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September 24, 2017

Why theme parks need to punch up their satire

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles

Few forms of entertainment get people talking as much as satire does. Whether it inspires people to spam their friends with links to "watch this" or a headline-grabbing public outrage when a joke misses by going too far, satire demands the attention that all entertainers crave.

Saturday Night Live. Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Stephen Colbert. Great satirists move to the top of the zeitgeist. But the people and productions that get there earn their way to the top. Great satire isn't just making fun of people. You've got to know who and what make for appropriate targets.

Over the past week, I watched the season debuts of two long-running satire productions at the nation's theme parks. Normally, theme parks' devotion to their family audience keeps them from anything more than an occasional, gentle dabble into satire. But parks that run after-hours, hard-ticket Halloween scare events get a more adult audience to entertain.

Both Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure at Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights and The Hanging at Knott's Berry Farm's Knott's Scary Farm opened this year with shots at the Trump administration's summer carnival of press secretaries. The differences in the two shows' approaches to the same target set the tone for each production.

Universal brought out a Segway-driving Spicer clearly meant to evoke Melissa McCarthy's SNL impersonation of the former White House press secretary. Given that SNL also is an NBCUniversal production, the bit demonstrated Universal's love of corporate synergy as much as a shot at the administration. Spoofing a spoof also put an extra step of distance between the production and the White House.

The McCarthy/Spicer characters appeared throughout the show as a pseudo-MC, but the only other political reference was the appearance of a few fake Trump tweets on video screens. Universal directed its aim primarily at musicians, films... and rival Disney.

Knott's instead took more direct aim at the administration, opening its show with each press secretary literally pushing their predecessor off the stage. Fake Trump tweets appeared in the pre-show, but Knott's brought a Trump impersonator onto the stage and gave him a major role in its production, which also featured a fake Russian President Vladimir Putin.

One of the few inviolate rules for good satire is: Punch up, not down. Satire uses humor to provide the cover sometimes needed to speak truth to power. When satire gets in trouble, that usually is the result of aiming to bully those already outcast by society.

Universal Studios Hollywood pulled its version of the Bill and Ted show in 2013 after a public outrage over a joke that some took as homophobic. This year's The Hanging show at Knott's flirted with some of the same traps that snared the Universal Studios Hollywood production four years ago.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin absolutely are fair game for satire... as are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who also took shots in the Knott's production. (No one should accuse Knott's of partisan bias in its targeting.) But if Knott's aimed up with its punches at Trump and Putin, it punched down with its delivery.

Knott's portrayed its Trump as infatuated with Putin, portraying the two of them dancing as "Beauty and the Beast," which ended with a pose suggesting the two engaging in a sex act. (Guess who was the bottom?) By the end of the show, Knott's portrayed Trump as Putin's leather-clad submissive, echoing a gay culture stereotype.

In the context of a satirical production, these depictions clearly mean to diminish and humiliate Trump. And that's where the punching down happens. There is nothing humiliating about homosexuality. There should be nothing socially humiliating about receiving in a sex act, or in engaging as a submissive in role-playing relationship.

Heck, given America's longstanding social marginalization of gay culture, being "out" as a bottom or a submissive ought to be seen as a liberating act of defiance — a show of personal strength that marks the exact opposite of what The Hanging was trying to illustrate with Trump.

So how could The Hanging spoof Trump while "punching up" the whole way? That "Beauty and the Beast" bit was a step in the right direction. Knott's just picked the wrong characters. Depict Putin as the vain, controlling Gaston, and Trump as the spineless acolyte LeFou. Boom. Problem solved, and Knott's gets a more powerful hit against a Disney franchise as a bonus.

The conceit of The Hanging is that the sheriff of Knott's Old Town land is looking for the most offensive figure from pop culture in the past year to hang in the town square. Knott's wisely noted up front in the show that the Secret Service does not look sympathetically on even satirical depictions of hanging the President, so politicians are off the table as hanging candidates. But Knott's punched down again in its target for this year's hanging.

We're not talking about sliming or dunking someone in a water tank here. With a hanging as the punishment — even if theatrically — the target needs to be a general-purpose public figure who has done something truly offensive. Unfortunately, Knott's chose... a child.

Okay, it was Danielle Bregoli, commonly known as the "Cash Me Outside" girl — who went viral following an confrontational appearance on the Dr. Phil show last year. She then milked her fame with some online music videos, which drew enough views that Atlantic Records signed her to a multi-million dollar record deal.

Yeah, that's pretty offensive. But Bregoli is 14, so she's not the one who should be taking the shot here. If Knott's had brought out Dr. Phil, or an Atlantic Records exec, for its "hanging," I would have applauded, instead of winced, at the climax of the show. Let's hit the people exploiting trouble kids who engage in offensive behavior — not the kids themselves.

Punch up, not down. Think through the bit. And leave kids out of it. This isn't "political correctness." It's doing right by your audience, by giving them a script that they can kept quoting for laughs years down the road, instead of causing them some day to wince and regret ever laughing at your show in the first place.

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© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.