The city of Detroit giving land to billionaires for practically nothing. Posh restaurants serving oxtail and craft cocktails in a former slum area. Dan Gilbert-owned offices replacing water coolers with slushy machines.
Some will denounce these developments with thousand-word screeds. Satirists, on the other hand, will write articles with pithy headlines like, "Inside Corktown, America's Most Dangerous Neighborhood
" or "Help One of Detroit's Richest Citizens by Volunteering
These pieces, written within the last year by Aaron Foley for the Periphery and Michael Jackman for the Metro Times respectively, are part of a palpable uptick in Detroit satire that's coincided with changes in the city. Satire, and its corollary in the underground press, have a common target: the elite. And in present day Detroit, there are more elites around than the city has seen in quite some time.
Detroit actually has a proud heritage of anti-establishment publishing. The influential anarchist rag The Fifth Estate has been publishing continuously in Detroit since 1965. It even dabbled in satire with such stories as "Easter Cancelled: Christ's Body Found
." The rock and roll magazine Creem -- edited by legendary music critic Lester Bangs and also published out of Detroit -- was famous for its sexually suggestive covers and promotion of non-mainstream bands.
Before starting the annual erotic art exhibition The Dirty Show
(which just wrapped up this past weekend), Jerry Vile (software developer Jerry Peterson by day) began his career in publishing with White Noise in the 1970s, which covered Detroit's nascent punk rock scene. Equally influenced by punk sensibilities, the comedy of Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon, and the era's anti-political sentiment, Vile next delved into satire publishing, first with Fun and later in the 1990s with Orbit.
"Fun predates The Onion by two years and may be the first free humor magazine in America," says Rob St. Mary, author of The Orbit Magazine Anthology
. Each issue of Orbit contained a section called "U Said It," which quotes regular people's opinions on a topic and is almost identical to The Onion's "American Voices
Vile's publications were notorious for their honesty, scornful attitude, and outrageous stunts. Even the show notices could be merciless. For an Eagles show at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Orbit had this to say: "You would think that with all the senseless violence in the world somebody would get sensible and inflict some bodily hurt on these money-grubbing has-beens."
The satire often pushed the boundaries of good taste, as with its "How to Be a Better Stalker" guide, which elicited a boycott from a University of Michigan feminist group. Vile never backed down from the criticism, though, and he still doesn't today.
"There are no off-limits topics if you're prepared for the consequences," Vile says. "Humor can often be honesty. There are many reasons we lie or keep our mouths shut. Not necessarily that we're worried about hurting someone else—it's more about worrying they'll be mad at us."
"They never kissed anyone's ass," says St. Mary about Vile and other contributors to Orbit. "They'd make fun of people, have weird interviews, ask bizarre questions. If a restaurant sucked, they'd say so in the review."
Advertisers were alienated by the magazine's more controversial content, which eventually led to Orbit's downfall. But it didn't go quietly. The last issue contained "The Highly Anticipated Weasel List," which ripped advertisers who were delinquent on payment.
When Orbit stopped publishing, there were few consistent satirical voices in the city, and besides, what was there to mock? "Will Rogers once said, 'I never make fun of little guys, only big ones,'" says Michael Jackman, a writer and editor at the Metro Times. "I think that's an important credo for a satirist. Otherwise you get into the territory of crude, racist humor."
Today, because of Detroit's economic upswing, the "big guys" have returned. And satirists are licking 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 Jackass,
" writes about pitiable residents who don't have access to a nearby pharmacy, and have to deal with [gasp!] stray cats and drug use, "specifically marijuana use, maybe a little coke here and there."
"Perceptions have gotten a little warped," says Foley. "Now, people get tired of going to Slows, so they complain that there's only one barbecue restaurant, but there're other neighborhoods that don't have a single restaurant—places where people are asking the city for fire hydrants."
Satirists exploit these kinds of incongruities, which are abundant Detroit. "You can't be the greatest news town in America without being absurd," says Jackman. "Detroit may have more of it, but everything would be a joke if it weren't so depressing -- education that makes you stupid, healthcare that makes you sick, entertainment that bores you, vegans trying to be environmentally responsible by eating almonds grown in the desert."
That absurdity is what inspired local filmmaker Oren Goldenberg to start producing satires. "The idea was to mask it," he says. "I wanted people to watch and ask, 'Is this real? It looks real.' Because I ask myself that question every day in Detroit. 'Did a tall man just emerge from a grassy field? Is there really a guy who's been dancing on that corner every day for four years? When did that building disappear?' It's all so absurd."
In 2013, Goldenberg launched a "Save Detroit
" Kickstarter campaign with the "intention" of raising millions of dollars to help Detroit avoid bankruptcy. Later that year he released a satirical video series, "Detroit Blank City
," which sharply (and hilariously) challenged the notion that Detroit is a blank slate.
Jackman, Foley, and Goldenberg aren't the only ones contributing content to the city's resurgent satire scene. There's also been a Bad Lip Reading-style video
mocking a Lowe Campbell Ewald promo, satirical art
, and other articles
. The Metro Times had an Orbit takeover in August that included a spread detailing a future Detroit called "Detroitopolis
." Contained within Detroitopolis is "Ethni-city" -- "a thoroughly modern ghetto where thousands of orderly non-Caucasian cooks and artists are confined."
This piece was reminiscent of a classic Orbit spread on "Ilitchville," written soon after billionaire Mike Ilitch bought the Fox Theater and other downtown properties. The double-sports arena "Stadium! Stadium!" was constructed in Ilitchville -- a play on the Ilitch-owned Little Caesar's slogan "Pizza! Pizza!" The piece was prophetic, as Ford Field and Comerica Park were constructed across the street from each other almost a decade later. "If they rewrote it for today, it would be called 'Gilbertville,'" says St. Mary.
"Today's satire is tomorrow's reality," says Jackman. "No matter how cynical you get, it can't keep up with reality."
So what will tomorrow's satire be? Foley wants to write a piece about a newer Detroit resident discovering a whole city beyond Midtown. Goldenberg says there's material in recent water shut-offs for poor residents -- perhaps hipsters protesting for their right to craft beer.
Vile would like 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.