How To Tell If Stories Like “I’m the Woman from the Peloton Commercial…” Are Satire Or Not
Or, handy tips for fact-checking stuff you read on the internet
Let’s face it: writing comedy is hard. But reading it shouldn’t be. It should flow with ease, as if the person behind the pen didn’t actually spend forty hours editing, revising, cursing at, and ultimately scrapping & rewriting the whole damn thing. (Not that I’d have any experience with this, mind you.) And, when a writer’s specific brand of comedy happens to jell with your specific sense of humor, it should leave you feeling like you have a new ‘BFF’ — even if only in your imagination.
With the many different types of comedic writing, there’s something for everyone. Self-deprecation — or, the art of making fun of yourself — is another example of comedy that, if written well, is golden. Especially if you can manage heckling the unique quirks that make you you, while simultaneously conveying how universal those things are. This “ordinary” type of humor ends up resonating with so many that it qualifies as neither “unique” nor “quirky,” yet, somehow, still embodies both.
Satire, though. Ugh. That’s a whole other animal. In fact, it’s a beast. Especially when it’s political in nature, and appears online in this era of so-called “fake news;” which really, I’ve found, is just a climate brimming with folks who are hyper-skeptical, who can no longer collectively agree on what a ‘fact’ is, and are always on the defensive. But, I digress.
Unlike other types of comedic writing, satire isn’t always easy to read and understand. It requires a closer level of scrutiny. And that’s intentional. When done well, satire can mimic the thing it’s making fun of in such an honest way that readers fall into places of almost getting duped, or they get duped temporarily, forgetting — for a moment — that the story isn’t actually real, until they come back to their senses.
Unfortunately, though, there are some cases where people don’t understand they were being duped at all. And that’s how we ended up with a lying, sexist, racist, cheating con man (and not even a good one) as the 45th President… (oops, I digressed. Again. Sorry.)
Cases in point
When it comes to performing satire, Stephen Colbert is an expert. Before hosting “The Late Show,” Colbert hosted “The Colbert Report,” a 2005–2014 offshoot of “The Daily Show” (with Jon Stewart). Colbert’s delivery of social and political satire is so good that “The Colbert Report” was long mistaken for real news.
Despite the fact that the show branded itself as a TV news parody, or that it only aired on Comedy Central, or that Colbert assumed the character of a conservative cable news pundit (nothing like his real persona, except for sharing the same name), researchers found that conservatives regularly misinterpreted Colbert’s performance to be a sincere expression of his political beliefs.
If the act of delivering satire before a live audience is so hard to pull off, imagine how much harder it is to write satire.
No current American writer masters humor better than David Sedaris, in my humble opinion. The way he exposes the peculiarities of human behavior with varying degrees of sarcasm and wit, juxtaposed with irony, understatements, and self-deprecation (yet still manages to come across as completely likeable and relatable) is why he’s an award-winning and international best-selling author.
Meeting Sedaris in-person before or after one of his shows on tour (which he regularly does — regardless of how long it takes — while also managing to make each person he speaks with feel like they’re the most entertaining person in the room) only proves his “likeability” factor even more.
Few of this generation of humor have been able to accomplish what guys like Colbert and Sedaris have, though certainly not for lack of trying or talent. Women, in particular, have a long and well-known history of being overlooked and outright ignored in the comedy field — most especially, women of color and trans women.
Earlier this week, I must’ve scrolled past the story “I’m the Woman from the Peloton Commercial, and Your Jokes Only Make Me Stronger” by Laura Slade Lewis, at least three times on different days before finally settling in to read it. Why? Time, primarily. But also, because I took the title at face value and didn’t even bother to look at the author’s name. In short, I made a common mistake: from the title alone, I assumed it wasn’t meant to be funny. Or clever. Or satire. Or something I wanted to read.
I’m glad I finally took the time to read it, and I’m doubly glad I was wrong on all assumptions.
This was an example of a really well-executed piece of satire. As I mentioned earlier, satire is supposed to almost dupe you, but falls short of it. Or, it does manage to dupe you, but only temporarily.
However. A lot of people were just duped thoroughly and altogether by this piece.
Reading through the comments would tell you as much. Some readers recognized it was satire right away, some realized it at a later point in the story, over some line or other that simply sounded too ridiculous to be real, and others… well, they just didn’t get the joke at all. Though, in all fairness, there was at least one commenter who attributed their lack of understanding the joke to a lack of TV-watching. I get that. Nowadays, I pretty much only watch C-SPAN, or the occasional Netflix series, well after its expiration date.
Like many, I’d never seen the Peloton commercial either. But, as I learned from doing a quick Google search, by simply keying in the phrase “Peloton commercial,” I was able to see the commercial in its entirety, as well as the various parodies that spawned from it, the written critiques and op-eds, and even the name of the actress who played the “Peloton woman.”
On that note, here’s a bonus tip: Without much time or effort, I was able to notice that the Peloton actress’ name did not match the name of the person who wrote the “Peloton Woman” story on Medium, where she clearly stated in the title, “I’m the Woman from the Peloton Commercial.”
Hint: That right there was the red flag, the thing that told me this piece was definitely satire, without knowing anything of the subject matter! (See how easy that was?) And some of y’all are still over there in the comments getting angry, or trying to defend yourselves with more excuses, or outright insulting the piece, simply because you didn’t get it.
In total, it didn’t really take more than about 80 seconds of my time to get a clear idea of what Peloton is all about, and why this particular commercial was worthy of satire — something the actress from the commercial herself has not shied away from. 80 seconds of research, before reading, allowed me to be an informed reader.
But look, I get it. People don’t want to have to think that hard before reading something. They just want to be entertained. They don’t want to do the work. I get it.
So, for all those living on the defense, and for all who can’t tell the difference, here’s a handy, step-by-step guide to help discern whether what you’re reading (on Medium) is satire or not.
- Read the entire piece. Just read. Be sure to fully absorb the title and subtitle as well — they’re there for a reason.
- As soon as you’re finished reading, if you find yourself thinking, “I’m not sure if what I just read was real or not,” scroll back up and see which category the piece was curated under. Is it “Humor?” There’s your answer. Conversely, if it was curated under something like “Psychology,” or “Science,” then it probably isn’t satire.
Note: In all fairness (and in full disclosure), Medium curators once featured one of my pieces that was not in the least about sexuality under the category of “Sexuality.” However, once I brought the error to their attention, they were super nice about it, apologetic, and fixed it right away. But generally speaking, Medium curators don’t tend to mix up humor with non-humor.
- If the story wasn’t curated, but was included in a publication, which publication is it? Is it something like Slackjaw or How Pants Work? If so, it’s most likely satire.
- Now that you have an understanding of whether this piece was meant to be funny, witty, or funnily clever, go ahead and read it again. Closely — no skimming! Be sure to click through all the hyperlinks and read (or at least scan) the articles they lead to. See what the source is. Like, are we talking The Onion, or NPR? Hyperlinks provide many helpful cues about the spirit in which you should receive the piece you were just reading. And if you’re not sure whether the source is biased, there’s even an up-to-date, interactive, media bias chart where you can vet your news source’s credibility (and any others)! You can find that here.
- Use your brain, especially for number 6 below. (I hope this is self-explanatory.)
- Does any of the story’s content violate Medium’s member content guidelines? For example, Medium is an ad-free platform, meaning, among other things, third-party advertising and sponsorships are not allowed. Medium has generally been extra transparent in stating that they’re ad-free, and they take pride in having this model at the center of their philosophy. Readers don’t like ads. Plain and simple.
Not only did the story in question use the Peloton name, but also included an all rights reserved® symbol following each instance of the Peloton name. If this story was real, it wouldn’t have been curated into topics, and even if it mistakenly was, it likely wouldn’t have survived the attention it’s received thus far (6.6K claps since its publication date, 12/3/19).
In short, with such a high visibility rate, someone at Medium, or even another writer on Medium would’ve noticed the blatant rule-breaking and flagged (or removed) the story.
But, because it’s clearly satire (as can be noted from any of these numbered examples), according to Medium’s rules, it’s allowed to stay.
- If all else fails, read the comments. You might just be surprised to find that the author of the piece has left a disclaimer clarifying that this piece is indeed satire after all.