In AP English, we spent a few weeks learning about satire. We read pieces by Swift
? Gulliver's Travels
and that essay about how starving Irishmen should eat their babies with a side of baked potato. We watched Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
I can't define satire any more than Potter Stewart could define pornography, but like the late justice, I know it when I see it. You know the scene in the Kubrick film where George C. Scott starts brawling with the Russian attaché, and Peter Sellers says, "You can't fight in here! This is the war room!"? That's a walking definition of satire.
Around that time, either because of the influence of my English teacher, Joe Russo ? this cool cat who had been to Woodstock and let kids call him Joe and smoked cigarettes in class ? or because my parents decided to upgrade the MAD Magazine gift, I somehow found myself with a subscription to SPY magazine.
Excerpts from this period of that excellent periodical were recently re-issued in a tome called SPY: The Funny Years. So, I mean, it was funny. But I didn't really get most of the jokes. I was a seventeen-year-old rube from the Jersey suburbs, and while I lived in a commuter town, I almost never went to New York City. When they wrote, say, a comedic letter to Bret Easton Ellis about American Psycho, I had no idea what they were talking about.
Better than the magazine itself, however, was a special paperback they did called Spy High '91, a fictional yearbook of the rich and famous. Maybe it was because I was working on editing my own class yearbook that year, but to me, that book was a laugh riot. George Bush père was the principal of the satirical school, and the students were celebrities like Madonna, Warren Beatty, Sting, Joe Montana, and Georgette Mosbacher, their headshots arranged like in an actual yearbook, with senior quotes and all of it.
Like, under Al Sharpton's "senior photo" was this ditty:
Al has got the pompadour,
And disposition sunny
But what we all would like to know is,
Where'd he get the money?
And Sylvester Stallone, as did many meatheads in real yearbooks, had just the senior quote:
"Where's the beef?"
I'm sure that when Jamie Malanowski and Susan Morrison, the authors, were pitching the concept to editors, they envisioned their target audience as sophisticated, Manhattan-based purveyors of snark ? witty chums with whom they'd sip Bellinis at a cocktail party at the Dakota ? and not some dopey kid from New Jersey who wouldn't know Georgette Mosbacher from a drag queen at Lucky Cheng's.
But there isn't a person alive who was more influenced by that book than Yours Truly. I read that thing until it curled up into itself and became impossible to open and my mother threw it away. I found Spy High enormously, outrageously funny... even though I still have no idea who Georgette Mosbacher is.
÷ ÷ ÷
So there you have it, my five essential influences. And Eric Blair, Gilbert, Sullivan, Jamie and Susan, and the two Als ? I salute you. Were it not for your guidance and inspiration, I would probably have a law degree and a bulging 401(k) instead of something inestimably better: a novel on sale at Powell's, for the low, low price of $9.79.
? Greg Olear, a frequent contributor to The Nervous Breakdown, is the author of the novel Totally Killer.