Satire may be a lost art and it may be what closes on Saturday night in relation to Broadway, but it’s still the greatest possible comedic achievement. Yes, we’ll all have a good laugh at a rich snob slipping on a banana peel, but that laugh is enriched exponentially if you can place the slapstick within the realm of satire. (One of the funniest scenes in movie history is when George C. Scott falls over backward in the War Room in Dr. Strangelove. It’s funny enough as pratfall, but the humor is deepened as a result of the satire of Scott’s character’s position.) One of the finest examples of satirical literature of the past few decades is Coyote v. Acme by Ian Frazier. Coyote v. Acme is a short piece that takes the form of a legal brief being brought by the famous Warner Brothers cartoon character Wile E. Coyote as he files a lawsuit against the infamous manufacturer of those negligent products sold by Acme Corp. Anyone who has watched a Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoon is familiar with the long history of poor Wile E. Coyote and his purchase of product after product from Acme that never delivers on their promise to help him catch the Roadrunner.
From the standpoint of direct satire, a first reading of Coyote v. Acme will doubtlessly have you taking it purely as an indictment of the litigious nature of contemporary American society. Many of the lawsuits filed in American are attempts by consumers to hold big business accountable because lawmakers and politicians won’t do the job, but more than a few have been by people hoping to make a big buck off their own ignorance. Coyote v. Acme is written in the jargon of a legal document that has been delivered to the court in Tempe, Arizona, complete with a docket number and everything. It is Harold Schoff, Esq. who has been hired as counsel by Wile E. Coyote. Schoff methodically delineates the sad history of the poor coyote’s regrettable decisions to rely upon the less than dependable products designed, manufactured and marketed by Acme. In his brief, Schoff alleges no less than 85 separate occasions in which Acme has been negligent by selling items to Wile E. Coyote that has caused grievous bodily harm as a result of the defective quality of the Acme products, or due to inaccurate labeling.
Much of the legal brief is given to descriptions of these incidents. Schoff details the terror that has befallen his client as a result of buying Acme’s Rocket Sled, Rocket Skates, Little Giant Firecracker, Self-Guided Aerial Bomb, etc. Schoff then goes on to describe the particulars of his client’s injuries, including such things as disfigurements as a result of burning, fractures, and discoloration. Schoff expends considerable time in his meticulous explanation of the incidents surrounding the negligence on Acme’s part as a result of Wile E. Coyotes purchasing a pair of Spring-Powered Shoes. Finally, it is time for Schoff to put a dollar amount on Wile E. Coyote’s misery: 38 million dollars. One of the really terrific lessons that a comedy writer could learn from Coyote v. Acme is how to use concrete examples of what people know. Satire works best not when it is nebulous and generalized, but when it is a specific point about something that we’re all familiar with. Every description of product negligence that Frazier describes is related to the events of an actual Roadrunner cartoon. In other words, while reading Coyote v. Acme you could also be watching exactly what he is describing.
Generally, Coyote v. Acme is considered to be a satire of the multitude of frivolous product liability lawsuits, but there is a case to be made that it is satirizing the willful negligence on the part of corporate American and the engendering of ridicule toward the victims of that negligence. Another way to look at the satire of Frazier’s piece is as a parody of the legal system itself and the incessant need for attorneys to couch the simplest concepts in the most complex and impenetrable language possible. Ultimately, Coyote v. Acme succeeds best not in terms of the target of its satire, but as a lesson to anyone who is interested in learning to write satire. Because satire is a highly elastic literary form it comes with much greater flexibility. Therefore, a satirist should feel no need to be constrained by form or content. By utilizing the form of a legal document, Frazier opens up the content of his satire beyond the specifics of lawsuits so that it can include the entire legal system. Through his use of language, Frazier also is able to take on the worst elements of the whole issue of product liability lawsuits, balancing it in such a way that those on the side of the consumer see business as the target of satire, while those on the side of business see it as a satire of consumers who expect nothing less than perfection in the products they buy.
If you have an itch to begin writing satire, start by reading Coyote v. Acme.