When the going gets tough, the satirists get going

`GLASNOST comes to the cabaret,'' reads the headline above a story from East Germany, going on to explain: ``Political satire takes center stage.'' The evidence may not exactly roll you in the aisle. From a couple of cabarets in Leipzig and East Berlin, the correspondent culls a joke about hamburgers - and if hamburgers are as old as the jokes about them, we're all in trouble. Then the reader submits to a rather cumbersome howler about Mathias Rust, the young West German pilot who landed in Red Square a lot more lightly than the quip he inspired.

Still, the point of the headline is valid. Where there's satire, freedom is flexing its muscles - and with a nice strutting impudence.

The golden ages of satire seldom coincide with the golden ages of history. Satirists, like prophets - whom they may resemble in their moral indignation - tend to bloom in seasons of drought.

When the Roman Empire ran dry, Juvenal delivered jeering jeremiads on the subject of glitzy bread-and-circuses, sleazy municipal corruption, and extravagant military adventures.

When the church turned lax and the feudal system crumbled like a bad castle in the late Middle Ages, Chaucer, Boccaccio, and others satirized the prevailing hypocrisies.

When bourgeois optimism ran away with itself in the 18th century, Voltaire wickedly laid it to waste in ``Candide.''

American experience has been no exception to the rule: When history is off, satire is on. After the Civil War, when the gilt began to peel from the Gilded Age, Mark Twain was there, along with Orpheus C. Kerr and Petroleum V. Nasby - who sniped at politicians from behind their pseudonyms - not to forget the sardonic Ambrose Bierce, who took on the railroad barons and just about everybody else before riding off to Mexico on a donkey, never to be seen again.

When Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill, confusing Spain-bashing with a rendezvous with Manifest Destiny, Finley Peter Dunne, among others, caricatured him as a Yankee imperialist in short pants.

War has always been a prime subject for satirists, from Aristophanes to Bill Mauldin, whose GI cartoon characters, Willie and Joe, marched in an honorable tradition of weary scruffiness as they exposed pompous brass hats and sly goldbricks in World War II.

Have we arrived at another Golden Age of American Satire - glasnost on the home front? For a while it seemed as if every potential satirist was taking the red-eye flight to Hollywood to become an actor. Richard Pryor, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy - the list goes on and on. Ordinarily satire is not a popular American taste - too tart perhaps, or too serious. In good times Americans shopping for a laugh will choose a nice, bland sitcom or a musical comedy. Referring to the brief life expectancy of satire on Broadway, the playwright George S. Kaufman famously remarked, ``Satire is what closes on Saturday night.'' But satire comes from the same root as ``saturate,'' and in harder times when we all get a little saturated - i.e., a little fed up - a taste for satire develops to cleanse the palate.

A random sampling might suggest that a somewhat complacent era of feel-good is about to be given a rude exit. Tom Wolfe, a Southerner with a latent Presbyterian conscience, does not like to be called a satirist, but his aptly titled novel about New York, ``The Bonfire of the Vanities,'' is being received as if the whole culture has been hungering for a good generic putdown - rather on the order of Sodom and Gomorrah. Mark Russell, the established iconoclast of PBS - if that description is not a contradiction in terms - seems to be honing a sharper and sharper edge to his urbanity. Comic strips like ``Doonesbury'' and ``Bloom County'' are mixing acid in their ink. Spy magazine, after a year, appears to be finding an audience for its glossy determination to savage everything and everybody, like a clean-cut yuppie playing subway mugger.

Nobody said satire doesn't get nasty - after all, it's literature's alternative to revolution. But the unholy wrath of the satirist may sometimes be a necessary precondition for the holy wrath of the reformer. In fact, the best satirists are disappointed romantics.

In his introduction to ``The Oxford Book of Satirical Verse,'' Geoffrey Grigson concludes: ``Satire postulates an ideal condition of man or decency, and then despairs of it; and enjoys the despair.''

If satire is what it takes to purge the '80s of smugness and clear the path for another generation of idealists, then bring on those scowling clowns.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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