The following is based on a speech I gave recently on the topic of satire at the Judith Neilson Institute, as part of a taping of A Rational Fear.
I’m a little worried, I have to admit, that what follows is less an amusing little reflection on the nature of political comedy and more a full-blown mental event, ten years in the making, unleashed on a crowd who didn’t ask for any of this.
Because for a decade, I’ve worked in one form or another, in the field of political comedy, and only now, having been asked to talk to you about it, do I reflect that I have no idea what any of it is for. And this troubles me.
The reason it troubles me is that political comedy is a mode of comedy that, unlike its less serious cousins in the sweeping halls of Chuckle Manor, seems to insist that it is in fact for something, beyond the conveyance of laughs, goofs, japes, etc. from the comedian to the viewer. Now, the fact that we feel that something worthy has to be taking place for something to be worthwhile is an interesting neurosis, and one that I can’t get into now, but nonetheless, there’s something about how satire is talked about that suggests that in its creation and ingestion, something larger than entertainment is taking place.
But here’s the thing. Every time I try to articulate what that is, I start to sweat.
There are two cliches in title case that I’ve been carrying around in my head for the past decade or so that have been a comfort to me. They are: Satire Can Change Minds Where Conventional Journalism Can’t and Satire Holds the Powerful to Account.
But when I’ve tried to subject these maxims to even a little pressure, they come apart in my hands.
Now, just quickly, I want to say that for the purposes of this meltdown, all I’m really concerned with is the hyper-reactive, news cycle style of political comedy. Something happens in the world, then within a week, the satirist has released a piece on it. Whether that takes the form of a sketch, or a comedian being a-little-serious-for-a-moment-guys behind a desk, or a monologue, or a cartoon, or whatever giggle-pot we’re putting our topical insights in — this is the kind of satire I want to talk about.
I also want to point out, and I feel this is very important in relation to you all not hating me, that what follows applies just as much to a lot of the stuff that I have produced in my career as it does to anyone else.
Okay, let’s go.
Satire Changes Minds
Here’s a question: When was the last time that you changed your mind about anything? Not what brand of hummus to buy, or socks to wear, or which of your children is the favourite, but something big. Something like how you feel about climate change. Or which party you’ll vote for. Or any of the handful of beliefs that make you, you. This is an incredibly rare thing to happen in the life of an adult. There’s a book on this by the Australian philosopher Eleanor Gordon-Smith that basically opens with this question, and when I read it a few years ago, I felt the first tremors of the total collapse in the foundations of my faith to which you’re all currently being subjected.
Because if you have, in the recent past, had the kind of seismic shift in thinking on the kind of issue that we’re talking about here, I’ll bet it was from something that happened to you or someone you know, or a lengthy conversation you had, or just the long and boring chipping away at a premise until something came loose. What I am willing to bet didn’t happen to you on the road to Damascus is that you watched a three minute sketch on the issue that completely changed your thinking.
And there’s a good reason why I’m sceptical about that. A lot of political comedy is terrible. Like Voltaire’s remark that the Holy Roman Empire wasn’t Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, the overwhelming majority of political comedy is neither political, nor comedy. Topical satire has become, in essence, the satirist saying the opposite of what they actually think is true, but in a hat.
In order to enjoy most modern political comedy, you have to be on board with the premise from the very start. The audience needs to know that the satirist hates the people they hate, thinks the things that they think are stupid are stupid, likes the things they like.
Tom Lehrer knew this at the end of his career when he said “The audience usually has to be with you, I’m afraid. I always regarded myself as not even preaching to the converted; I was titillating the converted.”
And this is the point I keep finding myself coming back to: modern political comedy is, by its nature, completely incurious. I’ve said this before elsewhere, but one of the only truly worthwhile things we can do with the time we’re given on this earth is have a nice long think about how it works and what the people in it are like, and that includes ourselves. Most political comedy discourages that impulse in both the creator and the viewer, stranding both in an endless feedback loop of ever louder choruses of “I know right?”
Satire Holds The Powerful To Account
This gets repeated a lot. It’s the ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ but for political discourse. It’s a powerful idea and an appealing one, but when it comes to whether it is even remotely true, I have gone away and done some thinking and come back with some bad news.
One fairly obvious piece of evidence against it is that if the powerful were truly afraid of being held to account by satirical news programs, then they wouldn’t voluntarily appear as guests on quite so many of them. They wouldn’t take to social media to share clips where they’re lampooned, accompanied by a self effacing comment like “haha not sure about this one”. They wouldn’t go out of their way to get photos of themselves with the satirists. But many, many do. (And, obviously, if the satirists themselves were serious about the business of holding these people to account, they wouldn’t pose for these photos.)
What’s more, if it were true — that astute mockery, incisive wit, the poisoned pen and all that, was in fact a formidable weapon against tyranny — then, given the abundance of both satire and tyranny, it shouldn’t be difficult to find real world examples of this account-holding taking place. But it is. It’s incredibly difficult.
And should they? Be afraid of mockery, I mean. The limits of satire as the agent of any kind of meaningful change are fairly catalogued, often by satirists themselves. When founding The Establishment Club in 1961 — a satire and cabaret nightclub in Soho — Peter Cook dryly told reporters that he was hoping to model it on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”. And speaking of Hitler — a segue I do try and avoid where possible — how did he feel about Chaplin’s vicious skewering in The Great Dictator? He fucking loved it. The man owned two copies.
Jump forward 70-odd years and satirists found themselves in a similar pickle when it came to holding Trump to account.
The Trump era, despite breathless predictions, did not prove a boon for the earnest late-night desk-leaning set in America. A common explanation given for this was that you could no longer ridicule politics because it had become so inherently ridiculous in and of itself. That this was such a popular refrain has always seemed strange to me, as it doesn’t even intuitively parse as true. Ridiculous people are in fact quite easy to ridicule. It’s right there in the name.
But for ridicule to be enjoyable and satisfying, the party being ridiculed must be capable of shame. As Krusty once said, the sap’s gotta have dignity. It’s often said that politicians are so hard to pin down post-Trump because we now live in a post-truth universe. This gets it wrong. The universe we currently occupy is post-shame. People who like to talk about the power of satire often evoke The Emperor’s New Clothes, where only a brave truth-telling child is able to voice what others won’t, “But the Emperor wears no clothes!”. The child is right, and the crowd sees the truth of this, and the Emperor is shamed. What Trump showed very clearly is that if the Emperor waits a second until the kid has said his piece, then says “Yes I do, actually” and goes about his day with his cock and balls out, the little shit doesn’t really have a comeback.
One thing this kind of satire can do, is offer the audience a kind of catharsis. It’s a release of emotion. Of anger and frustration and rage and bile. This is often cited as a good thing. But here’s my question: do we really want to be just venting that stuff out into the ether? Isn’t the pressure of those feelings what drives people to take meaningful action? To take that rage and focus it on organising to effect meaningful, material change?
Because if all we’re doing here is making stuff that makes us feel smart, for people who already agree with us, with no real impact on those with whom we disagree or the targets of our ire, then all we’re really doing is an act of self gratification and all it really achieves is a kind of temporary good feeling in the form of a release.
And there’s a word for that.
Author's note: At this point I moved my lapel mic very close to my mouth and said, “Wanking. The word is wanking.” and someone in the front row said, “Yeah I got that.”
Title Artwork By Simon Greiner