The Serious Side of Satire

Nov 23, 2016 by

The Serious Side of Satire

 

A COFFEE HOUSE CHAT with Tristan Bradley.

Web writer for The Beaverton and contributing author to the forthcoming book Glorious and/or Free, Tristan sat down for a COFFEE HOUSE CHAT. I asked him if he is funny in real life.

“I think so, though most of the time I come off as quiet and serious.”

Alex Risen and I found him funny, serious, informed and passionate about both politics and satire. But not quiet. Thank goodness.

D: Welcome, Tristan.

T: Thank you for having me.

D: What about Canada lends itself to satire?

T: Canada is unexplored territory. It’s not that we don’t have a satirical tradition, but the muscles in the last two decades have atrophied. Our traditional satire has lost its bite. It’s easy to make fun of Stephen Harper for looking like a Lego-man. It’s something else entirely to point out hypocrisies and absurdities involved in policy, wrong-doings, national issues or just the barebones facets of Canadian life itself.

Rick Mercer, for instance, has maybe a minute and a half of actual satire and the rest of it is a travelling show for geriatrics. And I feel bad saying this, because he is part of the reason I do this. Growing up, I loved [This Hour Has] 22 Minutes and [The Royal Canadian] Air Farce, but I don’t think they kept up with modern sensibilities.

D: When did you start watching Air Farce and 22 Minutes?

T: Oh, I was a kid. I was, like, in grade four.

D: Wow.

T: It’s really weird I know. But my dad is a lobbyist, nothing evil —transportation—no merchant of death stuff. I’d come home and there’d be three newspapers on the table. I would read them over breakfast, before I went to school. My grandfather always had CBC on, CTV, too. So when I was there, and I was there quite often, it was always on in the background. I guess my young brain just soaked it in.

But when the Daily Show  started, everything changed. That was around the early 2000’s. The Onion got very popular, too, and once I saw those, I couldn’t go back to Canadian satire.

D: Who were your favourite Daily Show correspondents?

T: Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrel, Jason Jones, Samantha Bee—all of them. What they were able to do was just stunning. I’d say Colbert the most.

D: Were you nervous when he got his own show? That he would be too much for thirty minutes? I was.

T: Not at all. The Colbert Report was amazing right out of the gate. And my entire university education—I hate to say it—might have been, at least partially, those shows.

D: Where did you go to university?

T: Carleton.

D: What did you take?

T: Political Science and International Relations. The original plan was to enter the Foreign Service, work in embassies, get an exotic foreign girlfriend and spend my time using my big government salary to tour foreign destinations.

Turns out my French isn’t nearly good enough and office work is boring.

D: So how did you make the transition from dreaming of Foreign Service to writing for “The Beaverton”?

T: Well I have and I haven’t. The Beaverton is still this weird start-up in a way. Our editors are doing a fantastic job and are brilliant to the point that the writers can actually get some financial recompense for their work.

D: So you were working for free?

T: We all were. It was started by a lovely man named Laurent Noonan, who sadly passed away.

D: I did not know that. He was a young guy wasn’t he? Didn’t the whole thing come out of Queen’s U or recent Queen’s alumni?

T: Laurent I think was U of T, but our head writer Luke Gordon Field went to Queen’s and another editor, the one who brought me on board, Alex Huntley, went to Queen’s. So it was Laurent, Luke and Alex and also Jacob [Duarte] and [Alexander] Saxton. They were all there before I was.

D: 2010 was the start-up, or so my research tells me.

T: Okay. And I came on about three years ago.

D: How did you know Alex Huntley?

T: When I was at Carlton, I was part of the Model NATO conference, if you’re familiar with the Model UN, it’s the same thing, only about NATO. Basically a bunch of dorks from different universities getting together and pretending to be diplomats from other countries. I met him in 2nd or 3rd year. Nice guy. We kept in touch on FB.

A few years later I was at Humber College where I was doing the TV writing and producing program. In class we had an exercise where we had to write an episode for the Daily Show.

D: That would be fun.

T: It was by far the thing that made me the most excited (though I wasn’t really on the same page as everyone else in my class). My professor said if you want to write satiric comedy, go to the U.S.: don’t bother with Canada. You have to do American politics and aim for Conan or something.

I disagreed. I thought nobody’s doing it well, so the first person who does is going to go somewhere. Then I started seeing these “Beaverton” articles on my Facebook feed and they were saying things that no one else was. First, I realized that Alex was posting them and then I realized he was the one writing them!

I sent a message through Facebook, but got a standard ‘not taking submissions response.’ Then one day I ran into him and said ‘I love what you guys are doing and I’d love to write for you.’ He put me in touch with Laurent and Laurent brought me on board.

D: Do you remember the first thing you wrote that was published?

T: I think it was about an LCBO strike on Victoria Day and the headline was something like “They came to a deal and managed to avert a province-wide sobriety crisis.”

(Laughter)

T: After that, I slowly and steadily published more.

D: I had a question coming in, that I think I have the answer to now, but I’m still going to ask. Which do you prefer? The light-hearted articles or the hard-hitting political articles that have serious social significance, like Toronto’s black Chief of Police being carded on the way to his swearing-in ceremony.

T: I love them both. I think the art of satire is being able to sneak in a really thoughtful or intellectual message into something that on the surface is lighthearted or silly or absurd.
The way I always describe it is ‘you want to come at it sideways, instead of on the nose.’ So it’s one thing to say, the number of serious journalists in Canada is really small, but it’s another thing to say that you can fit them all inside a Volkswagen Jetta.

D: I loved the last paragraph of that particular article. The number of people who have seen Canadian films at a theatre can fit inside a hockey bag.

(Laughter)

D: You are a contributing author to The Beaverton book coming out next year, Glorious and/or Free. What has that experience been like?

T: We’re still grasping our way. I don’t think anyone has ever done this—there is the “Onion’s Dumb Century,” which is the closest thing I can think of. We’re doing a satirical history textbook, so the format is somewhat different. I’m struggling to find the voice of my time period: WWII.

D: Is that a rich period for satire or is it difficult to find satire in all that misery.

T: Yes and no. Naturally, a lot of what you’re going to do is going to be dark. Ideally you like to mix it up: darker side/lighter side. But in WWII you aren’t given a lot to play with. I mean but in terms of hypocrisies, absurdities, all that stuff that makes for a good satire fodder, it had a lot. It was cranked up to 11. But that presents its own problems, in the same way that Rob Ford was difficult to satirize. He was naturally so absurd that what he did on a day-to-day basis would easily top what we were doing.

D: Do you struggle now for ideas or do they froth out of you? Do ever find yourself in a panic because you have to get something in?

T: All the time. We are all working people with other stuff to do, so you may find yourself throwing something together in the last hour, and the only way to find out if it’s any good is just to throw it out. And what happens very often is stuff I didn’t think would get green-lit does and then I’m left with this thing and I’ve got to figure out how to write it.

D: How old were you when you started to write?

T: Grade one. I always wrote stories. In high school, I took drama, where I would get thrown together with a group of misfits, that no one else wanted to take on, but it worked splendidly and I still have friends from then. Those teachers were great. Their thing was: you have two weeks to put on something good. I could put out 20 pages a night. I couldn’t do that now.

D: Isn’t there something about having no credibility—you’re just a high school student, so there is no pressure. Now you’ve got a resume, a reputation, you’re published. It all comes with real pressure to perform…

T: Yeah. The pressure slows down your writing. And though it’s slower, my writing is better than when I was younger. I’m much pickier.

D: What’s your writing process?

T: I keep my phone and notebook handy. When it comes, it comes. If something is popping I get it down as quickly as possible. It’s not always easy. Ask any of the editors. They have written more stories than they can count in bathroom stalls at work on their phones.

[Laughter]

The best stuff I’ve written always flowed. It was just easy. If good clear writing is good clear thought, then…

Not that I wouldn’t like to work out something more regimented. I might feel better about myself. But I might be just sitting there bashing my head against a keyboard, too. I’m much better than I was, but I am never on time for things, I’m always forgetting. I have a short attention span—I was on Ritalin for decades. Two.

And then there is the process as it relates to news. I’d be reading something the government was doing. First I’d get angry about it. Then I’d ask what about this is absurd or hypocritical? And then the jokes would come.

D: Does the best satire come out of anger?

T: Yes. Well, maybe not. We can also satirize a lot of things we love: like the “Man lives in Moose Jaw of his own free will” article.

D: Gentle satire. Would you say most satire is hopeful?

T: Yeah, though I do tire of hot takes.

D: What’s a hot take?

T: Opinionated timely comedy with a good dose of anger behind it. Like ‘watch John Oliver destroy Donald Trump’. I find it tiring sometimes. And I think maybe it’s just balancing news and every day life. I don’t know. It’s a good question but the key either way is you need to come at it sideways. The point loses its potency if it’s not ancillary to the humour.

D: How old are you?

T: 29

D: You’ve done well.

T: Really? I’ve just recently been able to keep a roof over my head.

D: Well, to be fair to yourself, the average Canadian writer makes 12,000 a year, according to the CBC.

T: Yes. And the nature of online writing is that the public is fickle and success is ephemeral.

D: ‘The public is fickle and success is ephemeral.’ That’s a hell of a tagline.

Based in Toronto, Tristan Bradley is a web writer for The Beaverton.

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