Seth MacFarlane's performance as host of the Oscars failed less because of racism, sexism, and homophobia than because he forgot what satire is and how it works. The same could be said of the beleaguered Onion staffer who misfired the unfortunate tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, forcing Onion CEO Steve Hannah to issue a written apology the next morning. As Joan Walsh reminds us in Salon, MacFarlane's patter was likely vetted up a long chain of Oscar command, so his blinding display of offensive bad taste (as opposed to the kind of bad taste we genuinely enjoy) suggests that many powerful people in the entertainment industry have forgotten the basics of comic mockery. The Friars' Roast has turned into a wicker man, and the satiric genius of late-night icons like Johnny Carson and beloved fictional curmudgeons like Archie Bunker has been lost in a sea of mindless snark.
One of the lost secrets of satire is the idea of mockery from below: the idea that in order to win the sympathy of the audience and the comic right to issue scathing barbs, the satirist must make himself his own first and biggest target, not merely taking himself down a notch or two but kicking himself all the way off the ladder, either through self-deprecating humor or by creating a satiric persona that is so obviously and outrageously exaggerated that nobody could mistake its comic mockery for earnest ridicule. Oscar hosts, from Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal to Whoopi Goldberg and Ellen DeGeneres, have been masters of the self-deprecating strategy, while an Oscar host like Chris Rock exemplifies the exaggerated comic persona that is deployed to perfection nightly by Stephen Colbert.
The ancient Romans invented satire, and in fact gave us quintessential examples of both of these two major satiric strategies of deflation and exaggeration in the persons of Horace and Juvenal. Horace practiced an urbane, witty, gently mocking form of satire, poking fun at his own foibles in one breath before taking aim at a fellow Roman in the next. Juvenal, by contrast, rages with indignation at the collapse of good old-fashioned Roman morality under the weight of faithless Roman wives as well as effeminate sodomites, miserly Jews, and arrogant Africans pouring into Rome from the provinces. In fact, Juvenal's indignation was so convincing that many readers over the centuries believed his ridicule to be completely sincere; only in the 20th century did an increasing number of scholars embrace the idea of a witty and irreverent Juvenal who was more concerned with comedy than morality.
Satire, for the Romans, was a particular form of poetry that combined epic rhythms with personal musings on society, culture, and current events. The comic mockery that is so characteristic of Roman satire was not unique to the satiric genre, but could also be found in the lyrics of Catullus and the epigrams of Martial. Indeed, the satiric spirit of comic mockery has even more ancient roots among the Greeks, notably in the vulgar stage comedies of Aristophanes, the malicious lyric wit of Hipponax, and the scathing poetic invective of Archilochus. There is a direct line from this ancient pantheon to such modern satiric wits as Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, and Jon Stewart (to name just a few, and omit a truly diverse array of many just as worthy).
What all of these masters of comic mockery share is an acute sense of their own fallibility, a vulnerable core that, depending on the comedian's personal style, may be readily visible à la Horace (as in the case of Lucille Ball or Ellen DeGeneres) or hidden deep beneath a hard, seemingly impenetrable exterior à la Juvenal (Grouch Marx, Joan Rivers). It is precisely this kind of profound humility that was nowhere to be found on Oscar night, either in the onstage banter of Seth MacFarlane or in the concurrent social media conversation marked not only by the egregious Onion blunder but also by innumerable mean-spirited attacks on Anne Hathaway and Kristen Stewart.
In the 1970s, Archie Bunker was able to mount weekly attacks on women, blacks, gays, Jews, and every other identifiable target of white male Christian fear, anxiety, and hatred, not just getting away with it, but becoming beloved by an entire generation of television viewers. Why? Because while Archie was racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and just plain hateful, All in the Family was not. Instead, the show managed to put Archie's raw invective into a satiric context that was transformative, prompting Americans to reevaluate their own views on race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion. Each and every character, from Edith the long-suffering "dingbat" wife, to Gloria the hysterical young bride, to Mike the bleeding heart liberal "meathead," to a George Jefferson who eerily mirrored the narrow-minded prejudice of Archie from across the racial divide, helped us to see the bruised and vulnerable core at the center of Archie's painfully flawed being. That is the fine art of making mockery. That is the endangered art that a once-witty Oscar needs to study and learn again.