The satire, the smarm, and the Oliver

As I attempt to sit and do homework on my computer, my mouse meanders over to safari and clicks. One of my many saved websites, Cracked, opens and I begin reading an article. “I’ve had a long day,” I say, and tell myself that after one more article I will finally get to that homework assignment. Procrastination seems to be something that I share with many students, but the subject of my procrastination is almost always intended to humor me. A recent study by Comedy Central claims that people are looking for quick comedy now more than ever before. Is a study on comedy performed by Comedy Central considered good science? That is a concern for another time.

It seems satire is becoming a popular way to confront some of the ridiculousness we encounter on a daily basis. Tom Scocca defines the term for the phenomenon to which satire reacts: smarm. In his article On Smarm, Scocca claims, “Smarm aspires to smother opposition or criticism, to cover everything over with an artificial, oily gloss.” With Scocca’s definition, satire is a criticism of critics. As an example of satire as a response to smarm, here is a clip of “Last Week Tonight by John Oliver.”

In the clip, John Oliver reacts to smarm on climate change. He claims, “The debate on climate change should not be whether or not it exists, it’s what we should do about it.” This point is very similar to that brought up by Scocca: “Smarm…is never a force for good. A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilization that says “Don’t Be Evil,” rather than making sure it does not do evil.”  The debate on climate change seems to be more about its existence, rather than what actions should be taken.  The paper that John Oliver discusses detailed the ways in which climate change is currently affecting the globe, and the claim that humans are the cause of climate change. Smarm abounded as naysayers were up in arms, claiming that climate change is a hoax, and everyone has an agenda. John Oliver, a political satirist, satirizes the naysayers. He points out that the reason people think climate change is up for debate is because that is the way it is portrayed on the news. Additionally, he says, the debate is always one on one, making it seem like each side is accurately represented with a fair chance. In reality, there is resounding scientific support for climate change, and a small percentage of papers claiming that climate change does not exist. In order to prove his point, Oliver uses a more representative sample to debate according to the paper: 97 scientists supporting evidence for climate change, and three people opposing evidence for climate change.

John Oliver used to work with Jon Stewart. He branched off and got his own show titled “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the title itself showing his satiric intentions. Though in the previous case of climate change satire was used as a response to smarm, satire can have another effect. According to Malcolm Gladwell, satire can be used to deflate the effect of critique. Bringing humor to a situation decreases its levity, and can effectively reduce the strength of the original critique. Gladwell and Scocca are at odds over the reason behind satire, however, I feel that they can both be true depending on the situation and desired effect.  In the case of the smarm on climate change, the use of satire was clearly intentioned to attack the smarm.  As John Oliver said, “you don’t need people’s opinion on a fact.”


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