Andy Borowitz wants people to know he’s not a jaded person. Really, he’s not.
Nor is he mean.
Not when he’s writing about George W. Bush’s inability to make nouns and verbs agree, or the voices in Ben Carson’s head, or Sarah Palin’s failure to name a single U.S. Supreme Court decision she disagrees with.
No, in those instances, Borowitz, a satirist for The New Yorker, is hoping to effect change.
“Everybody who is a satirist or does what I do — criticizing things and trying to be funny about it — comes from a place of innocence and earnestness,” Borowitz told a packed audience Wednesday night at The Poynter Institute. “I think the impulse to point out this stuff comes from a misguided view that things should get better.”
Satire, on some level, is supposed to be a corrective exercise, Borowitz said. It’s not that he thinks his role is all that important — he was quick to clarify that. But there is a point to it.
“The idea of satire is to take on something that deserves to be taken on,” Borowitz said. “I try to ask myself, ‘What is the appropriate target here?’”
For instance, when he wrote his numerous columns about Hurricane Katrina, he never made fun of the people who suffered. Instead, he turned his sharp criticism and biting wit to the people who made it worse: The government, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, former president George W. Bush, even Barbara Bush.
Borowitz shared his thoughts on the role of satire, the decline of the Republican Party and the target-rich environment that is U.S. Politics as the second speaker in Poynter’s 40th Anniversary Speaker Series.
The conversation was moderated by Paul Tash, the chairman of the Poynter Institute and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns. After Borowitz delivered a joke-laden soliloquy about the presidential debates, Tash asked whether Borowitz, whose comments thus far in the night had focused on conservative politicians, thought Republicans were funnier than Democrats.
“I will make fun of anybody who gives me good material,” Borowitz said.
However, if he had to make a choice based on the 2015 candidates, the Republicans would win out as the easier targets.
Despite the fact that he rips on Republicans more often than their liberal counterparts, Borowitz has found that Democrats are often much more thin-skinned.
“The same people will love it when you attack the people they can’t stand, but if you take down one of their sacred cows there is no thinner skin in the world,” he said. “I’m always sort of disappointed by that.”
After 15 years of writing satire, Borowitz said the hardest part isn’t the writing — that comes easily — but finding new ideas, especially in the repetitive circus that is politics. There are only so many times he can write about Republicans attempting to repeal Obamacare or pushing for a more probing investigation of Benghazi.
“On a week where things are really flowing and there are some great things going on in the world, my job becomes a walk in the park, and there’s no real stumbling block,” Borowitz said.
After he hones on in a good idea, the key is to keep it short.
“I never want to outstay my welcome with any of these jokes,” he said. “The audience catches on pretty quickly to what you’re doing. Try to entertain them quickly and then let them move on.”
So he churns out a pithy headline, follows it with a funny lead and then plays on variations of those for a few paragraphs.
Sometimes, foreign press outlets aren’t able to discern between his copy as satire and “real news” coming from other U.S. news outlets. He’s seen several of his stories printed abroad as if they were factual, especially in China. The Onion, he said, has the same problem.
Part of what might contribute to that confusion is the blurring of content lines between cable news outlets and comedy shows such as “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
Cable news networks have become more glib, Borowitz argued, while comedy shows are focusing on actual news highlighted with cutting commentary.
“(Cable networks) have gotten actually less serious and more shallow, meanwhile John Oliver is becoming more substantive,” Borowitz said. “The two trend lines are crossing right now.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified a recent subject of Borowitz’ satire. It is Ben Carson, not Herman Cain.