Satirists, or writers of any kind perhaps, have to see the world a little differently. Askew perhaps. Recently I turned 40, well 41 actually, and I guess I started thinking back on my life and I was trying to figure out how I became a satirist – how I became corrupted … in the best sense of that term.
I remember when I was about five or six and my father, who was an electrician back then, went up north to do some electrical work. He was gone for months (or so it felt) and when we went to Winnipeg to meet him at the train station I didn’t even recognize him. He had a beard. Apparently he had been too busy wiring houses to shave. When we got home, my younger brother and I were excited to hear his stories and, perhaps, get a present of some sort, something to compensate for the fact he was gone so long and was now unrecognizably hirsute. And, yes, he did have presents.
He hauled out a pair of matching child-size light blue sweatshirts. He’d been working in Pukatawagan, a First Nations community in northern Manitoba, and the only souvenir he could find were these novelty sweatshirts from the non-existent University of Pukatawagan. In the middle they said in big bold letters “Puk U”. This is hilarious and brilliant and I’d love to meet the person who came up with that. Needless to say my Mom was none too impressed. I’m not sure she wanted her kids walking around Steinbach in 1985 saying “puk u” to everyone.
My brother and I didn’t get it. We literally did not know what that word meant, what the joke was, or why the shirt required urgent alterations. However, it didn’t take much to convince us, as we were quickly offered the chance to select any cartoon character we wanted to cover-up the offending words. We browsed the selection of iron-on censorship badges at the Clearspring Mall and chose Sylvester the Cat.
I’m not sure when we learned the truth about the sweaters. Perhaps it was about the time I discovered that very same word (only spelled differently) in a Brian Mulroney joke book at a store in Brandon. I’ve written before about how obsessed I was with politics from an early age, probably 10 or 11, and I used to draw Brian Mulroney political cartoons, my first foray into satire. By then my father was a minister and I remember browsing a bookstore where he pointed out a Brian Mulroney joke book. “Hey, Andrew, I think you might like this.” And I sure did! Only my minister father didn’t realize the sort of jokes that were in that book. You know, they don’t put the “Puk U” jokes on the cover. Those are buried somewhere in the middle of the book where pastors can’t find them. That book exposed me to a whole host of new words and subject matter, most of which I dare not repeat here for fear of besmirching our beloved Prime Minister’s reputation even further. Let’s just say that, in this particular book, 24 Sussex Drive is vandalized with urine and the Prime Minister is accused of having intimate relations with a goat. Classy stuff.
Both The Daily Bonnet and my novel Once Removed deal with, to some degree, politics and religion and the uncomfortable mixture of those things at times. I think my “corruption” when it comes to these topics was a gradual one.
Of course, as you know, I was already writing Mulroney cartoons, but I was also very politically involved, going door-to-door for my local candidate before I was old enough to even vote (or drive). I went to political rallies and got an autographed Preston Manning book for my 13th birthday. Eventually, however, the scales fell off. I think by the time I was 18 or 19 I saw that winning an election had little to do with ideas. Politicians were not philosophers or scholars and they didn’t try to win people’s votes with intellect. Instead, I saw trivial things like fighting with other candidates about the positioning of signs on a prominent Steinbach intersection or the importance of “getting out the vote” (ie. calling people and harassing them on election day).
Since then I’ve become agnostic about politics and political parties in particular. Of course I still have opinions about issues, but I have no “team” and I think this has helped me when I write political satire. Unfortunately, some readers assume that if a particular article critiques a particular politician that, obviously, I must support the other. This simplistic thinking is a biproduct of our society I guess.
While glimpses behind the curtain of election campaigns have contributed to my satirical outlook on politics, I think that glimpses behind the curtain of the church had a similar impact. Like politics, when religion is being critiqued the focus is often on corrupt or incompetent leaders, but as a pastor’s son I also saw how terrible the parishioners can be to those leaders, especially in Protestant churches (I’m including Mennonite here) where powerful and wealthy parishioners in some congregations have significant clout. Fortunately my parents were able to shield much of that stuff from my brother and I, but I was still aware of what was going on to some degree. I heard, for instance, about the trivial theological disagreements that somehow, for some reason, were a really big deal. Like knowing precisely when the Rapture will come. This was apparently enough to lead church members to near blows in adult Sunday School. Stuff like that. I also learned that it wasn’t a good look for the pastor’s son to listen to rock music (even in the 90s). My dad let us do it, but I know he got flack from some fundamentalist parishioners about it. And I know there were a lot worse things than these examples, but we got the Sylvester the Cat treatment on those thankfully.
I’m sure that none of these reflections would pass muster with any psychologist, but now I write satire, which requires me to find flaws in everything, or the joke in things that might not otherwise be funny, and I can’t help but think that these childhood experiences contributed to my ability to do this kind of writing day after day. I guess I just see the world a little askew. But I’m not complaining. I like the view from this angle.