“Satire is what closes Saturday night.”
--playwright George S. Kauffman (he was kidding, sorta)
Topical satire usually ages about as well as milk: good for a week or so, then phew!!! The need for speed when penning a humorous critique of the news makes writing it difficult—especially nowadays, when the news is so patently absurd that it already reads like humor (or maybe horror). But a great satirical piece is a joy to read/hear/view, and I’ve long wanted to try my hand at it.
Besides, some satire transcends its time. What writer wouldn’t want to be compared to Orwell, Voltaire, or Swift (all masters of the genre)? You don’t have to live in 18th century France or England to appreciate the irony of Candide’s “best of all possible worlds”), or to admire the lampooning of society’s superficial values in Gulliver’s Travels. Maybe I can pen an essay so sharply critical, yet so clever, that students will be perplexed and bored by it hundreds of years from now!!
So this month, I signed up for an online class called (what else?) “Writing Topical Satire” with a humorist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeneys and other swell places. When the hour came to log in and the teacher appeared onscreen, at first I thought her teenage daughter was pulling a prank. But no, this (really) young adult was our instructor! Like my Rose and Julie, Caitlin lives in Brooklyn, which I’m coming to understand is the center of the universe, the way Manhattan used to be.
In 90 fast-paced minutes, I learned the following:
1) How to search the news for a topic that really engages me
2) Where to place the jokes (end of sentence/paragraph, please!) Sadly, I’m on my own to actually come up with the jokes themselves.
3) How to write a draft (really quick), edit it (quicker) and submit it (super-quick, before the topic is either covered by someone else or has grown stale).
I appreciated the significant amount of info contained in a mere hour and a half, and her emailed notes to the class were awesome. It was worth the price of tuition to finally learn what “heighten” is. That’s been a common remark about my rejected humor pieces (“some funny stuff, but it just doesn’t heighten enough.”) I was always too embarrassed to ask what the heck they meant; turns out “heightening” is starting out pretty believable, and escalating to ridiculous as the piece progresses. Now I get it!
We leave Lewes first thing tomorrow morning, after a wonderfully relaxing vacation (meaning, I didn’t get much writing done at ALL, and am convincing myself this had been my intention all along ). There are still a few precious hours left, though, so maybe it’s not too late to churn out a satirical masterpiece! I simply need to select my subject, tightly focus it, write a bunch of hysterically funny jokes and, above all, heighten!
I’ll be sure to post a link to my New Yorker essay as soon as it comes out. You’re most welcome!