Dr. Strangelove Or: Does Satire Have To Be Funny To Be Effective?

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You're a Genius all the time
So does satire have to be funny to be effective? What do you think? I'm focusing more on film here, but you can read into this and answer however you want. It's a question that was posed in a review I read of the purportedly horrible War, Inc. The reviewer went into some detail about how right-on the movie was in some of its observations, and yet he couldn't in good conscience recommend it because of how clunky and supremely unfunny it was.

Personally, that's kind of how I feel about Dr. Strangelove. I respect its genius and how remarkably perceptive it is and whatnot. But it doesn't make me laugh. I "get it", but I think the humor, for the most part, falls flat.

Satire, by definition I believe, is a form of comedy. So can it still be as effective as it wants to be if it doesn't make you double over in hysterics? Should a slice of satire be measure by how many times you slap your knees or by how many times you nod your head knowingly?


Is this funny?



Great thread. I'm of both minds about Dr. Strangelove; I find some of the satire to be relatively humourless, but I find other parts (like the initial phone call with Dmitri) to be hysterical.

Scenes like that excluded, I guess how effective it is depends on what its goal is. If it's just meant to be a pointed barb at the idea of MAD and the way governments behave to defend themselves, then I suppose it's pretty effective. If it's meant to be funny, well...not as much.

Ironically, I think we have lots of examples of satire replacing comedy these days. The Daily Show comes to mind. I used to find it hysterical, even when it was making fun of political figures I liked a good deal more than it did. Now I find it to be merely sarcastic, confusing sheer derision for comedy. Family Guy and American Dad are two other prime examples.

Anyway, I'm digressing. In my completely subjective view, I think satire ought to be funny as well as perceptive. Otherwise, it's just commentary; just another opinion. Nothing special. Something can be satire without being funny, but good satire has to be both, to my mind.



Can't ask me this question because I think Strangelove is not only on-target but hilarious.

As for War, Inc., it is dreadful. Some of the satire comes through, I suppose, but while it's certainly more biting and zealous than any mainstream fare from the Bush era it also isn't at all well written, either in structure, character or perhaps most crucially in tone, and it goes after too many targets rather than making something zeroed in a handful of issues. See it for yourself, but it's damn near inpenatrable, and I happen to agree with the flick's politics.

Like any movie, but especially comedy (satire or not), I find "tone" - as intangible as it may be - is so very important. Strangelove's works for me, War, Inc. doesn't.
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So does satire have to be funny to be effective? What do you think? I'm focusing more on film here, but you can read into this and answer however you want. It's a question that was posed in a review I read of the purportedly horrible War, Inc. The reviewer went into some detail about how right-on the movie was in some of its observations, and yet he couldn't in good conscience recommend it because of how clunky and supremely unfunny it was.

Personally, that's kind of how I feel about Dr. Strangelove. I respect its genius and how remarkably perceptive it is and whatnot. But it doesn't make me laugh. I "get it", but I think the humor, for the most part, falls flat.

Satire, by definition I believe, is a form of comedy. So can it still be as effective as it wants to be if it doesn't make you double over in hysterics? Should a slice of satire be measure by how many times you slap your knees or by how many times you nod your head knowingly?


Is this funny?
No, satire doesn't have to be funny. The basic definition of satire is "a literary work holding up human vices to ridicule or scorn," neither of which may actually generate laughter. The novel Gulliver's Travels is a satire without a single bellylaugh in the whole book. The satire Man of La Mancha certainly wasn't a laughing matter when its author was imprisoned by the Spanish inquisition.

But with Peter Sellers playing three roles in Dr. Strangelove, you may have to have some appreciation for the dry British humor. And maybe you have to grow up around ranchers and rodeo riders, as I did, to appreciate an actor like Slim Pickens, a veteran of so many western movies, in a role like that. It might require a certain historical knowledge of how the Nazi scientists who made the V-bombs that shattered London and Antwerp during World War II later headed up the missle programs in both the US and USSR. And a few years of military service would have sharpened your appreciation of ding-bat officers as played by Scott and Wynn in that film.

I, on the otherhand, was hooked when they began running the opening credits against a background shot of a Strategic Air Command bomber being refueled in mid-air as an orchestra played "Try a Little Tenderness," which not only described the mid-air docking of the two huge aircraft but also was good advice for US and Russian relations. Now that did make me laugh out loud.



You're a Genius all the time
Great thread. I'm of both minds about Dr. Strangelove; I find some of the satire to be relatively humourless, but I find other parts (like the initial phone call with Dmitri) to be hysterical.

Scenes like that excluded, I guess how effective it is depends on what its goal is. If it's just meant to be a pointed barb at the idea of MAD and the way governments behave to defend themselves, then I suppose it's pretty effective. If it's meant to be funny, well...not as much.

Ironically, I think we have lots of examples of satire replacing comedy these days. The Daily Show comes to mind. I used to find it hysterical, even when it was making fun of political figures I liked a good deal more than it did. Now I find it to be merely sarcastic, confusing sheer derision for comedy. Family Guy and American Dad are two other prime examples.

Anyway, I'm digressing. In my completely subjective view, I think satire ought to be funny as well as perceptive. Otherwise, it's just commentary; just another opinion. Nothing special. Something can be satire without being funny, but good satire has to be both, to my mind.
Yeah, good stuff, I go back and forth on Strangelove all the time.

As far as The Daily Show goes, I think it was always a bit on the mean-spirited by design side, so maybe you're just getting tired of it? Jon Stewart, hilarious though he may be, seems to pander to his audience a lot. He's always had a sorta holier than thou art attitude and I think that that show has forever aspired to be the outlet and voice for a particular demographic. And, actually, it sort of has became that, so maybe you're right and it has changed for the smuggier? I dunno. Anyway, I still watch and laugh pretty hard at both Stewart and Colbert. Sometimes they'll get a tad intellectually insulting, sure, but old habits die hard, baby.

Can't ask me this question because I think Strangelove is not only on-target but hilarious.

As for War, Inc., it is dreadful. Some of the satire comes through, I suppose, but while it's certainly more biting and zealous than any mainstream fare from the Bush era it also isn't at all well written, either in structure, character or perhaps most crucially in tone, and it goes after too many targets rather than making something zeroed in a handful of issues. See it for yourself, but it's damn near inpenatrable, and I happen to agree with the flick's politics.

Like any movie, but especially comedy (satire or not), I find "tone" - as intangible as it may be - is so very important. Strangelove's works for me, War, Inc. doesn't.
This is all good stuff, too, but I was really just using Strangelove as an example. The question was meant to be more general; in that I was asking if any satire, not just Strangelove, required a healthy dose of the funny to be effective. Tone is important in comedy, yeah, but quality satires adapt a number of different tones to fit the mark(s) they're trying to hit. Satire can run the gamut from being overly sardonic and dark to fluffily playful and jokey. My question is, disregarding everything and anything else, does good satire have to balance out its perceptiveness with laugh-out-loud moments? I know ideally it'd have both, but can it succeed without the guffaws?

And I'm not planning on seeing War Inc. anytime soon. The next time I get the urge to watch Hilary Duff drop a scorpion into her underpants I'll just... I don't know where I'm going with this sentence.



You're a Genius all the time
No, satire doesn't have to be funny. The basic definition of satire is "a literary work holding up human vices to ridicule or scorn," neither of which may actually generate laughter. The novel Gulliver's Travels is a satire without a single bellylaugh in the whole book. The satire Man of La Mancha certainly wasn't a laughing matter when its author was imprisoned by the Spanish inquisition.
Taken so far out of the context of their times, though, that's tough. Gulliver's and especially Don Quixote more than likely were very humourous to the audiences that they were initially intended for. In the interest of full disclosure, I am talking out of my ass on this point, because I've read neither work.

Originally Posted by rufnek
But with Peter Sellers playing three roles in Dr. Strangelove, you may have to have some appreciation for the dry British humor. And maybe you have to grow up around ranchers and rodeo riders, as I did, to appreciate an actor like Slim Pickens, a veteran of so many western movies, in a role like that. It might require a certain historical knowledge of how the Nazi scientists who made the V-bombs that shattered London and Antwerp during World War II later headed up the missle programs in both the US and USSR. And a few years of military service would have sharpened your appreciation of ding-bat officers as played by Scott and Wynn in that film.

I, on the otherhand, was hooked when they began running the opening credits against a background shot of a Strategic Air Command bomber being refueled in mid-air as an orchestra played "Try a Little Tenderness," which not only described the mid-air docking of the two huge aircraft but also was good advice for US and Russian relations. Now that did make me laugh out loud.
I don't find Strangelove completely humorless, but I do think its comedy isn't the equal of its perceptiveness or intelligence. Again, talking out of my ass because comedy is wholly subjective, but that's just how I feel. Anyway, given your initial paragraph, you probably would've appreciated Strangelove even if it didn't make you chuckle. So i guess that answers my question.



I haven't seen War, Inc., but Dr. Strangelove is hilarious. It has a wonderful cast, too. I just love George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, and Peter Sellers.
I notice this all the time, though. With different types of comedy, come different tastes/opinions. I knew who to show that movie to, and who not to waste my time on. I knew they would just sit there. The people I showed it to, laughed as much, or more than I did. It would be great if everyone found it funny, but I think that's impossible to pull off, with any type of comedy.

I doubt I'm really answering your question. I'm just rambling.

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Taken so far out of the context of their times, though, that's tough. Gulliver's and especially Don Quixote more than likely were very humourous to the audiences that they were initially intended for. In the interest of full disclosure, I am talking out of my ass on this point, because I've read neither work.
I think if you were to read Gulliver and Quixote you appreciate there is no "context of their times." The human faults and silliness that those authors were mocking are just as real today as they were then. I didn't mean to imply those books are completely humorless, any more than you found Strangelove totally humorless. I'm just saying that they are not exactly fall down funny to the extent of maybe Catch 22 or Catcher in the Rye.

Bottomline is that it's OK that you don't think Strangelove is particularly funny because you still get the point(s) that the film is making. For instance, there's an old film in which John Lennon appeared called How I Won the War, which satirizes war, the British army, soccer, wartime adultry, "Dear John" letters, and lord knows what else. It's silly but not, I think, funny. I never thought The Loved One was falldown funny, but it does have its moments and I recognize its satire. On the other hand, take any of the Monty Python films and they are all satirical, silly, and funny.

In the long run, we may politely disagree on whether something is funny or not (i.e., the French love Jerry Lewis!), but we're more likely I think to recognize the satire of any of these books and movies regardless of when they were written or made, because human nature really hasn't changed all that much since we started to walk upright.



I still watch and laugh pretty hard at both Stewart and Colbert.
Good example of different tastes in comedy. I generally find Stewart to be funny and witty, while Colbert (who used to be tolerable and occasionally humorous in small doses on The Daily Show) now sets my teeth on edge with his prolonged silliness.


My question is, disregarding everything and anything else, does good satire have to balance out its perceptiveness with laugh-out-loud moments? I know ideally it'd have both, but can it succeed without the guffaws?
This is a clearer statement of your question, and I therefore will refine my previous answer to say (1) some satire can be effective and entertaining without being funny but (2) some people don't enjoy it if they don't think it's funny enough and therefore may not get as much out of it. In other words, it would appear that some people expect satire to make them laugh out loud and therefore are disappointed and may be distracted if it doesn't, while others find humor in the satire that doesn't seem all that funny to others. I think it depends to a large degree on what one brings to it in terms of one's sense of humor and one's knowledge and experience that might enable one to pick up on some "inside humor" that someone else might not get. For instance, if one doesn't recognize the tune "Try a Little Tenderness," one is not going to get its connection with the scene of the aircraft refueling or the movie's theme about Cold War relationships.

To cite another example--is Clockwork Orange funny? I didn't think so. And I personally didn't get many grins out of Brazil. Yet there are many things in Strangelove that make me laugh. And I enjoy and have rewatched Strangelove but not Clockwork or Brazil. So although satire doesn't have to be funny, it may be that we enjoy and remember it more if it is funny to us.

But then is there a point at which a funny satire crosses the line to become a spoof?



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Satire is using humor to make a point and usually it involves exgarration. It can be very dry as in Guliver's Travels and not laugh out loud or it can be very in your face as in "The Daily Show," which I typically agree with politically but find it so forceful and heavy handed that it's more insulting than clever or funny. I just do not like Jon Stewart much either. I prefered "The Daily Show" when Craig Kilborne was on.

Dr. Strangelove is brilliant. Essentially the plot boils down to the world being blown up because a crazy general can't get it up.

I'm actually having to deal with satire in my short stories class as we're reading Rip Van Winkle which is a satire of the Dutch and unhappy "patriarchal" marriages.
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You're a Genius all the time
@rufnek: Yeah, I laugh at an inexplicably wide ranged and oftentimes completely absurd variety of pop art. I think both A Clockwork Orange and especially Brazil are hilarious, albeit in two very different ways. They're both exceptional in that they're fantastically satirical and yet they don't sacrifice any other narrative essentials in the name of scoring that good satire. For me, anyway. I like the idea of remembering and enjoying a piece of satire more if it's funny, and yet still being able to appreciate its place in flim/literary history even if it's not.

And as far as the satire/spoof line goes, who knows? No good work of literature or film confines itself to a vacuum. Most of my favorite films aren't easily classified and I like that about them. The different branches of comedy, especially, are hard to pin down and they often transcend one particular label.


@Viddy: Kilborn nailed the stereotypical Sportscenter anchor for me, but I think both of his late night shows were extremely hit or miss. Stewart, at least, is consistent and he's got a much better writing staff. I am a little sad Kilborn has completely dropped off the face of the Earth, though.

Is Rip Van Winkle funny? Or, at least, is it meant to be funny?



I don't find Strangelove completely humorless, but I do think its comedy isn't the equal of its perceptiveness or intelligence.
Funny (not "haha") but kind of have the opposite opinion of it. Maybe it's just the bluntness of the point and simplicity of the plot but I just didn't find it all that intelligent. Not at all like some of Kubrick's later movies like 2001.

I'm sorry I don't have more to add about that movie in particular, I know it's a favorite of many if not most film-buff types, but I do think the cleverness of satire tends to have a kind of a patting-itself-on-the-back-for-addressing-big-issues sort of taint that just turns me off so any real cleverness just zips by me.

Good post by rufnek though, growing up in the 80s/90s, most of the cultural references surely aren't as immediate and biting to me.

I know I bring this up a lot, but one satirist who I think was pretty good/funny is Juzo Itami. For a good example see Minbo. It helps if you know some backstory though. Dudes actually put the director in the hospital for making fun of them. He just kept doing it though (until he eventually committed suicide). I don't know if that shows intelligence, but certainly shows guts and I think that makes it funnier (as well as the fact that to casual observation it just looks like pleasant fluff/quaintness [see also: Tampopo]). To me that also shows subtlety that is more intelligent or at least clever than being beaned over the head with a message, and no matter how many clever little in-jokes there are in Strangelove, I don't think anyone would say it's not straightforward (though if anyone disagrees, I'm all ears!).

re-Don Quixote, I think it's a good thing people don't find that book that funny these days. To me it seemed to boil down to some pretty barbaric incoherence. It's also one of the most tediously digressive books around (not in a good way like Tristram Shandy).

Blah, rambling.



I kind of have the same opinion of Brazil (as I do of Strangelove), come to think of it, so...

[linespalsy ducks and covers]



Don't most satires want you to laugh at how ridiculous the things they mock are ?

If you view it and it seems acceptable , then I wouldn't think it's all that effective.
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Originally Posted by linespalsy
I kind of have the same opinion of Brazil (as I do of Strangelove), come to think of it, so...

[linespalsy ducks and covers]
Hey, Brazil is my favorite movie, but even I recognize it doesn't address any overwhelmingly groundbreaking issues or anything. I do think, though, it skewers its obvious targets with an exceptional enough quality of wit and ingenuity that it sets it apart from other similarish stuff.

It's got more things going on it than any other film I've seen. That's the best way I can describe my love for Brazil. It's got a lot of things going on in it.

Originally Posted by meatwad
Don't most satires want you to laugh at how ridiculous the things they mock are ?

If you view it and it seems acceptable , then I wouldn't think it's all that effective.
Well, that can be the viewer's fault more than anything sometimes. But I do see what you're saying there Wad-O, because, yeah, a lot of satire is based upon trying to get its audience to realize the relative absurdity of a given subject or situation. To one degree or another.



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Funny (not "haha") but kind of have the opposite opinion of it. Maybe it's just the bluntness of the point and simplicity of the plot but I just didn't find it all that intelligent. Not at all like some of Kubrick's later movies like 2001.
I think mark found this pretty funny (not "haha"), but I've always had a problem putting older films in the proper perspective. I think, given where the Cold War was at that point, Strangelove said everything it needed to say. If the sharpness or intelligence of the satire seems even a little pedestrian through the beer goggles of the 21st century, I think that's bound to happen and you have to cut the film a little slack. Or maybe not?

Well, I guess I can't argue with that...
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OK, first off, I agree that this is a VERY good topic, but I'm not sure that people fully understand the difference between satire, spoof, parody, dark comedy, farce, and/or the fact that many films incorporate many of the above into one hopefully seemless film. When I think of satire, I think of something either making social commentary on things which people take for granted [war, politics, "normal life" (accepting "the system")] or perhaps certain conventional genres of film, literature, TV and music]. For example, what would you call An American Werewolf in London? I think it's a satire on the werewolf genre, as well as a dark comedy, a full-blooded horror film and a flick which truly trailblazes a new, unnamed genre. Is it funny? Oh, God, yes, but are the funny parts actuallly the best or are they so intertwined with the horror, sexuality and storytelling, that it's not really that important?



Is Woody Allen's Love and Death a satire? Before I answer that question, I want to say here and now that it's funny as hell, but is it a satire of War and Peace or is it a spoof? I guess you could argue that it truly makes some social commentary on the world that Tolstoy was limning, but since I believe its chief aim is to make fun of rather than socially-critique, I find it to be a spoof, and occasionally it pushes the limits up to farce. For example, Duck Soup is undoubtedly a political satire, but it's just so crazy that most people would probably see it as a farce, similarly to ALL the Marx Bros. films.



I find The Graduate to be a wonderful social satire, even though I've heard it not that highly regarded around here lately, but the film does show "an overachieving, young bum", who lives in an insulated, well-to-do society who graduates from college at an early age and proceeds to enter into an affair with an older married woman who's even more bored than he is. The thing is that she's had plenty of time to determine how bored she is, and for all we know, she's had many such affairs, but for "the Graduate", he's in way over his head and just lets the sensuality, as dull and meaningless as it is, wash over him as some form of recompense for his job "well done" of graduation. The worm turns when he decides that his lover's daughter is far more compatible than her mom and actually downright lovable.



Then we get into films which are just too witty for words. I'm not sure if any of these are satires, but if they aren't, what the hell are they? I'm talking about the works of Shaw (Pygmalion), Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest), Hill/Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Penn/Willingham (Little Big Man). These films definitely satirize relations (as in a strong comedy of manners) and the western genre, but they equally provide extremely dramatic (sometimes tragic) moments. What would you consider these films?



I really like this topic. I feel like I could go on and on here, but I'm not sure that anything I say would truly have any meaning to anybody else because I do believe that understanding and/or appreciating satire has to do with one's life experience. And I'm not trying to be an agist here because I honestly believe that there are many more literate younger people on here than I am, so they may have an entirely different perspective than I do. In fact, I spent an hour talking with my daughter about satire before I made this post, and she's a fount of info, so I'm going to shut down, but I'll be back if the responses demand it.
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