I’ve seen a lot of criticism over political correctness and comedy in the last few years. People are unhappy that they cannot make the same kinds of jokes today that worked ten years ago. Jokes about women, jokes about ethnic and racial groups, and jokes about sexual orientation all seem to be largely off limits, and people are bemoaning that comedy is effectively dead. I think that such criticisms are shallow and fail to recognize the important power that good satire can have and how crafty and useful comedy can be without deliberately poking fun of people whose identities have been longtime punchlines.
Comedy which picks on minority groups, racial and ethnic groups, non-typical gender and sexuality groups, or women are often described as “punching down” – meaning that they take easy shots at groups that are less politically powerful or socially influential. The jokes may be funny and may poke fun at real double standards, behaviors, or factors of a group, but they are also intended to make fun of people and groups with marginalized political and social capital. They give a more powerful group a laugh at the expense of the less powerful group. This can then be dangerous for the individuals in that less powerful group.
Good satire manages not to pick on just a single group. It doesn’t make fun of the individuals within the joke, but hits broader points among humanity. Steven Pinker describes it by writing, “a moralizer can be mocked, a polemicist can be silenced, but a satirist can get the same point across through stealth. By luring an audience into taking the perspective of an outsider – a fool, a foreigner, a traveler – a satirist can make them appreciate the hypocrisy of their own society and the flaws in human nature that foster it.” Satirists don’t pick on a single individual or group. They don’t create something funny purely at the expense of another. Instead, they invite audiences in to share in the humor of larger social experiences. I think that many of the comedians we have found funny over the years have actually been polemicists and not satirists, and they are now finding that we no longer appreciate their brand of humor.
As Pinker’s quote notes, a satirists is stealthy in their comedy. They can still be just as funny, but their humor is not directly polemic. It is subtle, questioning, and gets the audience to adopt a new perspective. I think that much of the humor in recent Marvel movies, like in Shang Chi, achieve their comedic effect through satire more than through polemic jokes that we now find so troublesome. Comedy is not dead, but polemic comedy is perhaps no longer viable. Satire, however, continues to be a strong and influential comedic force.