One of the primary challenges of studying abroad is understanding the cultural norms of your host country. These may involve culture, history, food, or even common sayings and phrases. There are things that natives take for granted, but may be confusing and bizarre from the outside. This knowledge is rarely taught past a certain point, leaving international students behind in some ways. This series aims to help students understand things that many Americans take for granted or to better understand the country through its art, politics, and culture. 

For those who pay attention to late night TV, the world was shook up last week when iconic Late Night host David Letterman announced his retirement after 32 years on the job. Attention immediately turned to who might succeed him, with nearly every news outlet drawing up their lists, from the predictable to the outlandish. Remarkably, a decision was revealed just a week later, as CBS announced that Stephen Colbert would be replacing the legend.

This was an interesting transition. For while it is unknown exactly how he’ll do the show, Stephen Colbert has made his name in a vein of comedy very different than Letterman. Letterman was a humorist and a host- he was groundbreaking in introducing irony and abstract oddness to the mainstream- but he still fit firmly in one tradition. Colbert made his name in another. In his show, The Colbert Report, he is a character, a parody of a particular kind of TV and radio blowhard, using that vantage point to skewer politics and the media. In short, he is a satirist, using comedy to expose absurdity and hypocrisy.

Satire is a powerful tool of the powerless, and has been used worldwide for centuries: from the subtle prodding of Roman society by the poet and philosopher Horace, to Voltaire raging against stupefied complacency with his dimwitted Candide proclaiming that the horrors he saw were still the “best of all possible worlds“. It’s also worth mentioning the savagery of Swift encouraging English oppressors to alleviate starvation by eating Irish babies. 

It might surprise some people that America, which takes its global mission and self identity very seriously, has room for satire. But in such a climate, it becomes almost inevitable. For the international student, there is the instinct to be respectful of your host country, but knowing how Americans laugh at themselves is being respectful, and honoring a tradition. Indeed, there’s an unbroken tradition, and understanding the way Americans make fun of their own country is a great way for you to understand it better. Here are some of the highlights.

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert uses humor to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable“.
Image from commons.wikimedia.com

Ambrose Bierce

Bierce was an author of short horror stories, an adventurer, a journalist, and an overall malcontent. He got his writing start while covering the Civil War, where he keenly saw the difference between high-minded rhetoric and the horror, stink, and grime of the battlefield. This affected him deeply, and he spent the rest of his life pointing out the shortcomings and absurdities of events and words taken for granted, and how we use language to ignore the truth behind things. His most famous work is The Devil’s Dictionary, which is as bleak as it sounds.

Key Quote: CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

H.L. Mencken

Primarily a literary critic, Mencken used that position to attack culture, religion, ignorance, and superstition. His definition of these was broad enough to include undue deference toward “accepted” writers and artists, and the concept that if enough people like an author, they must therefore be a good author. In this, he anticipated everything from the self-serving oddness of the modern art world to the modern cable-news shouters and talk-radio bloviators.

Key quote: The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived.

Peter Finley Dunne

A Chicago journalist, Dunne wrote a long-running column in the voice of an imaginary tavern-keeper, a boisterous and often unintentionally-wise Irish immigrant named Mr. Dooley. Dooley would sit and talk to his patrons about the events of the day, and with his simple intelligence, successfully punctured supposed truths. While Bierce and Menken were bitter and sardonic, Dunne was more successful in using humor. You’d laugh at something Dooley said, and then realize he was correct.

Key Quote: Th’ dead ar-re always pop’lar. I knowed a society wanst to vote a monyment to a man an’ refuse to help his fam’ly, all in wan night. (The dead are always popular. I knew a society that wants to vote a monument to a man and refuse to help his family, all in one night.)

PJ O’Rourke

O’Rourke, a contemporary author, comes at satire from a conservative perspective, which is unusual, but satire always needs diversity to stay strong. No one should be too comfortable, or else they get calcified. O’Rourke is best known for skewering the Baby Boom generation, of which he is a part, once they settled down and became obsessed with health, safety, and regulations. He satirized the enormous self-regard of a generation that has dominated American politics for 50 years, and has done a great service, regardless of whether you agree with him or not.

Key quote: In fact, safety has no place anywhere. Everything that’s fun in life is dangerous. Horse races, for instance, are very dangerous. But attempt to design a safe horse and the result is a cow (an appalling animal to watch at the trotters.) And everything that isn’t fun is dangerous too. It is impossible to be alive and safe.

The Onion

Before Colbert and Jon Stewart, there was The Onion, a fake newspaper from the college town of Madison, that mercilessly mocks journalism, politics, culture, life- everything. Nothing is safe from its razor-sharp dissection of society. It’s machine-gun approach also shows some of the dangers of satire: when everything is a target, you tend to make the default assumption that everything is bad, no matter what. But when it is as funny as The Onion, it is often hard to complain.

Key Quote: Single Mother Hogging Two Jobs

America is a land of high ideals and and a sacred sense of self. But in satire, nothing is sacred. As it turns out, this is a great mix. It is important for international students to understand this tradition of satire in America, to know that it is a vibrant part of our democracy, and serves as self-corrective when people take themselves too seriously, and their duties not seriously enough. Don’t think that by reading or watching the work of people who make fun of America you are insulting your host. You’re not. You’re part of a great tradition of making the country a more lively, a more interesting, and a better place.

 

The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.