Culture Friday – Setting boundaries for satire


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday, January 10th, 2020. Glad to have you along for The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. The Golden Globe awards were handed out on Sunday, but thanks to the roasting host Ricky Gervais gave Hollywood, few people are talking about the actual winners. 

Here’s one of the comedian’s most scorching jokes:

GERVAIS: Apple roared into the TV game with The Morning Show, a superb drama about the importance of dignity and doing the right thing, made by a company that runs sweatshops in China. Well, you say you’re woke but the companies you work for in China — unbelievable. Apple, Amazon, Disney. If ISIS started a streaming service you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you?

So if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.

Gervais kept up the barbs–and you could see that a lot of the celebrities were really not amused. His last joke of the night elicited an especially high number of groans from the crowd:

GERVAIS: Our next presenter starred in Netflix’s ‘Bird Box,’ a movie where people survive by acting like they don’t see a thing. Sort of like working for Harvey Weinstein. You did it! I didn’t, you did it!

We could think of no one better qualified to critique Gervais’s performance than Editor in Chief of the Babylon Bee, Kyle Mann. 

He joins us for the first time on The World and Everything in It. Kyle, good morning and welcome!

KYLE MANN, GUEST: Good morning! Thank you for having me. 

BASHAM: So, to start with, I’d just like to hear your expert opinion on Gervais’ comedic chops. I know some outlets like the L.A. Times are saying he failed to “read the room.” But if felt to me like he did read the room–the living rooms of the people watching at home!

MANN: Yeah, you know, comedy is not supposed to be mean. It’s not supposed to point out flaws and it’s supposed to be very safe. It’s just supposed to support your worldview. So, on that level, Ricky Gervais definitely failed because he made people uncomfortable and that’s not what comedy’s supposed to be. You’re just supposed to support your worldview, you know, and make you feel better about yourself.

BASHAM: I feel like you’re giving me a Babylon Bee headline in your critique.

MANN: [laughs] Yeah, I mean obviously it’s funny because the left is very supportive of comedy and very supportive of art and creativity until it targets them. And we see this a lot at the Babylon Bee where the left pretends to be huge fans of satire and The Onion and comedians and then when they start targeting the wrong subject, the subject you’re not supposed to talk about, all of a sudden its, well, you’re punching down or you’re attacking the wrong target. We see this all the time. And that seems to me what the criticisms of Ricky Gervais were talking about. Poor celebrities. You’re not supposed to punch down at these multi-millionaires.

BASHAM: That was kind of weird. I did feel like I saw some reactions out there that were like you marginalized groups. And I’m like, “Marginalized? Celebrities?”

REICHARD: Kyle, we tweeted out that you were going to be on the show today. And someone pointed out that Gervais didn’t even bring up politics, except to encourage those who get awards and come on stage not to give political speeches. 

Yet some, like a Vanity Fair writer, say this was a right wing performance. What do you have to say to that?

MANN: Yeah, Ricky Gervais is like a hard-core atheist. He’s not—it’s such a weird time we’re living in when we Christians feel more comfortable with the commentary and the comedic performance of someone like Ricky Gervais than the left does. And that’s definitely the time we’re living in where people are—the thing is that everything is political now. And you’re supposed to say these things. You’re supposed to support these causes. You’re supposed to be against these other causes. And if you’re not, it’s the “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” thing that the left has set up. And so if you’re not talking about the right causes or you give any brief criticism of the people who do talk about those causes, then you’re being political.

BASHAM: Now, Kyle we have to point out that Gervais was not the only one stirring up controversy with jokes this week. And to introduce this topic, I’d like to share a little story.

A couple of years ago I posted what I thought was the most hysterical Babylon Bee article on Facebook. The headline was, “John MacArthur Added to the Cast of The View.” And it had this great photo of MacArthur at his most “MacArthur-y-ist” sitting there with Joy Behar and the rest of the View gang.

Well, some very sweet older ladies from my church were SO excited to hear this news! They replied that the show was going to be so much better with him on it and they couldn’t wait to watch! It broke my heart to have to tell them it was just a joke!

Now, critics at CNN, Relevant, and even Christianity Today have said that’s a problem. That the Babylon Bee misleads people and that it’s too hard to distinguish your funny fake news from bad actors who intentionally peddle misinformation. They say you should label each individual article more clearly as satire.

Is that something you would consider?

MANN: Uhhhh. No. [laughter] And anybody who says that it’s too hard to tell that our stuff is satire are big, dumb, stupidheads. No, I’m just kidding. But obviously as long as there’s satire, there’s going to be people who misunderstand it. That’s just the nature of it. That’s happened for hundreds of years. It’s nothing new. And yet now we’re in this era where there’s this big discussion about fake news on the internet. News spreads so quickly now. It spreads outside the circles in which you originally intended to circulate it. Back in the day, satire was done in books and magazines, and it was very hard to spread that because if you handed someone a satire magazine, you said, “Hey this is satire. Check it out. It’s pretty funny.” And everybody got it. And now you share a Facebook article of your favorite Babylon Bee article and your relative doesn’t get it. And even though our audience understands it, there’s a lot of people out there who don’t. And that doesn’t happen with just the Babylon Bee. And that was the big thing that people weren’t understanding when we were being criticized by Relevant and Christianity Today and even CNN is The Onion gets misunderstood far more than we do and Snopes has fact-checked The Onion more times than they’ve fact-checked us because people pass it around and think it’s real. And so does that mean The Onion is bad satire? No, I think it means it’s good satire. I think it means it’s hitting very close to what reality is. And there’s always that fine line: how far is too far? And how do you make sure people understand it? All of our social media pages and our website are very clearly labeled satire. But we’re not going to put in our headline, like, “Here comes a joke. This is a joke.” And then we’re going to tell the joke and then we’re going to say, “You just read a joke.” That ruins the joke. So, that’s just a basic principle of satire humor. You can’t do that. So we’re doing everything we can to make sure people know it’s not real. But sometimes things are going to pass outside the circles we intend.

REICHARD: I saw your Wall Street Journal editorial about Snopes and you had some line like, “Some folks think Snopes is a legit fact finding site.” And so that kind of goes along with what you’re saying, is that no matter what we are reading, we have to be discerning. And there can’t be a warning on every single thing.

MANN: Exactly. And this goes farther than is the Babylon Bee real satire, is it good satire. This goes to a deeper issue of how we consume news, and the fact that people just read headlines and pass it on. That’s not really our fault and yet we do everything we can, we try to signal in the headline that it’s a joke. That’s how humor works. You set it up dryly and then you do a big punchline at the end. And as long as it’s hitting that most of the time, we’re happy. And so, yeah, this is a bigger national discussion about how people consume news.

REICHARD: I have a question I’m just kind of curious about. When the Bee started out, it seemed to me the jokes were mostly about Protestant culture. And then you got more popular, and there’s been a shift then to a wider scope of humor, including plenty of political satire. I’m just curious: what drove that shift?

MANN: Uh, money. [Laughter] I’m just kidding. That was satire. You just heard a joke. But there’s a couple of misconceptions. When we launched the site, we launched with a couple dozen articles and over half of them were political and the other half were Christian culture jokes, some theology jokes. So, the premise on its face, we’ve always been a political site.

We were putting out 2-3 articles a day because it was just me and Adam Ford, the guy who founded the site. It was just he and I working in our garages part-time and that was basically the whole site for a couple years. So, now we’re kind of more of an official operation. I’m running the Babylon Bee full-time. I can pump out six or seven articles a day and if half of them are political, there’s three or four. And guess what people are sharing? They’re sharing our political articles because that’s what people are passionate about right now is current events and politics. So you’re going to see them a lot more often on your feed because people are sharing them more. We still love doing the church culture jokes, the John McArthur jokes, all that stuff. They just don’t get shared as widely.

REICHARD: And finally: what’s your favorite headline? I’ve gotta ask that. What’s your favorite headline?

MANN: My favorite headline at least from early on is when we said John McArthur said he was going to build a wall around his church to keep the charismatics out.

[laughter]

BASHAM: Well, Kyle Mann is the Editor in Chief of the Babylon Bee. Thanks Kyle. Appreciate it. And we’d love to do this again sometime.

MANN: Yeah! I’d love to be on again. Thank you!


(Photo/The Babylon Bee)

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