In order to say something important and provocative about social issues, comedy writers will sometimes create satirical characters like Archie Bunker and his family. They’re a comedic device, and one with a danger of backfiring. In order to learn what the writers want to say about us, they have to make us understand that these are caricatures of us. We have to identify with it, but not all the way, leaving room to figure out to what degree we unconsciously embrace the views being criticized.
The the danger in airing “All in the Family” back then was of overidentification with the satire: of not recognizing that it was a criticism, and not merely a window on our shared reality. When this happens, there is a danger of satire failing.
It’s easier to make a distinction between a character like Pee-Wee Herman and the actor Paul Reubens, because they have different names. Sometimes the public persona is the real person, as much as that can be said to be true: Mr. Rogers was in character wholly consistent with Fred Rogers’ values. Paul Reubens has very different values and desires in his private life than the permanent man-child he plays as Pee-Wee Herman. Archie Bunker and the characters that Sarah Silverman and Stephen Colbert perform are all characters, distinct from the people who play them. Even more closely associated than O’Connor is with Bunker are the comedians who play characters with their own names.
We are increasingly called upon to distinguish ever more subtle divisions between our satires and our real values. It is a measure of the cultural competency required of the artist who can produce satirical art that tricks the viewer into seeing the artwork as evocative of an important aspect of real life, however momentarily. As Warhol did with his soup cans, and television comedy productions do, pop art reframes the ordinary so that we will consider it anew.
When we correctly identify the frame around the art—the authorial voice, the laugh track, the linguistic clues that this is satire—we feel savvy. This is part of the joy of beholding art: realizing that it is art. Being photorealistic is not what makes art a true mirror to life; it’s how true it is. Truth can be conveyed with stick figures. The crudest cartoons can speak most vividly to real and complex desires.
A Triaminic haze sequence in the first episode of “The Sarah Silverman Program” that looked like it was drawn with MS Paint tricked me thoroughly. I’m a big fan of Silverman’s standup, so I was surprised to find, when she brought her same character into sitcom format, that her first episode still managed to push a reality button for me. The dangerous self-involvement Silverman’s character embodies didn’t bother me when she played an ambivalent rape victim in her standup routine, but when she reminded me of the danger of people who drive while fucked up, I reacted in fear.
I’ve been in just a few car accidents, none of which I’d call serious: I sustained no injury worse than a concussion, a sprained wrist, or flashbacks. I have friends who will be on pain meds forever, who might never walk unassisted, whose lives are far more altered than mine by car accidents, so I don’t seriously consider how car culture has traumatized me, when it has claimed victims with greater violence and finality. I think we’re far too blasé about driving, because everybody does it. In addition to my blogs on home cooking and industrial food, I write about bicycle commuting, so it’s not as though I weren’t already in touch with the hazards of car culture, but I was used to considering them in terms of physical health and the environment. Silverman made me examine how I feel about driving under the influence that no number of billboards has made me consider.
When I realized that I’d fallen under the spell that Silverman casts, I had a new respect for the subtlety of difference between the authorial voice and the voice of the character.
I had forgotten, momentarily, and found myself angry at Silverman, the author, because I had been lulled into taking her character seriously. I realized, like one blogger who has compared me to Stephen Colbert, that it is possible to be lulled into identification with the satirical perspective, and that it is this precise danger which makes comedy so dangerous. The feeling of alarm that I get when I fall into these cunning traps, as I did when I began to identify too strongly with the fussy diners in “Portlandia,” gives me a jolt of adrenaline. Sometimes it reminds me of the rumble strips on the edges of highways, which warn the driver who has drifted too far from the safety of the right-hand lane.
I trust this straight man to be true, and it allows me to securely identify with him; this is especially so when Louie chooses one hilariously seductive path after another to satisfy both his role and his desires. When Silverman’s character does basically the same thing, I have to watch her with the same critical eye with which I watch “The Colbert Report.” I expect the punch line that jars me from any potential prolonged identification with their outrageous satires. Their reminders that I am at all like one of these objects of ridicule vary in severity of tone, from the rumblings that accompany straying from the lane, to a moral klaxon blaring. Reminders that I am like Louie don’t hurt.