Because satire looms so large on the American pop-cultural landscape, we often find ourselves caught in the debate over the ethics of bringing humor to (often tragic) current events. No publication toes the line between humor and tragedy more than The Onion, a satirical newspaper that matches “actual” headlines blow-for-blow, but with a satirical twist. The Onion so closely mirrors actual events that one particular site tracks social media users who do not understand the joke, and only see the tragic consequences of the fabricated subject. How could one headline provoke laughter in one group and outrage and panic in another? For one thing, The Onion’s headlines are basically “true” in one sense of the word: they frankly expose the underlying assumptions that public figures would present with a little more finesse; one recent headline that prompted misinformed outrage reads, “Obama To Assure Nation That ISIS Campaign Will Be Drawn-Out Ordeal They’re Used To.” No public figure would acknowledge the frightening reality of American foreign policy circa 2014, and we laugh because we can finally confront that reality head-on without any of the normal obfuscation. Sometimes the newspaper draws its humor from the small, everyday tragedies of human life that we have trouble facing (e.g. “Elderly Rite Aid Patron Stretching Out Conversation About Toothpaste To Prolong Human Contact”). Whether understood in the macro- or microscopic scale, these tragedies are finally confronted and perhaps even relieved to some extent.
Most notably, the New York edition of The Onion debuted on September 26, 2001, almost two weeks after the terrorist attacks on the city’s World Trade Center. With the attacks still fresh in the minds of New Yorkers, The Onion editors were tasked with writing comic satire pertaining to current events. John Krewson, a longtime writer for the satirical newspaper, remembers, “We knew we wouldn't be able to ignore what had happened, but it was hard to make any sort of comedy.” Understandably, Krewson called that week’s edition (which included headlines like “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” and “U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We're At War With”) “the least funny issue we've ever done,” but its satirical power came from its poignancy. In Krewson’s words, it was “cathartic.”
In reading headlines from The Onion, the image of Freud’s criminal comes to mind; sentenced to hang, he jokes, “Well this is a good beginning to the week.” In Freud’s theory of laughter, I do not think that laughter is an instance of joy arising to cover the fear; I think it’s an honest acknowledgement of fear and paranoia, coming out in a nervous fit, to give some sort of relief to the laugher. Consider also how, in the first half of his 1759 novella Candide, the French philosopher Voltaire has already confronted some of the most disastrous events in recent memory, most notably the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. The protagonist Candide finds himself traveling from tragedy to tragedy: from the bombed-out ruins of a war-torn city to the demolished shell of Lisbon, Candide treads over mutilated, howling human bodies with his syphilis-ridden mentor Pangloss. And yet readers will tell you that Voltaire’s novella is a comic satire. His aim is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s philosophical optimism, which holds that we humans live in the “best of all possible worlds,” so naturally Voltaire has to exploit all the evidence against Leibniz: disease, misfortune, war, rape, natural disasters, etc. As with The Onion, Voltaire is not “making light” of these events, but rather expressing his fear and uncertainty. He is drawing his readers into his own anxieties and gaining some relief in their laughter, maybe because he can see that it’s not just him who thinks Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” axiom falls flat. If we, together, can name all of our worst fears—and even show that we share those fears—they might appear just a little bit smaller, a little bit more manageable. For this reason, Candide is not a work of unadulterated pessimism, but rather a psychic catharsis that externalizes our fears and allows us some glimmer of hope.