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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Is SNL's Heroin AM Skit Satire?

Time Spent on book: 4 hours
What I did: More "Gander Snatching." Seriously, you'd be amazed what I'm finding.
Grade for the day: B-



Last week, I showed this video to a seminar at the annual meeting of the Society for Values in Higher Education. I laughed. A lot. Everyone in the room laughed too.

And then, together, we all felt guilty. Very, very guilty. We all know someone who has been caught up in the heroin epidemic. Would they find it funny? Would their family?

The guilt hovered over the conversation.

As I mentioned last week, the theme of this year's SVHE meeting was satire. So the group that I participate in read selections from the literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. We also read Is Satire Saving Our Nation?: Mockery and American Politics by Remy Maisel and Sophia McClennen.

Taken together, I began to think of satire as something that uses irony and humor to draw forth the uncomfortable realities of the world around us. Without it, we sit silently, carefully, and fearfully on the sidelines.

"Fear is the extreme expression of narrow-minded and stupid seriousness, which is defeated by laughter," Bakhtin theorizes. "Complete liberty is possible only in the completely fearless world." To laugh, then, is to liberate ourselves from our insulated worlds, to connect us with each other at a primitive level.

We see this further developed in Bakhtin's discussion of the "grotesque body," the masked character at the carnival whose various orifices are accentuated and celebrated. The curious look of this figure "discloses its essence as a principle of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, or defecation. This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body, the link in the chain of genetic development, or more correctly speaking, two links shown at the point where they enter into each other."

That's a lot of words, I know. But to put it crudely, I think that he is saying that when we drop our pants, we discover that we have much, much more in common than we think. And if we can laugh at this, then, maybe, we can find some place to begin a conversation.

So satire should have an inclusive draw. We should be laughing together. As Maisel and McClennen emphasize in their book, satire is not mockery. Mockery demeans, disrespects, and prods at the dignity of an individual or group. Consider how John Stewart liked to call Mitch Mcconnell "the turtle." What effective satire does is elevates beyond an individual personality to examine something more universal--think, Eddie Murphy's classic SNL skit, "White Like Me."

Still, can any satire really be fully inclusive? I like The Daily Show. So do my friends. But we listen to a lot of NPR. And we all drive Subarus. In other words, The Daily Show is satire for "my people." It serves as a rally point for "us," separated from "those people" whose preferred media is something like talk radio.

The more I think about satire, the less clear I became about what it is. And the more that I think about the Heroin P.M. skit, the more guilty I become.

If it's satirical, what is it saying? To scratch the surface, we see a message delivered directly to white America. The smiles, music, and familiar scenery of a designer drug commercial offers a laughable cover for the ugly reality that heroin has infiltrated suburbia. It forces us to dispense of the prototypical image of the heroin addict, someone who bears resemblance to Bubbles from The Wire. The new face of heroin is your neighbor; your coworker; your friend; and your family.

I guess that's the part that gets me. The heroin epidemic has real victims. Many of them. And the number grows each day. A short while ago I watched Chasing Heroin, a PBS documentary. One of my takeaways is that we need to move away from seeing addiction as an individual moral failing. Neither is it a legal problem. Instead, it is a public health crisis and an issue that needs serious medical attention and research.

But how many of us have seen this documentary? And by way of comparison, how many of us have seen this SNL skit? Both have the ability to raise awareness. But the latter reaches a much broader audience. If I'm laughing at the skit, though, am I laughing at the problem?

Or, for at least that moment, am I seeing that this is my problem too? Does the laughter, in other words, shatter the humorless silence that surrounds this problem and let us all see it anew?

I really don't know. What do you think?

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