May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Oscar Wilde is by far the most overrated satirist of the last two hundred years. But in American history? This country has never been very welcoming to satire (as the mogul said, it’s what closes on Saturday night), so we aren’t likely to overrate satirists the way we are inclined, for instance, to overrate abstract expressionists and chili. The only American satirists famous and well regarded enough to be in danger of overratedness are Mark Twain, Carry Trudeau, and Tom Wolfe, all of whom are highly but correctly rated. “Most overrated American satirist” may be a null set, like “most flamboyantly gay NASCAR driver.”
Okay, there is Andy Rooney. But he’s probably more overcompensated than overrated.
The great underrated satirists of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, because they were so miserably underrated, are unknown to me; in this century Andy Warhol may be the man, underrated because supermarket-box art isn’t usually logged in the satire section, because his meanings were implied, and because, ironically, he wasn’t a very nice guy. Runner-up underrateds are Howard Stern, if you’re willing to indulge in some very-late-twentieth-century parochialism, and Jim Downey, the former head writer for Saturday Night Live , if you discount for the fact that I’ve known him since college.