soviet Union. The General, played by George C Scott doing an exaggerated version of his famous Patton character, is incensed by the President’s decision to bring the Soviet Ambassador into the War Room. Watch it for yourself:
Scott is paranoid of the Soviet Ambassador, who also happens to be sneaking pictures of the War Room. Their mutual antagonisms build to a comic scrap, mirroring the larger conflagration threatening to bring Armageddon.
In this scene, we see the paranoia of the American general met with the duplicitousness of the Soviet Ambassador, both meekly confronted by ineffectual civilian leadership. And all of this plays out against the absurdity of maintaining decorum in a place specifically built to prosecute the total destruction of the world. It is a very neat scene, but only neat because of how expansive it really us.
Like all good satire, Dr. Strangelove has moments in which the viewer gets frustrated enough to think to herself, "this is absurd. How can they be acting like this?" This never quite happens with Don’t Look Up, because the film beats you to it.
The central problem with Don’t Look Up is that a comet does not make a very good stand-in for climate change. The obvious disconnect is that a comet strike is a single cataclysmic event that threatens to destroy humanity in one fell swoop. Climate change is less so. But let’s take the tail risks seriously and let’s get metaphorical with the passage of time. It’s possible that you could view a comet colliding with the earth as just a sped-up version of the havoc that climate change will eventually bring.
Even here, it still does not quite work. It took me a minute to figure out why.3
Something big happens in the movie’s third act: people look up and see the comet. At least some do. Others refuse to look up, which becomes their rallying cry, as well as the movie’s title. It’s also the problem. The sight of the comet headed towards earth provides the film with a very convenient pretense to divide the world into those who are clearly right and those who are willfully wrong. There probably won’t be such a moment with climate change.
This conceit of dividing the world into those who get it and those who don't is what makes Don’t Look Up too smug for its own good and why I ultimately call it bad satire.
Just to be clear, the point here is not that the movie should be nicer to climate deniers and skeptics. The point is that the movie raises the particularly important question of why we can’t better coordinate climate action and instead of giving that question any real consideration, it immediately answers it in a very hackneyed way.4 This is probably because the question is secondary to the movie’s primary purpose, which is to gawk at the others who don’t already get it and to use them as an object lesson in what not to be. Unfortunately, this has become a dominant mode of political and cultural discourse.
This all goes back to risk.
If you were taught Jonathan Swift in school, you may have been presented with the questionable fact that many in Swift’s contemporary audience took his essay, A Modest Proposal, seriously. As circumspect as we should treat such a claim, it does point to something important. One of the keys to great satire is the risk that your audience may believe you, may doubt, if only for a moment, which side you are on. It is in those moments of doubt when the audience is fully engaged, is putting the pieces together for themselves.
Again, this is not about some “both sides” cliché. No one leaves Dr. Strangelove thinking that nuclear war may be a good idea. But you might leave it with a better understanding of how we could end up with the madness of mutually assured destruction, something that almost no one thinks is a good idea but that still took the world to the precipice of destruction. Dr. Strangelove gives you the pieces and lets you to put them together for yourself. This is the very thing that Don’t Look Up can’t do, because it’s too busy reminding you that it’s on the right side of history.
If you want to see the difference between Stewart and Colbert, I suggest watching Stewart’s appearance on Colbert’s Late Show. Their physical position says it all, with Stewart out there flapping and Colbert tethered to his Late Show desk.
If there is one solid piece truth that I can offer in this whole essay, it is this: you will never regret watching a Stanley Kubrick movie.
This reminds me of the talking point that 71% of climate emissions are caused by 100 companies. This is generally meant to imply that if we could just muster the political will to stop these companies, we could solve the problem. Of course, it’s not that these companies have giant machines that turn crude oil into dollars. Well, they kind of do, but that machine is called the economy and we are all cogs in that machine. Fighting climate change is hard, because we have an economy centered around certain kinds of energy and changing that is difficult.