I would describe The Borowitz Report as very gentle satire. While The Onion and its imitators have pushed satire toward surrealism with farfetched premises, Andy Borowitz has staked out territory closer to real life. His satire is dry. Often, his premises are not exaggerations of popular values but expressions of them, as in Stephen Hawking Angers Trump Supporters With Baffling Array of Long Words. Where The Onion’s premises are audacious, Borowitz’s are so plausible that they were routinely mistaken for actual news, before The New Yorker began labeling them “satire from Andy Borowitz.” But today’s report takes dry to a new level. With Americans Overwhelmingly Say Lives Have Improved Since Kellyanne Conway Went Away, the hygrometer is bottoming out. My throat may become too parched to laugh.
The premise here is that Conway has vanished, and most Americans are happier for it. Borowitz does not explain why she is gone or what mechanism has led to the broad improvement in mental health that “doctors are calling the Conway Effect.” That refusal to explain is pretty much the joke. He is working in a form that calls for specificity, and he’s not going to provide any. Beneath the nominal premise that is the hallmark of satire, Borowitz’s under-detailed execution implies the real premise is that Conway is just plain bad. The humor comes from how bluntly Borowitz executes the idea.
Or it should, anyway. The problem is this joke is not contingent on its content. You can substitute another noun for “Kellyanne Conway” and it works just as well. Americans Say Lives Have Improved Since Jimmy Kimmel Went Away. Americans Say Lives Have Improved Since Compact Disc Packaging Went Away, or Since Flirtatious Yetis Went Away.
That last one is kind of funny, in a cheap way. At least it attempts to find humor in specificity. Kellyanne Conway is such a universal villain among Borowitz’s readers that she functions as synecdoche for badness—not her own, particular brand of badness, but badness in general. Putting her in a general joke format therefore doesn’t work. There’s nothing to unpack, nothing to surprise us while we’re thinking about it, so the humor falls flat. You might as well say Life Is Better When Bad Things Are Gone.
I think the generality that characterizes “Conway’s disappearance, however, has not been an unalloyed boon, because in some patients it has stirred ‘severe anxiety’ that she might someday return ‘without warning,’ Logsdon said” has to be read as a choice. You can dismiss Lives Have Improved Since Kellyanne Conway Went Away as a first idea, but to me it reads more like a fifth idea that strips the first four down to their barest essence. I think there is frustration behind it, not laziness.
In the context of the larger project of trying to make funny satire out of the news of the day, this one reads as a heart’s cry. Everything in politics seems so aggressively, stupidly, universally bad right now. Why can’t these people be bad the way The Brady Bunch is bad, instead of bad like the dead wastes of Chernobyl? Perhaps Americans Overwhelmingly Say Lives Have Improved Since Kellyanne Conway Went Away is Borowitz lashing out at this uniform, unfunny badness. It is his version of the “unweeded garden gone to seed” that Hamlet lamented. “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,” Hamlet complains, “seem to me all the uses of this world!” Satire is one of those uses, and it goes stale like the rest.