by Akim Reinhardt
Satire seems all but dead for now. Maybe it’s because the world became increasingly ludicrous, culminating with a real-life president as ridiculous as any satire Jonathan Swift or Dorothy Parker could dream up. Donald Trump’s bizarre presidency may have been the peak of absurdity (fingers crossed), but it had been building for a while as right wing extremism became more and more cartoonish, TV evolved into formulaic lunacy, and QAnon convinced millions to believe the Lizard People conspiracy. This rising tide of insanity neutralized satire by making reality itself seem like parody.
As the world became almost unfathomably strange, many people reacted by demanding seriousness; social and political critics understandably turned very sober. And this too marginalized satire, which addresses serious issues by mocking them. Its seriousness is dressed up in pasquinade. Satire doesn’t loudly demand righteous justice or offer up moralistic lessons. It exposes crimes by spoofing them. It’s neither judge nor jury, but rather the jester who sends up the corrupt and lecherous court.
For a while I’ve observed that satire is caught in the middle, between the craziness and the sanctimony. Between the outrageous and the outraged. This was driven home to me last week when I watched the film Slapshot, which I’d not seen in over 30 years. A 1977 comedy about minor league hockey, it comes from an era that was ripe with satire. But I suspect most audiences today would not recognize its satirical edges. Partly because it’s nearly half-a-century old and the culture has shifted in numerous ways. But also because satire currently flies over many people’s heads.
The film revolves around the sinking fortune of minor league hockey team. Its players endure skimpy paychecks and long bus rides through the night, wondering aloud what will happen if they get cut or if the team folds when the local steel mill closes. One player insists he’ll land a job at a Chrysler plant. It’s all closing in on them until player/coach Reg Dunlop (played by Paul Newman) delivers them salvation in the form of blood and lies.
Dunlop’s too old to be a good player anymore, and his ex-wife reminds him he’s not actually a very good coach, as evidenced by the teams’ miserable record. It’s a wake up call. Dunlop realizes he’s circling the drain. So he starts playing head games with his players to juice their effort and get them invested in winning. Along the way, he manipulates them into increasing levels of on–ice violence, because it draws big crowds. Made at the height of real world, violent goon hockey, a popular joke of the era was: “I went to the fights last night and a hockey game broke out.”
Slapshot reveals and even revels in a mid-20th century jock culture suffused with sexism, homophobia, violence, and ignorance amid the smokestacks and rainy streets rust belt decline. Alcoholism is a given. War wounds are sexy. The players treat women like meat. They treat each other like meat. And the team’s brass treats them all like meat.
Here in the third decade of the 21st century, when earnestness is at a premium and finger pointing is a currency, it’s difficult to imagine that any of this could be funny. And then you remember that Slapshot was written by a woman: Nancy Dowd. It was her first feature screenplay, based in part on her younger brother’s experiences as a minor league hockey player. She wrote the film as a comedy, and director George Roy Hill (The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) played it for laughs. Because that’s how satire works. It’s critical and reveals hard truths; but it does so with humor turned inside out.
Most of the central characters in Slapshot are men. And those men often treat the film’s women like dumb broads, dames to possess and toss away as they like. But the female characters aren’t stupid. Most of them are smart, and they too are grappling with a changing world. They have agency. They leave the men as often as the men leave them. One leaves her husband for another woman. One’s leaving town for better job prospects. One owns the hockey team.
The film is 46 years old. Some of it is dated. And the sexism, homophobia, and dumb machismo are so thick in Slapshot, that one might wonder if Nancy Dowd had drunk the Kool-aide. Maybe she loved her brother and bought into hockey’s homo erectus subculture.
That would be a mistake.
A self-identified feminist, Dowd graduated Smith College after spending her junior year at the Sorbonne. She then taught English in Japan; when students went on strike, she found work as a beer hall hostess. In 1972, while attending film school at UCLA, Jane Fonda commissioned Dowd to write an anti-Vietnam war film script. The result was Buffalo Ghost, about two female nurses working in a VA hospital. However, the movie’s producers brought in male screenwriters to “fix” Dowd’s script. By the time they got through with it, Jane Fonda was co-starring with Jon Voight instead of another woman. Now titled Coming Home, the film finally hit theaters a year after Slapshot and six years after Dowd had first submitted the screenplay. She was not pleased with the changes. Nevertheless, Dowd shared an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Dowd then wrote Swing Shift, which looks at women, in the vein of Rosie the Riveter, navigating sex, gender, and class during World War II. As with Coming Home, there were long delays and changes she did not like. During the early ‘80s, she spent two seasons writing for Saturday Night Live, back when the show’s stock and trade was bloody-jowl satire.
But if there is a connective thread in Nancy Dowd’s body of work, it comes from her insights into the rough and tumble world of men’s sports and her penchant for satirizing the violence, gambling, drinking, and promiscuity endemic to it.
Under the pen name Ernest Morton, she wrote Let it Ride. A 1989 Richard Dreyfuss vehicle, it satirizes degenerate horse race gamblers. Not a big hit at the box office, it nonetheless developed a cult following. Dowd also did uncredited script writing on arguably the most successful football satire of all time, the groundbreaking 1979 film adaptation of former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent’s semi-fictional exposé North Dallas Forty.
In other words, Dowd was a pro. And she knew how to signal satire. That’s probably why in Slapshot she wrote-in Dunlop’s foil: a Princeton-educated player who immediately sees through Dunlop’s ruses, and is disgusted by the team’s violent turn. To him, the antics are cheap. He refuses to fight. So Dunlop flirts with the player’s wife, hoping it will make him so angry that he does fight. But that doesn’t work; the foil sees through this too. Dunlop then goes into full seduction mode. Because honest, admirable heroes are for children and prudes. Satire demands flaws. No one can be free of them. Even the Ivy Leaguer is no saint; he’s cheating on his wife, which has opened the door for Dunlop’s seduction. Self-righteousness is to satirists what hubris was to the ancient Greeks: the cardinal crime, the ultimate vulnerability, the path to comeuppance.
As a good satirist, Dowd also knew how to make an audience question its own values.
At an away game, players hop over the boards and go into the stands to fight the booing, heckling crowd. Three of the players get arrested. At the jailhouse, while their bail is being wrangled over, Dunlop protests: “You can’t leave those boys in there, they’re folk heroes.”
“They’re criminals!” the desk cop shoots back.
“Well,” Dunlop opines, “most folk heroes started out as criminals.”
Newman’s Reg Dunlop eventually sees the light and tries to put the monster back in the box, but it’s too late. Once the hockey team harnesses and unleashes society’s violence upon the ice, they cannot escape it. They are bound to it. And when they see the light, their redemption comes not by turning moralistic or attempting to accomplish the impossible by banishing violence. Rather, they make fun of it and laugh at it. Because making fun of some awful thing that others take very seriously is frequently the most effective way of puncturing it.
Despite its coarseness and jokes, which at first glance seem wrongheaded and juvenile, satire is actually very subtle. Which is why it is always lost on some. Satire relies on those readers/viewers/listeners who will discern its coded message. On those who get the joke and can correctly identify the punch line’s actual target. However, such people are often a minority. Many are apt to take the story and the characters literally. In doing so, they will miss the critique, mistaking it for overt approval or even a celebration of that which is being criticized. In this way, satire is like a fully developed, complex, and subtle version of sarcasm: if you miss the statement’s unstated intention, you’re going to take it exactly the wrong way. Satire is always lost on literalists who miss the critique embedded in the jokes, who do not recognize that it is cutting against the grain.
Some literalists take self-righteous umbrage. Others laugh for all the wrong reasons. And make no mistake. An entire generation or two of male hockey fans have exalted Slapshot in not the “right” ways, maybe (or maybe not) getting its critique of 1970s hockey’s brutal violence, but earnestly guffawing at all of its “pussy” and “faggot” jokes, and exalting the film’s sexism and homophobia.
Because the lessons of good satire are typically not heavy handed, satire will always draw some wrong laughs. For many people, that kind of thing is hard to take right now. And understandably so. These are difficult times. But when we lose satire, we lose an important and powerful form of critique. And perhaps just as important, we lose a unique and valuable form of catharsis.
At any public hanging, a mob cheers like ghouls feasting upon the writhing pain of lost souls. And then there are the dark few and their gallows humor, off to the side laughing at the horror, not with it.
Because some of us are not meant to cry.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com