“Comedy has a specific thing about it. I don’t really like satire. I think it’s very minor; I think parody is very major comedy. Like, Nabokov to me is the highest form of parody. But that stupid Jonathan Swift thing that everybody talks about — I read that. It sucked.”
The speaker is Norm Macdonald, the comedian who died this week at age sixty-one. That anyone reads worthwhile books and talks about them without guilt or grandstanding is always a surprise and a pleasure. That Macdonald seems to understand the distinction between satire and parody is flabbergasting. Cervantes, Fielding, Austen, Melville and Beerbohm practiced parody with varying degrees of success. In the wrong hands it can come off as heavy-handed or self-preeningly cute. Nabokov excelled at it and made it the foundation of his greatest book, Lolita. Parody ought to be a minor, occasion-driven genre, and in most cases it is. Nabokov made it sublime
Macdonald may even have known what Nabokov told an interviewer in 1966: “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.” I agree with Macdonald on satire but disagree with what he says about Swift. Satire tends to disappoint when it is most didactic. It scolds and presumes to tell us how we ought to think. It wants to teach us something, without earning the right to do so. I love Swift not for his lessons but for the clarity and concision of his prose and verse, his fearlessness and his gift for reliably amusing me.
Until his final years, Swift was the sanest of men, though always difficult and unclubbable. He reminds us that mental health has a social dimension. His charm was intellectual. A biographer who understands this is Victoria Glendinning in Jonathan Swift (1998):
“It is a truism that those who make us laugh most are frequently prey to melancholy. Turning everything to wit or humour is a strategy for survival and a redeeming route to acceptance and popularity. Swift’s wit is often shocking. It has a lash. He challenges the hypocrisies and received opinions which enable people to rub along together.”
I’ve seen little of Norm Macdonald’s work. He strikes me as funnier, subtler and more intelligent than most comics. I like his approach: “You just want little drops of subversion.”