Life & Liberty: A Satirist's Lament


I write satires. I like to. I send a lot of them to a lot of different magazines. Many of them come back. Others, much to my pleasure, get printed—they even pay me to print them.

This is not a bad way to earn money. Oh, it won't put the kids through college. But it supplements the other, more pedestrian means at my disposal, by which I meet the monthly rent and satisfy the installments on my Underwood.

There is a problem though: lately, there's been a bulge on the supply side of satire. And as with most market distortions, it is directly traceable to government.

You see, it's become harder and harder, over the years, to sell a piece of satire. This is because life itself has become so much of a satire that there is hardly any need left for writers of my ilk.

Allow me an analogy: Years ago, you needed a specialist to run a computer. Nowadays, the things have become so simple that our local elementary school has legions of second-graders who can make an Apple II do their will. Likewise, the state of the world has become so absurd that anyone can now be a satirist.

It used to be that it took some knowledge of form, structure, style, irony, and symbolism to be satiric. This is no more the case. Face it—any mackerel today could get up in front of 50 people, say "Post Office," and get big laughs. If you don't believe me, just try it. In fact, it's precisely government agencies that have made it hardest for us.

Imagine your old Aunt Ethel, who never in her life has been able to tell a joke to its completion. Either she remembers just the lead-in or just the punch line, but never both at the same time and place. No Joan Rivers, she. Further, imagine she's at some shindig for the geriatric set, when one of her cronies laments a great fear of airplane travel. Says Aunt Ethel, "Why don't you take Amtrak?" Boom! She gets big laughs. No less than any laughs I might get by pounding on the Underwood all night long.

It's depressing. And a depressed writer is seldom a funny writer (except in the case of Dostoevsky, who, I think, was really having a lot of fun at the expense of his readership).

Let's imagine that you go to a party and things are getting pretty dull. You've got your back to the planter. You're surrounded by a little group, their conversation revolving around our diseased economy. All is woe. Someone asks where he might keep what little money he has to protect it from inflation. Another frets about the lack of a strong gold standard. Yet another moans that the government will surely confiscate whatever he might be able to put aside, anyway. In the old days, this would be a fecund situation which could engender decent, if not great, satire. But noooooo! Before you can collect your hat and coat and make tracks to the nearest word processor, some cost accountant with orthopedic Guccis and a big string of spinach attached to his left incisor says, "Well, there's always Social Security!"—and the place breaks up as if he were Alan King doing another number on his poor, abused wife. Where does that leave us, the satirists?

Point is, when it comes to satire, the government is in direct and unfair competition with the private sector. And that's me. My own tax dollars are being used to create and maintain giant departments, agencies, bureaus, commissions, and projects, all of them huge jokes by anyone's estimation.

Just mention OSHA and people begin to giggle. Allude to a snail darter and people are inclined to believe you're a great wit. Remember Earl Butz? Just say the guy's name and people smile that smile they usually reserve for Mickey Mouse cartoons. When someone asks your kid, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" teach him to say, "Administrator of EPA." He'll grow in confidence as he basks in the easy laughter of those he meets.

Where is the skill in all this? What is the challenge? How might I ply my trade, sell my wares, if government has made the world a satire unto itself?

I am an honest businessman who is, quite simply, getting run out of business. If I were a lesser person, I'd find a way to protect myself. I'd lobby for my own agency. I'd be Secretary of Satire—or Humor Czar. Perhaps head of a Select Commission on Chuckling. I don't know. But when government got into this thing, I should have gotten in at the bottom.

Stephen Barone is a school psychologist, musician, electrician, and free-lance writer.