Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Where is Mr. Sahl?


As this is printed, I am on my way home from the United Kingdom, where I was asked if we still had practicing satirists in the United States. In response I paraphrased the great 1950s comic Mort Sahl, who said he was having trouble in the '60s creating his stand-up routines because normal headlines were already satires. In today's political references, one can hear echoes of the great satirist George Orwell, whose Big Brother espoused the concept that "war is peace." When I first read "1984," this seemed a ridiculous concept, but any of the rationalizations for our continuing presence in Iraq feel the same to me.

I do sense a dearth of contemporary satire, but perhaps I am forgetting more of the likes of P.J. O'Rourke. Satire encompasses many traditions, from the mild spoofs and parodies of "Saturday Night Live" to bitter and serious mockery of our leaders. I just heard a wonderful bit on BBC radio, the still omnipresent and richly peopled UK wireless. Along the lines of the gentle parodies of Garrison Kieler, a man was reading politically correct versions of nursery rhymes. I most appreciated the difficulty the "Three Little Pigs" had getting building permits and then the consternation they felt when an asthmatic Big Bad Wolf had to use an inhalator after trying to blow the structures down.

I suggested the writing of a simple satire this past summer to my 10th grade summer-school students. It wasn't easy. After the fact, we thought it would be fun to look at one of the silly July "sports" like apple-pie- or hot-dog-eating contests and depict participants engaging in serious discussions of their training difficulties. We set the "sport" in the 2008 Olympics. One can imagine a sportscaster covering the event: "And, now, ladies and gentlemen, we see Nick Smith entering the final circuit as he paces himself for the last crunch. Will he be able to keep ahead of the Japanese? Can he stretch his mouth and gullet sufficiently to go for the gold-ah-dog?" Along those lines, I am sure anyone could parody the proliferation of silly contests (just look through the Guinness Book of World Records) and also the pomposity of many network broadcasters.

Then, the other day I was in a car with someone who had just purchased a British GPS system and was trying it out on a short road trip to a village near Nottingham. I was, of course, impressed by the lovely BBC-presenter voice of the guide, as I am still bowled over by English accents. However, I do find it a bit odd to have heard that same day a BBC radio depiction of Christ and his disciples complete with Cockney and country accents denoting the peasantry.

At any rate, after several instances of the silky GPS voice politely suggesting that "one should bear left" or "follow the roundabout to the second exit," I began to imagine a parody of polite British GPS systems as opposed to the possibly more blunt U.S. announcements of direction. I understand that one can choose which voice to use, but let's take just a couple of stretches of road and have some fun parodying two different treatments.

Both cars are about to negotiate roadway exits; they miss them. In the United States, the disembodied voice of the GPS system would, in mocking exaggeration, probably say something like this to the hapless freeway negotiator: "Pay attention. Get in the right lane ... (pause). I said the RIGHT LANE, stupid. OK. Since you missed the obvious exit, you will now have to go on further and get off at Robertson. Then stay to the right once again to head north on Robertson. If you choose to ignore this direction, just turn me off. I don't have time for this."

The proper and mellifluous tones of the British might address a driver on a "dual carriageway" like this: "Darling. You've done so well. Please just don't forget that in .6 miles there is a roundabout. Good. Please take the second exit and then stay to the left before receiving my next suggestion ... (pause). Oops, dearie, you missed the correct exit. I will have to recalibrate, but don't worry. Shortly ahead is a narrow country road with only one lane and hedgerows obscuring sight, but I am sure you can maneuver this successfully until you may choose to consider my directions."

So it's back to left-hand driving and U.S. freeways for me.

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