Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Demise of Satire

Whatever happened to good satire? I mean truly nervy, heart-stopping satire so subversive one’s lungs quiver in fright of an imminent laughter explosion?

As a passive teenage wisp, whose sole rebellion in school consisted of a bizarrely aggressive attack on the Quakers in an RE question (to which the teacher told me off for lamping on another’s beliefs before the whole class), I lapped up satire like cat’s blood. On TV, shows like Brass Eye and Have I Got News For You made liars and cheaters look like simpering git-heads and the edgier the quips the greater the pleasure.

There were socially active shows like The Mark Thomas Product or Michael Moore’s The Awful Truth, shaking liberal fists at the futile hell of adult life, opening the hairy obese gut of consumer capitalism and parking great steaming turds on its lying ventricles. The nineties was a golden decade for TV comedy and satire in particular. A decade later . . . umm? What’s happened?

The dreary invasion of the media into every available orifice of public life has made politically active satire à la Mark Thomas or Chris Morris impossible. They couldn’t get within a sniff of a large company without signing a legal document to the effect of PROMISE YOU WON’T TELL ABOUT THE PENGUIN CORPSES and everyone would rot in prison. So we’ve been reduced to panel-beating twit festivals like Mock the Week where smug gag monkeys laugh at physical deformities and do edgy stuff about bum sex. Har har.

On Radio 4 all we get are the occasionally amusing The Now Show or The News Quiz. Not exactly tearing down the great and good. No, satire these days ruffles no feathers. Even the sublime The Thick of It is lauded in Westminster for its accurate portrayal of government nincompoopery, rather than inciting the fury in ministers it should.

When Juvenal (above) wrote his Satires, he risked torture and disembowelment from the emperor. Nowadays, the worst a satirist might get is an Ofcom complaint and no more goes on Dave. Perhaps the rise of generative comedy panel shows has numbed the stun factor of satire. We can get a dozen comedians being edgy and witty on multiple channels. We’re shocked less, we tolerate hideous gags under the guise of knowing irony, we want insta-laughs.

On the upside, we still have people like Morris, Armando Iannucci and others offering a more sophisticated alternative to this, though everything is so sweary, my dad still won’t watch it. Back to David Frost, then.


  1. Don't despair, M.J! Satire, like chivalry, isn't dead yet!

  2. Where satire use to cause alarm or surprise, it is now, especially in the U.S., just par for the course. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, to use one prime example, provides what those writers describe as the daily cup of sadness to inform the public of the ridiculous and underhanded nature of politics and business in the states. But instead of activism, the nation has instead just accepted it as comedic fodder that in no way helps us towards more social action/justice that good satire (as the Daily Show is providing) should inspire.

  3. Looney: But despair is great. Gets me through the day.

    Jeff: Indeed. It's satire-as-activism I think is missing. But on the other hand, satire has never really changed anything anyway, so maybe it is a waste of time.