It Works if it Stings

Michelle Wolf’s speech at this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner was a jaw-dropping first watch, and a second watch kept the laughs coming. But how can you know a roast is not just funny, but effective?

In The Satire Paradox, the tenth episode of Malcom Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, he argues that the genius of political satire lies in its ability to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum. In other words, the bite of political satire gets lost because both sides think the other is getting roasted.

This is an unsettling thesis for the millions of people who regularly enjoy—and learn from—satirical late night talk shows with the understanding that they’re getting true information. 

For Malcolm, the paradox of satire lies in its ambiguity, which undermines the effectiveness of its criticism. The viewer’s interpretation is always slippery to the extent that no single interpretation is ultimately valid, and different sides can think it’s funny for opposing reasons. Because satire requires our interpretive participation, we have less energy left to think critically about whether the satire has truth or not.

Malcom Gladwell cites an essay by Johnathan Coe in the London Review of Books titled Sinking Giggling into the Sea that, he claims, dives deeper into the Paradox of Satire. Coe explains satire as a response to the intractable problems of life, to which our only response can be laughter.

Gladwell and Coe paint a dismal picture of political satire; they suggest that the amusement we feel when watching Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, and Samantha Bee is a reaction to the political problems facing us today that we cannot solve.

However, other voices have tried to move beyond this less optimistic picture. In fact, a growing body of doctoral and master theses have been written that argue satirical news sources, rather than just presenting ‘fake news’, can create audience opinion.

In contrast to Malcolm Gladwell and Johnathan Coe, this research has shown that political satire can have real outcomes on public opinion and the public discourse. Although the efficacy of public discourse shouldn’t be ignored, Gladwell is right that satire can be dangerous when overly ambiguous.

Ambiguity, however, was not something Michelle Wolf’s speech suffered from. Not only far-right news sources outraged by her jokes, but the center-right seemed just as offended (here’s a hint, they didn’t like the abortion jokes).

Unambiguousness, or directness, is something that Malcolm Gladwell points to as a bell weather for effective political satire, and unambiguous is exactly what Wolf’s speech was.

The intent of Wolf’s speech was to speak truth to power and expose the administration’s tendency to blatantly pass of lies as fact. Michelle didn’t pander to one side of the political isle or the other, and she didn’t forget to point out the failings of the press to combat the administration’s attack on truth.

In this regard, the comedian’s last few lines of the night were on-target. She characterized the relationship between the media and the Trump administration as a toxic, romantic relationship, pointing to the fact that the Trump administration has given the press a major opportunity to profit off of the public’s fear of the year and a half old presidency.

Trump and his administration have adopted lying and dishonesty as their primary strategy for governance. The administration’s practice has led the wide-spread sentiment that the US has entered into a post-truth moment, a word which has recently been added to the Oxford Dictionary.

For myself, the speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner overcame Gladwell’s paradox of satire and Johnathan Coe’s pessimism. One of the most compelling reasons to think this is that Michelle Wolf connected systemic sexual assault on women and the equally widespread efforts to cover-up these crimes, both of which were exposed by the MeToo Movement, with the Trump administrations use of deception and lies.   


Written by Quixote Vassilakis

You might recognize his work A Short Polemic on Men’s Rights and The Legality of Inclusion Riders