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A Veteran Onion Satirist Copes with Last Week’s Tragedy in Paris

The heaviness of Charlie Hebdo

Last week on the day they killed the satirists in Paris, I wake up, feed frantically meowing animals (with my habitual cat-curse of “inhuman beasts!”), and grab my coffee like any other morning, with no idea what’s already happened across the Atlantic. I’m still only half-awake as I pull up my Facebook page, but almost as soon I open the computer I get a desperately worded private message, from an old college friend who is now an ultra-progressive rabbi, urging courage and asking what The Onion is doing in response to what happened in Paris.

Not knowing what he’s talking about, I quickly Google-search the word “Paris” and instantly see the headline: “At Least 12 Dead, More Injured, In Gunmen Attack on Satirical Weekly In Paris.”

And I think, “Holy shit—they just hit Charlie Hebdo.”

I’m not that familiar with Charlie Hebdo—I don’t speak French, though I know that “hebdo” means “weekly” and it’s named after Charlie Brown (and as a sly dig against Charles De Gaulle)—but I knew right away it was them, because I remember the firebombing that destroyed their offices in 2011. They responded six (SIX!) days later with a cover illustration of a Muslim man in a sloppy gay kiss with a Frenchman, captioned “Love Is Stronger Than Hate,” making them the heroes of envelope-pushing satirists and cartoonists the globe over.

In my life I’ve been both a cartoonist and a satirist, so even though it’s thousands of miles away in another culture I know little about, this news hits insanely close to home. I must feel like what I guess Neil Young felt when he heard about the Kent State shootings in 1970—My God, they’re actually killing hippies now, “Soldiers are gunning us down.” Yes, it’s important to keep these things in perspective—as a cartoonist friend will tell me on the phone in the coming days, “Six Mexican women are murdered every day”—but I’m not thinking about that now. In fact, I don’t know what I’m thinking.

My head is a mass of contradictory thoughts and I don’t know what to feel or say.

Photo courtesy of Todd Hanson

I quickly fire back a response to the rabbi: “I’m in Brooklyn, and they’re in Chicago, but I’m sure they’re brainstorming this even as we speak.” Then I put up an “RIP” Facebook post, with an old photo of me pulling up my sleeve to display the tattoo on my left arm. It is a cartoon drawing of a group of horned, goat-legged satyrs, writing with a feather-plumed pen from an inkbottle with the skull and crossbones that means “poison.” The banner underneath it says “SATIRE.”

Even though I am the sort of compulsive overthinker-and-second-guesser-of-everything that can take an hour to decide on a simple Facebook post, I do this without thinking, almost in a daze. I half-notice that it starts getting forwarded to other pages right away.

Then I start thinking about jokes.

I start with the standard “laughter as the only relief from the unbearable tragedies of life”-type impulse as my basis for brainstorming headlines about the shootings. But none of these jokes work, because I don’t feel like laughing, and I’m too angry to feel any relief. Then I try the “rage-filled brutal venting joke”-type impulse, and write a series of headlines that aren’t right because they’re not sad enough. Then I try the “sad joke” approach. These don’t work because they’re not angry enough.

I stop and see the Facebook window, still open. My banner photo is the famous last shot of “Planet of the Apes,” depicting the half-buried remains of the Statue of Liberty, millions of years after the destruction of the world in a global thermonuclear war. My sardonic caption says, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Black humor, reflective of whatever black mood I was in when I wrote it.

Because this is the way I process misery and despair. And though I’m no longer part of the day-to-day routine at the satirical weekly where I’ve worked for almost 25 years—my current job title is “Eminence Grise”, a French term that translates literally as “Grey Eminence” but actually means something closer to “Old Man That We Still Respect”—black humor is still a knee-jerk response for me. I can’t help it—it’s part of me.

That film with the apes is based on a satirical book (echoing Gulliver’s voyage to the island of the Houyhnhmns, inverting the relationship between man and brute, but with apes instead of horses), by the French novelist Pierre Boulle. This coincidence will seem eerie when it occurs to me a few days later. But now, even though this is an irrational thought, the picture strikes me as wildly inappropriate for this moment.

So I change it and my profile pic to the cartoon image, now rapidly going viral all over the world, of two hands—one holding an AK-47 and one, opposed, holding a pencil—with the soon-to-be-famous words “Je Suis Charlie.” Then I go back to writing jokes once again.

At some point I see in my feed an op-ed written by my old boss, a former Onion editor, and I realize he too has been writing furiously all morning. I stop to read it. It’s serious and wise and says all the right things. I post a link to it as well and go back to my list of headlines as it, too, begins instantly getting shared around.

I’m mad at the world, and mad at myself for my own inability to think of the right one-liner for this horrible event. I keep working on the jokes anyway.

But I know that whatever take The Onion chooses to go with will not come from me. It will be the process of enormous group effort, brainstormed in the room, and probably take at least two different “let’s take a break and regroup in a half hour” re-tries before they get it exactly right.

I also know something else: they will not stop until they do. It never even enters my mind to think otherwise.

They can’t help it—it’s part of them.

I glance up at the Facebook window again. Perhaps nothing in this world is less important than Facebook Likes and Shares, but that having been said I notice that I’ve never had anything get so many Likes or be shared more times than these posts I’ve put up today, shared in unprecedented numbers of a geometrically greater degree than whatever (I have no idea) may have been in second place. Someone has sent me a message asking where the tattoo design is from, who did it, who took the photo. So I quickly type up an info paragraph and add it to the post:

“Detail of a design by I assume Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, Mad Magazine, Lower Manhattan NYC, 1956. Tattoo by Chrissy Rossettie Sakes, Brooklyn NYC, 2004. Photo by Quinn Heraty, East Village NYC, 2007. Human arm by Ken Hanson and Mary Watkins, Chicago IL, 1968”.

One of the shares just says the word “Jackasses.” I leave a comment. “Not jackasses. Jackasses are herbivores.”

As I finish typing these, I realize I’ve just made the first two solid jokes I’ve written all day.

Meanwhile, the news is still going viral. It’s a global outpouring of support. Today, it seems, everyone loves a satirist. The fact of the matter is that every other day, very few people do—hence my oft-repeated sarcastic joke that there’s nothing more commercially viable than satire, which is why the number one comedy program on television is a reality show called “Truth To Power.” In the wake of the tragedy much hay will be made over France’s noble tradition of satire. Less mentioned will be the fact that the greatest exemplar of that tradition, Voltaire, was banned from Paris by the king.

In other words, most people hate satire, because it’s a satirist’s job to make people mad. On my office door at the old New York offices of The Onion I used to have two juxtaposed quotes, one from Jonathan Swift in 1725, and one from Eminem in 1999. The first one said, “The chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it”; the second, “I don’t give a fuck, God sent me to piss the world off.”

But today it is me that’s pissed off—not just at the thought of the victims and their families, but at all the secondary negativity that I know will result once the outpouring of support fades. The smug, self-righteous indignation which has become its own reward for online atheists who claim to have absorbed the lessons of the Enlightenment, but haven’t yet absorbed the lesson that abuse of strangers on one’s computer is an asshole move. The inevitable swing to the right of racist Islamophobes in France and everywhere else. The hypocritical condemnations of the murders—which are not really murders, by the way, but political assassinations—from people who say that while of course no one should be killed for cartoons the people at Charlie Hebdo were really asking for it by provoking the terrorists. The accusations of racist Islamophobia and hate speech against Charlie Hebdo itself, as if there were anything more deserving of offensive ridicule than the extremism it has set itself against.

Because, honestly—who better to offend than Al-Qaeda? Because, to paraphrase an old joke, fuck Al-Qaeda and the horse they rode in on. Seriously, I think to myself sitting there, is there any organization on the planet Earth more worthless than Al-Qaeda? Have they ever done even one useful thing for anyone? All they ever do is hurt—their actions do not even benefit them. How did taking down the towers in New York in 2001 benefit the cause of radical Islam? All it did was stoke a world into greater hatred against them. They not only make everything worse for everyone else, they make everything worse for the people they’re supposedly fighting for, too.

As these thoughts are going through my head, I realize I’m shaking with rage. The question of why days like today keep happening is hard to think about rationally, because it doesn’t have any rational answer. Al-Qaeda don’t have rational reasons for their actions, their sick ideology just leaves no room for anything else. This is what fundamentalism—in any form—is. They cannot tolerate any deviation from this ideology, even in the form of drawings, of humor. Attack them with humor and they feel as if you’ve attacked them with a gun. Because for them everything is black and white, and any idea that deviates from their totalitarian dogma is something that needs to be killed off before the world can be made right again.

I suddenly get the realization that the most insane thing about the assassins in Paris is that they actually felt they were acting in self-defense.

Then I write this headline: “12 Killed In Self-Defense Against Jokes.”

At last, I’ve got my black-humor Onion joke and have processed the information in a way that works for me as a piece of satire. And though I know it won’t get used as I send it off to Chicago, because the staff there are even now writing something better, I feel no worries, because I know that whatever headline they do run will be great. I know these people. I understand how their minds work. They’ll nail it. They can’t help it—it’s part of them.

And even though I know almost nothing about the staff of Charlie Hebdo, it never occurs to me at any point throughout this awful day that they’ll cease publication after these killings. I just subconsciously assume that they can’t help it either—it’s part of them, and they’ll never stop.

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