I occasionally get off a witty remark or quick rejoinder, but I stand in awe, slack-jawed really, at great satirists. I am only now realizing that I grew up in an age of brilliant satire -- which was tossed out to the public free of charge on broadcast television, mostly on daytime talk shows such as those hosted by Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, et al. It was not these men, the "stars", who possessed genius -- no, it was the women who were their guests.
Phyllis Diller. Joan Rivers. Totie Fields. Betty White.
An example of the complexity of their art: I recently heard a clip of Joan Rivers on one of those talk shows. It was some time in the early 1970s, when even the word "gay" was taboo on television. The conversation went like this:
Joan: "O -- and my Grandson! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! He wants to be a football player when he grows up! Stupid!
Host: "So? What do you want him to grow up to be?"
At this the audience exploded in laughter -- shocked, disoriented -- whereas if the same idea had been brought forward in a serious mood they would have been both offended by the mention of homosexuality and dismayed that any woman would want her child or grandchild to be homosexual. But they are not in a serious mood because they know that Joan's business is to make them laugh, and Joan herself is laughing too.
Even so, a lot of tension was nevertheless churning around the room and the appropriateness of laughter needed to be confirmed. Joan had just said something dangerous and everyone needed reassurance that she was "just kidding." So the host gave Joan a prompt, in the form of the question you know is on every audience member's mind.
Joan: "Who else is gonna care that I knew Judy Garland?"
The audience again roared with laughter, this time relieved laughter, because the revolutionary idea now floats harmlessly in a general atmosphere of comedy. Yet the idea has been "entertained." Joan has dared to suggest that having a gay man in the family is desirable, and she has not backed down from that suggestion at all. I can tell you that somewhere out there in TV Land, a shocked and relieved and grateful little boy of ten or twelve, without even knowing why yet, loves this funny lady who makes everyone laugh so hard.
Here is what amazes me:
This is, at the time, very dangerous material. This is revolutionary at the most threatening level because this is overturning the patriarchy. Such things cannot be said seriously without censorship and quite likely prosecution of the speaker for obscenity and corrupting public morals (compare Socrates). But Joan used the ancient -- literally the "classic" -- satirist's trick: she turns the joke against herself, undercutting her own persona, rendering herself an object of ridicule and therefore harmless, not worth punishing. Who would listen to her? But everyone just has, and she has let loose the revolutionary idea.
Having dared to say that she wants to live in a world -- no, more -- in a family that includes gay men, she gives as her reason a motive that is infantile, narcissistic, hopelessly shallow, and ridiculous.
Everyone talks about Rivers's self-deprecating humor. This isn't self-deprecation. This is camouflage for an advance operative softening up the enemy and preparing the way for the troops to follow.
Phyllis Diller did the same thing telling jokes that described the oppression of women in the 1950s and 1960s. And she was completely conscious of the danger she was in and knew how to protect herself. Remember those outfits? I remember one in particular: a dress of feathers, a huge ball of feathers on top of her skinny little legs, her little arms (with that outrageous cigarette holder) flapping around in all that fluff. You know what else she wore? White gloves. Always white gloves. Who wears gloves like that? Emmet Kelley. Mickey Mouse. In short, clowns. Diller turned herself into a clown, a fool, an idiot, to get away with speaking dangerous truths to power.
Those women were as much the founders of the Feminist movement as Friedan, Steinem, et al.