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Interview: 'Ridicule Is A Powerful Weapon,' Says P.J. O'Rourke

P.J. O'Rourke
P.J. O'Rourke
American satirist P.J. O'Rourke is famous for turning a wry eye on politics at home and conflicts abroad. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel asked him about his trade and when satire can be a force for change.

RFE/RL: You are widely regarded as a leading satirist and you began writing about American social life, which for an American audience is a rich vein for humor. But then you broadened your field to turn a wry eye on politics in the United States and conflicts abroad. What motivated the shift of focus?

P. J. O'Rourke:
I just think it was a desire for new and better material, that is what it came down to.

I spent almost 10 years at "The National Lampoon." "The National Lampoon," to introduce it to younger listeners, is something like "The Onion," constantly satirizing America's morals and mores and folkways and fads and follies and so on, and eventually you just run out of steam with that. I mean, how much fun can you make of Michael Jackson and his one glove?

Well, of course, as it turned out there was a whole darker area of fun to be made but that didn't come till later.

And so, along about 1980, when I had been doing this for 10 years, I was 33 and I thought that, you know, really, making fun of grown-ups is a young person's job, and I am 33, I am a grown-up.

And I felt a little bit like at "The National Lampoon" the grown-ups had been in having dinner and we kids had been out standing in the flower garden peeping in through the dining-room windows and making faces. And now it was time to either get out of there or take one's place at the table. So I sought something with a little bit more meat on the bones.

'Humor Comes From Pain'

RFE/RL: In the preface to your book "Holidays in Hell," published in 1988, you wrote that "I also became a foreign correspondent because I was tired of making bad jokes" and "the world outside seems a much worse joke than anything I could conjure." You also quoted Mark Twain as saying, "The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow." Is the secret source of humor sorrow?

I began to realize that humor was a reaction to pain and that the kind of humor that we had been doing, say at "The National Lampoon" or that modern satirists might do at places like "The Onion" or on You Tube, which had mostly to do with making fun of other people, did involve pain, pain for other people.

I became a little bit more concerned about the kind of things that cause pain to all of us. And I felt that a serious approach to something as absurd, and the example at hand at the time was the civil war in Lebanon, that a gloomy, analytical approach was failing to see the utter absurdity of what was going on there, and an important part of the horror in Lebanon was how absurd it was. That was something understood perfectly, by the way, by the Lebanese.

I had a little bit of trouble selling this idea back in the United States, where people said you can't make fun of people dying. Well, I said, the people dying are making fun of it. The Lebanese had any number of jokes about their situation and at that time the Israelis were occupying the southern part of Lebanon and the Israelis could be very humorous about this, too. And I wanted to bring a little bit of the feeling that people had on the ground, some of it tragic, of course, but some of it wholly recognizing the absurdity of their situation.

RFE/RL: You wrote a book titled "All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty," which was last published in 1994. That was then, and this is now. What are the crises in the world that most interest you today?

What I was actually working on there in that book was picking fashionable worries, not so much things I felt were dangerously wrong but the sort of things "The New York Times" editorial page felt were dangerously wrong or that it was the common wisdom at academic cocktail parties to bemoan.

Overpopulation, of course, has turned right around on us. Now we are worried about under-population, now we are worrying about, especially in the stronger economies in Western Europe, Japan, the United States, we are worrying about the graying of the population, even population shrinkage in some places.

Famine, which I think as late as the time in the early '90s when I was working on this book, was still regarded as basically lack of food, which makes sense at one level, but has come to be understood as the result of political malfeasance. Amartya Sen, the Indian economist, has pointed out that no democracy in modern history has ever suffered famine, that famines are always political and there is always a political aspect to them.

Ecology is still all the rage, although the conservationist side of ecology, to which I am somewhat sympathetic, has been replaced by a sort of hysteria about global warming. And the beauty of global warming is that it is something to get hysterical about that nobody understands. I am not denying it, I am not affirming it. I am just telling you nobody understands it and that includes the climatologists -- too many variables. So, the fashionable worries have changed a bit but the fashionableness of certain kinds of worrying is a constant.

Blowing Off Steam

RFE/RL: Can satirists and humorists make a difference in correcting the world of politics, in toppling dictators, and making wrong things right? Or is humor simply our best human defense against the injustices of life, a medication but not a cure?

Probably the latter, it is probably a way of blowing off steam. However, that said, ridicule is a powerful weapon and once people and institutions start to make themselves ridiculous -- I don't think any lone humorist can ridicule someone out of office or a system out of an establishment -- but once that system or that person starts to make themselves ridiculous....

There definitely was an element toward the end of the Soviet Union where it was just starting to get silly and the people in the Soviet Union, and even more so, I think, in the western part of the communist bloc, were ceasing to take this entity seriously, it lost some of its power.

I think satire, which by definition is humor with a moral point of view, can have some use but I don't flatter myself that it is actually a very powerful weapon. First and foremost it is a way of us letting off steam as humans and also, to give myself the most benefit of the doubt, it is a way to understand fellow humans as being fellow humans.

When you can get among people and make fun of them and they make fun of you it is a humanizing thing, so it keeps people who are different from each other and different from ourselves, it keeps them from being viewed as nonhuman. Once they start acting funny we relate to them as fellow humans.

Political Humor Across The Region

Slide Show
Satire Across The Region

In countries throughout RFE/RL’s broadcast region, humor plays a special role for writers and artists seeking to shed light on corruption, violence, and repression. These editorial cartoons offer a cross-section of perspectives on issues from energy politics to press freedom. Play

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