Skip to main content

Why Americans Don’t Really Get 'Dangerous' Satire

We’re happy to consume satire when it congratulates us on our intelligence; in other countries, “taking artistic risk” actually means something.

When President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by the Egyptian military two years ago, Bassem Youseff—comedian, former heart surgeon, and television host of Al Bernameg—tweeted that he’d been put on a secret "hit list" by the then-administration, a fact he went on to address elsewhere. Two years later at the JFK Library in Boston, Massachusetts, Youssef said that he could return to Egypt if he wanted, but he wasn’t positive he’d be able to leave again.

Despite that level of pressure and danger, Youssef and his team produced consistently excellent work. And yet, for all his political bravery, he remains little more than a footnote to contemporary Western satire, almost always referred to in the Western press as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart.”

It’s a subtle slight, but indicative of a larger myopia among American consumers of political entertainment. No one asked Jon Stewart why he wasn’t on a hit list. No one asked Stewart why he isn’t called into the Attorney General’s office for critiquing the nationalism of his countrymen, as Youssef more or less was. To his credit, Stewart has often acknowledged this false equivalency (while tacitly allowing it)—it allows American audiences to feel daring without knowing real political stakes. And we can’t understand this disparity or its importance without recognizing that the problem isn’t new: The real guerrilla satire exists—impossibly, but somehow—in concert with censorship, in the most volatile political contexts. Consider the case of Werner Finck.

Born in Görlitz in 1902, Werner Finck—a virtuoso cabaret performer—made fun of Nazis to their faces during Hitler’s reign. When a known Gestapo informant was in the audience one night, he asked the individual point-blank if he should speak slower so everything could be written down. Elsewhere, as Rudolph Herzog quotes Carl Schulz:

After the Nazis came to power, a decree was issued that a picture of Hitler must be hung in all government offices. Werner Finck created a comic routine out of it ... Willi Schaeffer [the director of the cabaret] carried a picture onto the stage so that the audience could only see the back. Everyone in the audience, though, thought, “That’s a picture of Hitler.” Suddenly Schaeffer stumbled and almost dropped it. Finck hurried up to him, calling out, “Don’t topple! Don’t topple!”—which was greeted with uproarious laughter.

Finck was thrown into a concentration camp for his work—and survived it.

Despite such a heroic (and colorful) biography, Finck appears maybe eight times in the entirety of the New York Times archive, and there mostly in passing, even though the man released dozens of books and enjoyed a modestly successful, politically vital career. When it comes to satirizing Hitler, instead of Finck, we remember Charlie Chaplin’s dance in the Great Dictator. We remember Dr. Seuss’ cartoons. We remember Springtime for Hitler. We remember edited versions of Downfall. Until they met him, American soldiers thought Finck was a myth. They couldn’t believe anyone had the balls to call out the Nazi upper command in public—let alone through corrosive comedy.

America simply never had a Werner Finck, and we certainly don’t have a Bassem Youssef, even though we’d like to think we do. It is far safer and easier to canonize Chaplin’s ballet performance while forgetting the unsafe, uneasy provocations of Finck.

Americans tolerate bullshit even when we know—we know—it’s bullshit. At the best of times, there is something luxurious about this, Christmas lights of irony left up the whole year round because life is good, because, somehow, we can afford to tolerate annual political hackery and all manner of internal division. When John Steinbeck wrote that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” he was getting at the deceptively momentary nature of American bullshit, too. It’s bullshit, after all. Why would it bother lingering? Bullshit, by its very name, suggests a lack of seriousness or danger.

But bullshit is dangerous, and Americans can better understand the full political power of satire by watching its most courageous practitioners in action. And that interrogation is all the more important in a world where—as Ben Schwartz wrote in the Baffler—satire has been requisitioned by the state, as “the established culture seeks to inoculate itself from the complaints of the satirist by appropriating the satirist’s voice.” So look at Youssef's work. Watch or listen to old clips of Werner Finck. Look at how genial he seems in the video, like he’s just on the verge of popping next door and asking someone if he could borrow some sugar—in Nazi Germany. Look at the work done by Kianoush Ramezani, who—as Sonia Tamar Seeman has written—“now lives in exile—in France.” If we do that, if we look beyond Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or John Oliver, if we look outside our borders and self-imposed comfort zones, then the truly muscular work of truly dangerous satire will come to inspire the next thing, the next wave of corrosion and comic critique. And that will be fascinating to see.