There are a variety of problems with satire. One, of course, is that being a particularly sharp-edged form of criticism, it can get you into serious trouble. Dictators tend to particularly loathe satirists -- in the early days of the Nazi regime, a comedian had a routine in which he'd snap into a Nazi salute, and say "Heil... um." Then he'd do it again. Finally he'd scratch his head, and say, "What was that guy's name, again?" It was a simple little thing, harmless enough, you'd think -- but it so effectively pointed up the lunacy of requiring that people greet each other by saying "praise Hitler" that no one was really surprised when the comedian disappeared, permanently.
The other problem with satire is that it straddles a very fine line. On the one hand, it can't be too far over the line, or it is either too obvious or it becomes offensive (or both). Witness the brouhaha over the cover of the New Yorker which showed the Obamas in the Oval Office, dressed up like terrorists. The whole thing, of course, was supposed to lampoon the ridiculous ideas that the Obamas were (1) Muslims, and (2) anti-American. The satire was so over-the-top that it actually offended a lot of people, because they felt that the allegations against the Obamas already were being taken seriously enough that you couldn't even joke about it.
The opposite problem, of course, occurs when the satire is so subtle that people fall for it. Amazingly enough, there are people who think that Stephen Colbert is an actual conservative; many of you probably remember the extraordinary Presidential Press Dinner during George W. Bush's last term when a staffer (who probably disappeared as fast as the German comedian did) hired Colbert to be the keynote speaker, and Colbert proceeded to skewer everyone in the room, without once breaking out of his ultra-right-wing persona. (After that performance, no one made that mistake about Colbert again, I'll bet.) More recently, we have the people who've taken various stories in The Onion seriously, including:
- A story in which J. K. Rowling was alleged to have been responsible for the induction of over a million children into the Church of Satan. This prompted an angry letter to Reader's Digest after they interviewed Rowling -- a reader was outraged that a nice conservative magazine like Reader's Digest would interview a horrible evil pagan devil-worshiper like Rowling, and she had proof of Rowling's wicked ways, because she'd "read it in The Onion." The editor, showing admirable restraint, responded only with, "The Onion is a satirical news website, and is not intended to be taken seriously."
- A recent story called "Prince William Divorces Kate Middleton After Five Weeks," which caused a firestorm of angst on Facebook and Twitter. One poster, illustrating perhaps the reason why she took the story seriously, ended her screed against Prince William with the statement, "What will he say when he's crowned king? Probably 'London is a horrible country and I don't want to be king anyway.'"
- A story headlined "Final Minutes of the Last Harry Potter Movie to be Split Into Seven Separate Films." You can just imagine how the people who took this one seriously reacted.
- However, not only the gullible and unintelligent get hoodwinked. In the most famous instance of The Onion scoring a satirical win, a 2002 article which described how the US was moving governmental offices out of the Capitol Building because it was "dilapidated," and "didn't have enough bathrooms," was picked up by the Beijing Evening News. The embarrassed editors of BEN apologized for the error the following day, and said that the writer of the story, Huang Ke, had been told to "be more careful next time."