Monday, September 22, 2014

The Pleasures and Perils That Are "Literally Unbelievable" 

Satire and parody are two terms that are often conflated with each other when identifying a comedic work, yet they are forms that serve striking different aims. Parody lampoons a form or genre of work by utilizing the very conventions of that genre. For example, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein sends up the conventions of the Universal era monster movies by faithfully recreating the set design and mood of the films (going the full mile with the decision the film be in glorious black and white), but then inundating that mood with ridiculous jokes (example:  a wolf howls in the distance. “Werewolf?” “There…there wolf!”). 

Satire, however, uses parody to comment on a perceived ill of society. In Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, parody of the Western genre is used as a comment on racism by installing the hip, clever Cleavon Little as the sheriff of a backwards town filled with inbred dullards (everyone in the town’s last name is Johnson-making it possibly the subtlest incest joke in film history).

The reason it is important to clearly define the terms parody and satire is because in this post, I would like to talk about Literally Unbelievable, the blog companion piece to the now brilliant satire website, The Onion. Going strong since its humble days as a college start-up zine in Madison Wisconsin, The Onion has remained the most biting satire publication since the 1960s and 70s hey-day of The National Lampoon.

Another layer was added to The Onion (pun!) with the arrival of the Tumblr site Literally Unbelievable, which regularly posts reactions to The Onion stories (gathered from social media sites like Facebook) from people who take those stories to be serious. Such is the nature of satire that it can often be difficult to parse the truth from the ridiculous.

In its inaugural week, Literally Unbelievable posted the many outraged reactions to this Onion story, like the one below:

Literally Unbelievable offers a fascinating insight into the minds of those whose political beliefs have been so warped by the sensationalist news agencies. Events are so routinely shaped with black and white language of either condemnation or celebration that the headlines from The Onion, no matter how outrageous they might seems, easily fit into the dangerously stark narrative that has overwhelmed the news cycle.

Indeed, while the majority of the reactions on Literally Unbelievable stem from right leaning or conservative folks, plenty in the liberal crowd have similarly been duped by the Onion headlines that fit their worldview.

Of course, this is nothing new. After Jonathan Swift published his A Modest Proposal, in which he proposed that the solution to Ireland’s poverty problem is that the poor sell their babies to the rich as food, many people were sickened by Swift’s “solution” and in a reaction to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels one Irish bishop announced that the “book was full of lies, and for his part, he hardly believed a word of it.” (Rawson)

Reading people’s reactions to The Onion’s headlines makes for a fascinating insight into the readiness in which people are open to having their opinions fed back to them, no matter how outlandish. However, the danger here for the reader of Literally Unbelievable is that this constant act of schadenfreude is that is gives us an air of smug superiority that has potential to add to the corrosive discourse that infuses the political realm today.

And this is how Literally Unbelievable thrives as an Internet destination. It appeals to those of us who visit the sign on a weekly and sometimes daily basis as it reinforces our sense of superiority. We “get” the jokes. We understand what The Onion is trying to do. However, if we get too comfortable on our high horse, we may miss the true intention behind the sharp edged satire of The Onion, which is to bring a certain level of humanity and humane discourse to the twenty-four hour news cycle. Indeed, the inherent aim of all great satire is to reveal the flaws of society so that we may grow and, possibly correct them.  “Getting” the joke is one thing, but if that is the only objective the reader of either The Onion or Literally Unbelievable has in sights, then they risk missing sublime pieces like this and that would be very stupid.

-By Justin Gray

Works Cited

Rawson, Claude. "Introduction to Gulliver's Travels." Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xiii.

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