A joke can be funny for numerous reasons, but satire is funny only to the degree that it's true.
That's a lesson apparently lost on most of the writing and performing that passes for satire right now, particularly as exemplified by TV's "Saturday Night Live," America's most widely viewed comedy forum, where (with Dana Carvey's work excepted) you'll see satirical objects crudely vilified as stupid, corrupt or wildly incompetent.
Unlike the joke, which tends to separate us from the thing joked about, satire's sting is in a plausible intimacy where the real and the ridiculous lose their distinction. Satire doesn't wear a happy face; it's as bland as the courtroom facade of a mass murderer, with whom it shares a renegade heart.
Probably no one understands the close encounter between observer and observed better than Harry Shearer ("I don't try to cross the line," he said recently, "I try to erase it"), whose occasional sketches on network television have resulted in some acute and devastatingly funny views of Americana. Who could ever watch a synchronized swimming routine again with a straight face after Shearer and Martin Short did their send-up in response to the '84 Olympics, in which they deftly dispatched a number of other sports cliches?
Mike Wallace's deadly earnest inquisitions cannot have wholly survived Shearer's straight-on, ostensibly humorless depiction, and (once again) Short's portrayal of a corporate answer man on the take (Wallace's subject on the grill) defined for mid-'80s America the image of the well-placed duplicitous weasel whose road to righteousness has been smoothed with hush money.
Shearer, who had a brief and unhappy time working on "Saturday Night Live" in 1984 (on which more later), has been keeping busy with shows for cable TV's Cinemax (he directed the serial comedy "Martin Mull's History of White People in America") and a couple of movies, among other things. But his home base since 1985 has been on radio station KCRW-FM Sunday mornings at 10 as writer-performer for "Le Show," an hourlong program of music, satirical sketches and commentary.
Sunday mornings at 10 is probably one of the safest slots to handle "Le Show," which lately has been satirizing the Iran- contra hearings and, in an ongoing series called "Hellcats of the White House," the Reagans and their official retainers. Freeway traffic tends to be light at that day and hour. Even still, your correspondent has nearly cracked up several times, literally as well as figuratively, over a fiendishly well-placed satiric barb.
Each segment of "Hellcats" takes something from the news of the prior week (Shearer's Reagans are apparently growing disenchanted with Chief of Staff Howard Baker's soft-line image, which isn't as bracing to the President as when "Don Regan kind of hollered at me and grew red in the face"). And if no one felt like laughing when Rob Owen read his silly poem to Oliver North before the congressional committees, Shearer caught the throb of its teen-love idolatry a few days later in an exquisitely romantic beach scene where, to the accompaniment of violins and pounding surf, Rob and Ollie reaffirmed their devotion to each other.
Shearer was sitting in a trendy Venice restaurant, the kind of place that plays Pachelbel and Barber's "Adagio for Strings" on the sound system and charges $20 for a couple of glasses of wine and an espresso. At 43, he has worked in virtually every form of comedy, beginning with a childhood stint on "The Jack Benny Show" and including a role in the 1984 production of "Beyond Therapy" at the L.A. Public Theatre.
About his comedic outlook, he said: "There are a lot of people who believe grand designs exist and can be carried out. Then there are people like me who believe that human beings are basically so incompetent that progress is a matter of mopping up after our mistakes. Human ineptitude is both our saving grace and our nail in the coffin. It keeps conspiracy theories from being plausible and nuclear plants from being a good idea.
"When we made 'This Is Spinal Tap' (Rob Reiner's 1984 film spoof of rock documentaries), there was a lot of nervousness on the part of the film company execs, who said, 'You've got to let people know this is a comedy in the first 30 seconds.' When somebody says 'I thought that was real,' I take it as a compliment, because reality is so awe-inspiring. If you can approach it, it's goofy, bizarre, bland, amazing. In the radio satires I'm doing right now, the form is dictated by a phrase--I don't have a real process I use. I distill the material out of my dread over what I'll be doing next for the show.
"To me, the job is not to change the real into a caricature, it's to take a mass and boil it down to a point where you barely have to manipulate it at all."