As an editor at “MAD Magazine” for over 30 years, I have long understood that there is no vibrant satire without free speech. I also understand that the best satire does not pummel its targets with a feather and has a fearless quality about it. So, satirists can’t spend too much time worrying — what, us worry? — about how their work will be evaluated by supporters of the target of their satire.
I recently gave a copy of the latest MAD book, “MAD About Trump,” to a Republican neighbor. After reading it, he said, “It’s so offensive to him (Trump), it really crosses a line.”
“We’re just doing our job,” I replied. ”And let’s face it, no matter how hard we try, we can’t possibly be as vulgar as Trump.” I got a chuckle out of him with that, which made me feel good.
Still, our exchange inspired me to ask myself: What and where exactly is this “line” my neighbor says that “MAD” crossed? Answer: It is the point, from his perspective, at which our material stopped being funny and turned purely offensive. We all have such a line and where and how you draw it determines your sense of humor. Please note: It’s not just individuals who have “lines” — societies and cultures do as well. For example, if you think Kathy Griffin was treated unfairly in America for holding up a severed head of the president (for which she has recently retracted her apology), imagine the response if she lived in Saudi Arabia and had held up a severed head of the King.
“Star Trek’s” Captain Picard famously said, “The line must be drawn here!” He was talking about the Borg, but no matter. As a satirist, I say, “Draw the line and I will cross it without apology.” After all, without lines to cross, I’d be out of work.
That said, we satirists have lines too, and lines vary among satirists just as they do among members of our audience. This brings me to the latest cover of the satirical newspaper, “Charlie Hebdo,” which depicts swastika flags and hands raised above floodwaters in Nazi salutes with the copy, “God exists! He drowned all the neo-Nazis of Texas.”
This is precisely the kind of satire that we do not engage in at “MAD,” not because we’re cowed, but because for us it falls squarely into the category of “victim humor,” something we do our best to avoid. I suppose that it could be argued that every joke has a “victim,” but as a satirist I make a distinction between “victim” and “target.”
While virtually anyone or anything can be the target of satire, what is the point of making fun of innocents who die in a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, or for that matter the sick and infirm, or those living in abject poverty?
The editors of “Charlie Hebdo” would probably say that they were making a broad point about what they view as the prevalence of white nationalism in Texas. However, connecting white nationalism to random deaths caused by a hurricane is not only nonsensical, it makes light of the suffering of those who died. Newsflash: The editors of “Charlie Hebdo” don’t care. This is their brand, it’s what they do. We are just paying more attention now, because they are offending Texans instead of Muslims.
In the aftermath of the terrorist shootings at the “Charlie Hebdo” offices, “MAD” expressed solidarity and support. It didn’t matter that none of us are especially big fans of “Charlie Hebdo”’s brand of satire. The idea that satirists could be murdered in cold blood for publishing cartoons was chilling. We felt a responsibility to speak out.
“MAD” published a cartoon showing Alfred E. Neuman and the Black and White Spy from “Spy vs. Spy” raising a giant pen with a “Charlie Hebdo” flag attached. A few days later, our Editor-In-Chief, John Ficarra, offered an intentionally sobering commentary on “CBS Sunday Morning.”
On Monday, we were back at work looking for ripe targets for satire. “Charlie Hebdo” itself was not a ripe target for satire to us then, any more than the unfortunate victims of Hurricane Harvey are now.
At the end of the day, making satire is a moral exercise. Satirists reveal themselves as much by the form and tone of their satire, as they do by the targets they choose. Even more than satiric target practice, the editors at “Charlie Hebdo” need practice in choosing satiric targets.