Finally, Detroit can stop taking itself so seriously
The city of Detroit gives land to billionaires for practically nothing. In a former slum area, chic restaurants serve oxtail and craft cocktails. Dan Gilbert’s own offices replace water coolers with muddy machines.
Some will denounce these developments with thousand-word screeds. Satirists, on the other hand, write articles with pithy headlines like “Inside Corktown, America’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood” or “Help One of Detroit’s Richest Citizens by Volunteering”.
Written by Aaron Foley for the Periphery and Michael Jackman for the Metro Times last year, these pieces are part of a noticeable surge in Detroit satire that coincided with changes in the city. Satire and its episode in the underground press have a common goal: the elite. And there are more elites in Detroit today than the city has seen in some time.
Detroit actually has a proud legacy of anti-establishment publishing. The influential anarchist rag The Fifth Estate has been publishing continuously in Detroit since 1965. He’s even looked at stories like “Easter Canceled: Christ’s Body Found” in satire. Rock and roll magazine Creem – edited by legendary music critic Lester Bangs and also published in Detroit – was famous for its sexually suggestive covers and promoting non-mainstream bands.
Before Jerry Vile (software developer Jerry Peterson by day) started the annual adult entertainment exhibition The Dirty Show (which ended last weekend), he began his publishing career with White Noise in the 1970s, which covered Detroit’s burgeoning punk rock scene. Influenced in equal measure by punk sensibility, the comedy of Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon, and the anti-political sentiment of the era, Vile dealt initially with satire publishing, first with fun, and later in the 1990s with Orbit.
“Fun is two years older than The Onion and may be America’s first free humor magazine,” says Rob St. Mary, author of The Orbit Magazine Anthology. Each issue of Orbit included a section called “U Said It”, which quotes ordinary people’s opinions on a subject and is almost identical to the “American Voices” section of The Onion.
Viles releases were notorious for their honesty, contemptuous demeanor, and outrageous stunts. Even the show notifications could be merciless. For an Eagles show at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Orbit had this to say: “With all the senseless violence in the world, you’d think that someone would get sane and physically harm those greedy bunnies.”
The satire often pushed the boundaries of good taste, as in its How to Be a Better Stalker guide, which sparked a boycott of a University of Michigan feminist group. However, Vile never withdrew from criticism, and he still does not today.
“There are no forbidden topics if you are prepared for the consequences,” says Vile. “Humor can often be honesty. There are many reasons why we lie or shut up. Not necessarily that we’re worried about hurting someone else – it’s more about worrying that they’ll be mad at us . “
“They never kissed anyone in the ass,” says St. Mary of Vile and other Orbit contributors. “They’d make fun of people, do weird interviews, ask bizarre questions. If a restaurant sucks, that’s what they’d say in the review.”
Advertisers were alienated by the magazine’s controversial content, which eventually led to Orbit’s downfall. But it wasn’t quiet. The last issue included “The Highly Anticipated Weasel List,” which ripped off advertisers who were late with payments.
When Orbit stopped publishing, there were few consistent satirical voices in town, and besides, what was there to ridicule? “Will Rogers once said, ‘I never make fun of little boys, only big ones,'” says Michael Jackman, writer and editor at Metro Times. “I think that is an important credo for a satirist. Otherwise you enter the territory of raw, racist humor.”
Because of the economic boom in Detroit, the “big boys” have returned today. And satirists lick their chops.
In a satire of the resurgence of Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, Aaron Foley, author of the recently published book How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Donkey, writes of unfortunate residents who have no access to a nearby pharmacy and who have to get by [gasp!] stray cats and drug use, “specifically marijuana use, maybe a little cola here and there.”
“The perceptions are a bit skewed,” says Foley. “Now people are fed up with going to slows and complaining that there is only one grill restaurant, but there are other neighborhoods that don’t have a single restaurant – places where people ask the city about fire hydrants. “
Satirists take advantage of this type of incongruity that is common in Detroit. “You can’t be the biggest news city in America without being absurd,” says Jackman. “Detroit may have more of this, but it would all be a joke if it wasn’t so depressing – education that makes you stupid, health care that makes you sick, entertainment that bores you, vegans trying to be environmentally conscious by they eat grown almonds in the desert. “
This absurdity inspired local filmmaker Oren Goldenberg to produce satires. “The idea was to mask it,” he says. “I wanted people to watch and say, ‘Is this real? It looks real.’ Because I ask myself this question every day in Detroit: “Has a big man just emerged from a meadow? Is there really a man who has been dancing on this corner every day for four years? When did this building disappear? “It’s all so absurd.”
In 2013, Goldenberg launched a Kickstarter “Save Detroit” campaign with the “intention” of raising millions of dollars to help Detroit avoid bankruptcy. Later that year he published a satirical video series, “Detroit Blank City,” which sharply (and hilariously) questioned the notion that Detroit is a blank blackboard.
Jackman, Foley and Goldenberg aren’t the only ones adding content to the resurgent satirical scene in the city. There was also a Bad Lip Reading-style video mocking a Lowe Campbell Ewald promo, satirical art, and other articles. The Metro Times had an Orbit acquisition in August that included a route describing a future Detroit named “Detroitopolis”. Detroitopolis is home to “Ethni-City” – “a thoroughly modern ghetto in which thousands of decent non-Caucasian cooks and artists are locked up.”
This piece was reminiscent of a classic orbit series on “Ilitchville,” written shortly after billionaire Mike Ilitch bought the Fox Theater and other downtown properties. The double sports arena “Stadium! Stadium!” was built in Ilitchville – a Little Caesar motto “Pizza! Pizza!” The piece was prophetic as Ford Field and Comerica Park were built across the street almost a decade later. “If you rewrote it for today, it would be Gilbertville,” says St. Mary.
“Today’s satire is tomorrow’s reality,” says Jackman. “No matter how cynical you get, it just can’t keep up with reality.”
What will tomorrow’s satire be? Foley wants to write a piece about a newer Detroit resident who is discovering an entire city beyond Midtown. Goldenberg says there is material in recent water cuts for poor residents – maybe hipsters protesting for their right to make beer.
Vile wants to comment on the topic but can’t. “Gilbert’s cameras are everywhere,” he says.
Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmondry.
Photos by Nick Hagen.