Satire: it’s no laughing matter

A brief history of satire, with your narrator Jules.

A billboard (yesterday). Photo by Dagfinn Ilmari Mannsåker, released under Creative Commons.

Jules Slingsby

Jules Slingsby

Friday 17 March

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The official definition of satire is that it is a genre of the arts in which follies, vices, abuse and the failings (of those who should know better) are spotlighted for the purpose of improvement in society and to offer constructive social criticism, primarily using wit to draw attention to a variety of issues. One of the most powerful tools of satire is exaggeration, irony and sarcasm (yeah, right) and so it’s no wonder, with our world in the state that it is currently in, that satire across the globe has never been stronger and, indeed, more capable of effecting change. But there have been times that this has been in danger of being silenced.

Satire has, for centuries, enjoyed a special place in all human cultures as a way of gently and safely mocking those who hold offices of power. Evidence of this can be found as far back as 65BC in the Roman writings of the poet Horace and his approach of tackling serious issues with humour (as opposed to anger,) demonstrated not only a higher intellect but a deeper understanding of how to address injustice, cruelty and stupidity by making it ridiculous and thereby diffusing its power. However, right there lies the problem.

The means by which a satirist delivers his observations is a continually moving landscape. It is not surprising to learn that the British satirical magazine, Punch, first hit the streets (to much controversy) in 1841 at a time when the industrial revolution, the excesses of the business owners and the poverty of the working family were the pressing issues of the day. Charles Dickens saw this but rather than create satirical scenarios he chose to write heart-wrenching pen portraits. That said, the characters in his tales, which he wanted us to dislike, were always painted as grotesques.

But it has been over recent years that there has been something of a seachange in mass media. In the UK for example, it was seen as being very contemporary in the 1960s to be satirical. Television shows such as ‘That Was The Week That Was’, hosted by intellectuals and journalists, would regularly entertain the country with parodies of politicians and current affairs whilst later in that same decade, Monty Python’s Flying Circus took the genre one step further by adding a late-sixties sense of surrealism.

The 1970s, in Britain particularly, was very much the heyday of the TV sitcom. With shows (which you might even need to Google) such as The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin and across the pond in the USA – the National Lampoon franchise. By then, it was considered de rigueur to mock just about anyone or anything which held any (corrupt) power over us or any thing which was intrinsically unjust. And as any historian will tell you, there was plenty of things to get angry about back then. Unfortunately, the 1980s were no better. The latex puppet show, ‘Spitting Image’ created by satirical sculptors (yes, that’s a thing in the world) – Peter Fluck and Roger Law was merciless and savagely ruthless in its portrayal of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and some might say: rightfully so. But in many ways it heralded the beginning of the end for, what might be seen, as: main-stream media’s endorsement of satire as a legitimate entertainment.

It has been said that Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s creation of the archetypal Radio 1 DJs, ‘Smashie and Nicey’ was almost single-handedly responsible for the BBC sacking all its pop DJs and restructuring its format policy. Likewise, in the 90s, The Fast Show’s John Thomson’s portrayal of a fictitious jazz show host (“nice!” winky-eye emoticon) seems to have nailed that form of music into an awkward closet which it may take many years to escape from. But, as far as the media giants were concerned, jazz music was a much softer target than a prime minister and that suited them just fine. Not only was society becoming more afraid to speak out for fear of official retribution but also it was an era where nobody really knew what was ‘correct’ to speak about nor how to speak about it. The great ‘political correctness’ dilemma had arrived and it silenced a lot of writers all too quickly, simply because, all of a sudden, no one knew the ground rules.

As the programme planners on television hedged their bets, protected their salaries and kept the lawyers from the door with ever softer subjects to make fun of, Tim Berners-Lee gave us the world wide web and satire suddenly sneaked off into the snickering shadows and became subversive. It went underground and that’s where all the good stuff was – unmoderated, unedited and uncensored. Oh, for sure, along the way there were stalworts such as France’s ‘Charlie Hebdo’ and Britain’s ‘Private Eye’ continually defending themselves in court over some inflammatory cartoon or article but the forums of the web are where the new wave of memes were percolating. And, oh, how we LOLed.

Whilst the printed cartoon, and cleverly refined TV or movie blockbuster might skirt around the edges of a social issue, the internet is the playground of the satirist and any evening spent trawling Twitter or Facebook will demonstrate this in an instant. Where, once, you had to have passed through the hallowed portals of Oxbridge or Stamford University to have access to the means of expression, today all you need is a good sense of critical analysis of world events and the people in power and a smart-phone to be able to convey your disgust at the state of the union. And, my God, there has never been a more worthy time for ridicule of injustice, stupidity, unfairness, cruelty, danger, and inequality than than right now. If we can destroy Adolf Hitler’s terrifying attempt to conquer the world by singing songs about the fact that he only had one testicle then I’m sure that together – with a carefully crafted meme – we can, collectively save the future from an impending distopian future. Satire – it’s no laughing matter. Or, as Ben Elton once said: “if you take the serious and add something funny you always get something which is seriously funny”.

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