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Satire is the most difficult form of comedy to perform with excellence. The death of Fred Willard yesterday reminds us of that. His performances in “This is Spinal Tap!” and “Best in Show” were both understated and over-the-top, not an easy combination to master. But he did it with grace and style.

In literature, Moliere was the master of satire. In plays such as “The Imaginary Invalid” Moliere commanded the stage with brilliant dialogue. A minor play of Moliere’s, “Tartuffe,” was the inspiration for Dostoyevsky’s satiric novel, “A Friend of the Family.” Neither work is well known today, perhaps because satire is not widely savored.

Dead Souls” by Nicolai Gogol might be the greatest work of satire ever written. The story harkens back to the days of Czarist Russia, when landowners were taxed by the number of serfs, or “souls” as they were called in olden times, that they employed on their estates.

But tax collectors could not traverse the immense Russian landscape more than once every two years. During that time, many serfs (souls) died without official recordings. That could lead to shenanigans. If these souls could be registered together under one owner, a fortune could be made. Or so one theory went…

The hero (anti-hero?) of Gogol’s work visits these estates and endeavors to buy these souls. They are dead, so what use is there to have them on the payroll? Some estate holders are glad to get rid of the problem, while some haggle over the price! For dead people!

Gogol got into trouble with his novel because the Church insisted that the soul was immortal, and could never die. Proving that satire is lost on the religious mentality. Which just emphasizes the point.

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