Remembering Late Twentieth Century Satire

Two recent reviews of long-treasured magazines prompted this little mini-reminiscence. I know I'm overlooking a lot. Once upon a time, the world was a gentler and kindler place. You had search hard and long for irony, satire and sarcasm in popular culture in North America. Sure, Lenny Bruce, Newhart, Cavett, Carlin and the Smothers Brothers were working clubs and skating a fine line of morality on TV, but you were more likely to see Jack Hanna or Senor Wences talking to Ed or Johnny most nights.

National Lampoon helped crack the veneer of respectablity. Like Carlin, they brought a critical eye to the details and conventions of that defined our everyday suburban life. Slate's taken a look at a re-issue of a book that made us re-examine our own surroundings - the familiar cast of nerds, dweebs, losers, geeks, sluts, bikers and teacher's pets we all knew intimately from school - National Lampoon's 1964 High School Yearbook

National Lampoon's work continues to resonate in popular culture today. Doug Kenney, one of the Yearbook's authors, helped write Animal House as well as Caddyshack. P.J. O'Rourke was another author.

Despite this ground-breaking work, it would be years before the TV networks would reluctantly welcome the caustic wit, mildly offensive skits and satirical observations of everymen like David Letterman - and then only late at night.

In 1986, as Folio reminds us, Spy magazine was launched. Gradon Carter and Kurt Andersen helped rip open the pastel pink underbelly of the egomaniacal 80s - with its attendant power suits, pink suspenders, money clips, flashy cars and pretentious society gatherings. Spy's irreverent approach to the affairs, parties and peccadillos of businessmen, celebrities and policiticans echoed many of the ideas first published by Britain's Private Eye and Punch magazines - but in a louder, more aggressive and more colourful manner.

Spy's influence can be seen everywhere from The New York Times itself (which adopted its disembodied celebrity heads) to the snide asides that pop up in Entertainment Weekly and The New York Observer.

Maybe the loudest incarnation of this influence was E!'s Talk Soup, where hosts like Greg Kinnear and John Henson distilled a day's worth of talk show freaks, soap opera antics and news oddities into a soundbite and video clip potpourri - narrated with more than a touch of sarcasm.

But has the world turned on its head? Sarcasm, irony and ennui are now so common-place that John Edwards announced his presidential run on The Daily Show.

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