How to Write a Satire By Being Really, Really Smart

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a textbook example (if textbooks were hilariously funny) of the standard definition, and a sharp refutation of Kaufman’s gloomy prediction. But it’s understandable why Kaufman made his cynical joke. He was a writer and director, and satires usually appeal more to authors than to the public. Theatergoers stubbornly prefer to go home after a musical cheered and uplifted, rather than reflecting bitterly on “foolishness or vice.”

But if a show is sufficiently nimble and its satirical arrows hit the bull’s-eye, even political and governmental shenanigans can lift the spirits. George and Ira Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing proved the point in 1931, when it combined a presidential campaign with a beauty contest, the winners to be married at the inauguration. Of Thee I Sing became one of the few smash hits of the Depression years. (Ironically, it was directed by Mr. Kaufman.)

Politics was a frequent target of the satirical musical. Finian’s Rainbow in the 1940s and Li’l Abner in the 1950s got in some pretty good digs at issues as difficult as racism and nuclear annihilation. But in the post-war era, with industry blacklists and congressional investigations posing a constant threat to writers who got too critical, even an innocent management-labor romp like The Pajama Game might be labeled subversive (one critic called it “that commie musical”). Satirically-minded writers kept to the fringes of the theater, finding a more welcoming home off-Broadway or choosing harmless targets like operetta (Little Mary Sunshine) and fairy tales (Once Upon a Mattress).

Satire Frank and AbeWith the dawn of the sixties, a bolder spirit was in the air. Two shows tested the waters by satirizing the music industry. First, Bye Bye Birdie lobbed a few softballs at rock ’n’ roll in a story of a songwriter whose gyrating meal ticket is drafted into the Army. The same year, 1960, the considerably harsher Do Re Mi fired a few rounds at the gangster-dominated jukebox racket. The conformist world of big business was ripe for satire. The white-collar office worker had recently been analyzed by serious-minded sociologists and best-selling novelists in books like William Whyte’s The Organization Man and Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Now it was the humorists’ turn.

Comedy writer Abe Burrows and composer-lyricist Frank Loesser both knew their way around an office building. Burrows had started young as a runner on Wall Street, then did time in an accounting firm before moving on to a career in the high-pressure world of network radio at the NBC headquarters in Rockefeller Center. Loesser had mastered the Hollywood studio bureaucracy before moving back to New York to score shows and become chief of his own publishing company, Frank Music Corporation. One of Loesser’s first shows, the classic Guys and Dolls, teamed him with Abe Burrows, and the two became fast friends.

In 1961 they unveiled their satiric masterpiece, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. There had been workplace musicals before, but few of their plots turned on the actual everyday details of office life. How to Succeed is not “about” its boy-meets-girl romance— romance itself is skewered in the story and songs. The show is a sharply satirical account of what went on behind the glass walls of corporate office buildings in the Mad Men era, and no one is spared: from the out-of-touch chairman of the board to the warring executives to the fawning yes-men to the predatory managers to the husband-hunting secretaries to the lowliest mail-room drones. All their motivations and schemes are exposed, all their petty rivalries and grudges, their blatant favoritism, their exploitation of old-school ties, even their coffee break rituals.

How to Succeed was something different: an equal-opportunity evisceration, but done with such wit that the very people it skewered laughed the hardest, propelling it to a long run, seven Tony Awards®, and even a Pulitzer Prize. Of course, none of this would have worked without the brilliant music and lyrics of Frank Loesser and the sharp-as-a-paper-cut script by Abe Burrows. Burrows also directed, giving him and Loesser complete creative control.

How to Succeed expanded the range of permissible subjects for Broadway satire. Later shows have taken on the American justice system (Chicago), religion (The Book of Mormon), and (a much easier target) the musical itself (The Producers, Monty Python’s Spamalot, Something Rotten!).

Satire album covers

Culture mores have changed a lot since the days of How to Succeed, but human nature has not. Take a look around any present-day office and I guarantee you’ll find Finch, Rosemary, Biggley, Bratt, Frump, Smitty and all the rest of the World Wide Wicket gang still plotting their rise to success with the same old tricks, just using different buzzwords. Luckily, we still have the cautionary satire of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to put us on our guard, warn us about ourselves, and—best of all—make us laugh.

By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic Associate

Author: The 5th Avenue Theatre

The Nation's Leading Musical Theater

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