When satire falls flat: Lessons from The Western Gazette’s botched attempt at being funny

By Ryan Mallough

By Ryan Mallough

From eating babies in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal to the religious satire of The Book of Mormon, humour can be an effective tool to get important messages across to diverse audiences. Recently, satire has become an increasingly popular way for young people to consume the news. It is so popular that in 2009, Jon Stewart was named America’s most trustworthy newsman in a Time magazine poll with 44 per cent of the vote.

However, when misused or done poorly, it can create controversy and tarnish a publication’s reputation, as happened with The Western Gazette’s frosh issue piece “So you want to date your teaching assistant,” which was published by Western University’s student newspaper in London, Ont., and drew criticism from administration, student unions and women’s groups.

Critics contended that the article, which encouraged students to “Facebook stalk” and “get sexual” in pursuit of their teaching assistant, made light of and encouraged sexual harassment on campus.

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“The trouble with satire is that it is difficult to write well, and especially hard to get across in newspaper articles or very short pieces,” said David Swick, assistant professor at the University of King’s College School of Journalism in Halifax. “The first thing for anyone who’s considering writing satire to ask themselves is: is this subject appropriate?”

Writers shouldn’t back away from controversial subjects, said Swick, but there are several areas that are widely considered not to lend themselves to humour, such as genocide, pedophilia and sexual assault. It’s important writers carefully select their topic to ensure that it is something that will provoke and contribute to the greater conversation, rather than offend.

It is equally important that writers not only understand the “what,” but also the “why” of their piece.

“As journalists, we learn to consider our sources’ motivation, but we also need to look at our own. Why do we want to pursue this article?” said Swick. “If it’s something like ‘making your friends laugh’ or ‘because I want to,’ then your answers aren’t good enough, even in a student newspaper, and it’s time to reconsider.”

Swick recommends writers take a step back and reassess their work once it is complete to try to view it from the reader’s perspective.

“When you’ve got a good working draft, it’s good to ask two things: what’s the weakest part of this, and what’s the most offensive part? Take a really close look at those two things and ask yourself: are they worth keeping?

“I think these are basic questions to help a writer make a better choice before, during and after writing satire.”

Swick added that humour is often a collaborative effort, with multiple writers serving as a system of checks and balances, and that running an article by a group that may take offence for feedback is a good idea.

Marsha Boulton, who won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in 1996, warned that anyone attempting satire needs a thick skin once their work has been published.

“My observation and experience is that any writer who puts forth any view that challenges the status quo, questions authority, exposes abuse or even mildly ‘pokes the bear’ should be prepared for backlash, abuse, scorn and even persecution,” she wrote in an email. “Having an opinion and then pressing that opinion through the envelope of satire is almost an invitation to be cut out of the herd and run out of town.

“Humour does not bully or belittle. It relishes foibles, flaws and poobahs. But gawd help it if strays beyond Grumpy Cats and babies in hats and heaven forfend if it walks the edge of political correctness—or hits the stands on a slow news day,” she added. 

Western University lecturer Mark Kearney, who teaches a humour writing course at the undergraduate level, as well as print journalism in the master’s program, encourages budding satirists to pay close attention to the platform they are working for—something he said that the students working at The Western Gazette failed to do.

“As a reader you’ve read straight stories and then you hit ‘So you want to date a TA,’ without anything to indicate it’s a humour piece or to signal the reader not to take it seriously,” Kearney said. “It’s tough in a publication that’s primarily informative to throw in a tongue-and-cheek piece.”

Despite the negative press The Gazette received, Kearney hopes aspiring humour writers won’t be too put off.

“Writers need to increase their topic awareness. With any satire, there are going to be elements that set off alarm bells among some part of the audience—that’s what satire does,” he said. “The more polarizing the subject, the more likely people are going to get upset.”

Writers also need to be aware of their medium, especially when it comes to presenting humour in print.

“It’s a lot harder be funny in print than it is in front of people” he said. “There’s no one standing there winking at you, letting you in on the joke.”

He added that humour is a constantly evolving field and young satirists need to be aware of that evolution especially when it comes to pushing boundaries.

“Thirty years ago, people would say you shouldn’t make fun of death, but now we see it all the time, even in very run-of-the-mill network television,” he said. “Things change, boundaries change, even taboos change. The important thing is that you stay aware and know your audience.”

As for The Western Gazette, it apologized for the article and pulled the issue from newsstands, as well as retracting the piece online.

Ryan Mallough holds a Bac. Soc. Sci. in political science from the University of Ottawa and an MA in journalism from Western University. He has been published in Maclean’s, the London Free Press and cbc.ca. Mallough is currently working as a freelance writer.


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