Satire is a lesson, parody is a game

This is a quote by Nabokov in a 1967 interview when asked if there was a distinction between them and why he preferred the term parody. Nabokov also stated in a 1964 interview with Playboy magazine:

“I have neither the intent nor the temperament of a moral or social satirist”

This explains why he disliked Orwell’s 1984, which he viewed as too didactic. It is true that there is a paradoxical area when satire of totalitarianism could become too preachy or partisan, and is in danger of telling you what to think. Parody however is an equal opportunities offender, even leading to the concept of self-parody. Personally I think Nabokov was rather harsh on Orwell, who I think was an important writer. Often an instructional viewpoint is needed to break through the apathetic layer of varying thicknesses we all cover ourselves in. Nabokov was probably being coy about his use of satire also. If you overtly declare your work as satirical it leads the reader to assume you are putting forth a specific political or social opinion, whereas Nabokov preferred the reader to be unburdened from the authors proclivities. In any event, it was Orwell’s 1984 that resonated in popular culture more than Nabokov’s Bend Sinister or Invitation To A Beheading (which, at risk of stating a truism, might be too funny to be taken seriously. There are certain passages Lewis Carroll would have been proud of)

I had been thinking recently about the differences between different approaches to satire on TV. For me there are variances but I found them hard to pin down beyond this is/isn’t funny, which is purely subjective. Nabokov’s thoughts on satire and parody seem to inform on the topic.
When watching US satire, like the Daily Show, the feeling I got was that it is very earnest and from a particular political viewpoint. The lack of right-wing or even conservative satirical voices seems to be the political right’s own fault, as many of those voices are a screeching incoherence. Stephen Colbert is a master satirist and often does poke fun at the left under the guise of a right-wing firebrand, but mostly his outrage makes fun of his own constructed persona . It’s a shame though because as a leftie liberal I don’t want just my own opinions reflected back at me offering no challenge. The informational content in satire presented in a journalistic context addressed directly at the audience is in danger of being didactic and the satire lapsing into sarcasm. On the other hand serious issues can be addressed in this format and a single clear voice on a topic can illuminate and inform.
This probably follows from the US taking its politics, or at least the political process, more seriously than the British. A part of the American dream is that ordinary Joe can one day make it to be president. There is no British analog to this, largely due to class cynicism and the PM being seen as the ultimate political wonk. When Americans see a broken political system they expect better and demand to know what fool was in charge, whereas the British see the whole political caste as fools and expect nothing better. The US satirists have distrust and the Brits have, not exactly apathy, but sometimes flippancy. These are big generalisations, anyway there’s more.

Currently on British TV what is termed satire is usually on game shows with a quiz format. These shows sometimes degrade into banter and a competition of who can get their voice heard or shoehorn in a part of their standup act. The serious content is often lost and your thoughts on any issue come down to who the funniest comedian on the panel is. The most popular show is Have I Got News For You, which has regular panel of a conservative satirist (small c) and a surreal improvisational comic. There is a strong root of surrealness in British satire, which could be more accurately termed parody (?). Even in groundbreaking shows like Spitting Image, The Day Today and Brass Eye there’s a sense of absurd spoofing and bizarreness, which aligns closer to parody than satire.
Commentators in the UK have often lamented at the lack of anger in British satire, probably due to lapses into silliness and light-mindedness. A strength of this approach however is that it’s nonpartisan; everyone, of any political stripe is open to mockery.

There are numerous other avenues for satire and parody of course other than TV, including standup comedians, newspapers, magazines, websites etc. I chose TV because it has a wide audience of viewers with general interests. As the lines blur between how media is broadcast and consumed maybe different satirical formats will be created and new voices heard by a general audience that hasn’t specifically sought out that content. In the meantime does British parody need more satire, and US satire need more parody? Do we Brits need to take back Orwell and Americans embrace their inner Nabokov?
These are questions dependent on my earlier hypotheses, which are probably wrong, so take them as rhetorical.

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