Against Satire

How comedy stopped us caring — and a call for more fools

[Please note that most YouTube clips linked off this article are NSFW]

In recent weeks, a bout of praise has emerged for the comedians of America — finally, people are saying, someone is dealing with Trump’s lies. The thing is, though, these comedians have been mocking Trump for a long time…their viewing figures are up, but they don’t seem to be changing minds: It seems that we’ve just assumed that satirising the administration will definitely bring people to a different point of view… but it just doesn’t.

Hasan Minhaj, hosting the White House Correspondants dinner on Saturday night remarked,

“You know what’s crazy? Every day on the daily show we do these jokes all the time: we’re like ‘the administration lies; Trump flip-flops…’ It doesn’t matter. His supporters still trust him. It has not stopped his momentum at all.”

No, Hasan, what’s crazy is that you preach exclusively to the Church choir and then express shock that you’re not seeing any converts. And if anyone right wing did tune in, they’d see you openly mocking them as fascistic morons… and you think it’s ‘crazy’ that you’re not changing minds?

The persuasive power of comedy

The tragedy here is that these guys are clearly starting to believe their own headlines and seeing themselves as instruments of political change. Yet their gutlessness before their audience has spayed the opportunity — they refuse to help their viewers cut against their own prejudices.

It takes boldness to do this, and boldness is a rare commodity amongst people whose entire careers are enslaved to ratings.

Russell Brand, a few years ago, did prove that lazy political comedy, or at least a comedian in politics, can work to change public opinion; but only to push them further along a path they’re already on. He managed to convert standard millennial disillusionment into a straight up refusal to vote… and non-voters won that election. In fact, this type of political comedy is scarily commonplace:

A few years ago, at the height of Brand’s exposure, I had the privilege of meeting one of my favourite comedians, David Mitchell. (I tell my friends that I had lunch with him — this is true, but there were about twenty of us having lunch with him.) I did, however, get to have a wee chat:

One thing we talked about as we awkwardly balanced plates on our laps in the upstairs of a small bookshop was how so many people get their news from comedy shows. I asked whether it ever scared him that young people will increasingly be more likely to agree with a political statement if it’s funny — because then they have both an opinion and a witty way of framing it to people.

Many of David Mitchell’s jokes, I said, are delivered with that air of ‘frustrated-genius-spouting-hysterical-logic’ that we all love so much… yet are occasionally at odds with his political opinions expressed in his column. I use quotation marks advisedly, as I am quoting from memory but this was his response: ‘I agree that it’s terrifying, but it cannot be our problem. I am paid to be funny, and everyone involved in that transaction is aware that that is the extent of my remit.’

As sad as it is to say, that is an utter cop-out. Mitchell is a gifted satirist, but not, it would seem, one with any great sense of duty.

Satire

There seems to be a lot of confusion, then, about what true Satire actually is. The mythological creatures known as ‘Satyrs’ are defined as ‘lustful, drunken woodland gods’, so we can at least know where Russell Brand’s existential confusion came from.

Here’s my take on it — Observational comedy is pointing at a village idiot and saying ‘look, the village idiot’. Satire is, more than often, pointing at the Mayor and suggesting that his actions are more worthy of the position of village idiot. The question many Americans now face is ‘what do we do now the people have consciously elected the actual village idiot to be mayor?’

That will not be the position of everyone reading this, but it is certainly the position of those ‘comedians’ who have received praise. Due to the fact that satire has normally been a mocking of the politician, America’s daily show hosts have kept doing just that, seemingly not realising that, in this analogy, it is the villagers who need satirising: Satirist’s subvert the opinions and assumptions of their own audience — to poke holes in the worldviews of those who are neither listening nor watching is mere observational comedy: Stephen Colbert might as well be propel-skipping around the stage with Michael McIntyre.

Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison: Mr McIntyre worthily offers relief from the world — the would-be-satirists envelope us in the world and then offer us catharsis: they translate anger into laughter and we carry on, having achieved nothing, but feeling as though the revolution is complete, as Jonathan Coe points out in his book №11:

“Freud…believed that laughter is pleasurable because it creates an economy of psychic expenditure. Quintessentially, in other words, it takes energy and RELEASES or DISSIPATES it, thereby rendering it ineffective. So…[Freud] implies… political humour is the very opposite of political action.”

This is not to say that there is no room for political satire, but the satirist has a duty to make people laugh at the ridiculous, and then soberly reveal that what they see to be ridiculous is paraded as normal in front of them on a daily basis.

The audience from hell

True satirists, then, are growing frustrated with audiences bred on observational comedy: Charlie Brooker, back in 2011, following a cheap set from Jimmy Carr, was attempting to satirise the western public’s use of the internet. Referring to the bullying of Rebecca Black, following the surprising success of her song, he had to briefly interrupt his monologue to inform his audience that it wasn’t funny that strangers had called the thirteen-year-old girl a ‘whore’. If you’re after a more recent example, and have a strong stomach, watch the latest Louis CK stand up routine which was dropped on Netflix last week.

Louis CK messes with his audience, and has them laughing at all the wrong times…you can hear unease in some of the laughter, as some of them realise that it’s actually them who are being satirised. Their laughter is tense as he, a known liberal, starts to suggest that abortion could be ‘murdering babies’…and they’re begging for the tension to be broken… and when it is, their prior unease was such that there is not laughter, but cheering and wooping when he says “women should be allowed to kill babies.” He mocks them for that, and still, they don’t realise that they’re the butt of the joke.

People tune in to laugh at their political enemies, but never at themselves. But we would be serving ourselves much better if we demanded the knife were turned on ourselves. Jonathan Coe continues:

“Every time we laugh at the venality of a corrupt politician, at the greed of a hedge fund manager, at the spurious outpourings of a right-wing columnist, we’re letting them off the hook.”

If you’re not convinced by this, look at the list of ‘roastees’ from the past few years of the Comedy Central Roast, at which the centre figure is mercilessly mocked. Charlie Sheen used it to reboost his public image as a room full of people laughed with him at jokes about his violence toward prostitutes and the damage he’d done to his daughter’s lives. Justin Bieber also, after his public meltdown, reported for a roasting and was duly forgiven. Oh yes… and Donald Trump. As Snoop Dogg roasted our now president (it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s a mescaline-induced dream sequence these days), Ivanka laughs in the audience as Snoop says “Now he’s talking about running for President. Why not? It wouldn’t be the first time he kicked a black family out of their house.”

Please note that I am an addict like everyone else… and I see the good: Myself and my co-editor at w_gtd in the first weeks of our friendship were persuaded, mid KFC, that what we were doing was wrong thanks to a piece by John Oliver. Neither of us went back. I cut down my meat eating by 50%. Ollie married a vegetarian. This topic is served well by true satirists — Simon Amstell recently made a mockumentary for the BBC on Veganism, and, as he mocked his own worldview, persuaded myriad people to start thinking more seriously about their meat consumption.

But alas, still, we demand and commission more obvious political engagement, paying people millions of dollars to say things like ‘House of Cards season 5 will just be actual footage from the White House.’ [cue laughter]

At what stage, upon having realised that laughing at the issue doesn’t make it go away, must we begin to regard our enthralled amusement as mere monstrous spectatorship, rather than virtuous objection?

The Shakespearean Fool

The jesters of old were invaluable to society — in their bells and bright colours, they would use laughter to sneak past the vigilant guards of our prejudices and be able to stab into the heart of the true issue. Shakespeare’s fools would have you laughing, then make you weep with realisation: “The future is uncertain, laughter momentary, and youth ‘a stuff will not endure’” says Feste in Twelfth Night. That’s not a punchline, the laughter came before. This is where he operates his duty. Now it’s time for us to do ours.

‘That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool — that he is no fool at all.’
Isaac Asimov
The agents of duty

When we watch horrific news and gleefully anticipate what John Oliver or Seth Meyers might be about to say about it, then we cease to be the brave and the free who fight for what is right. We are now the kids who go to the pier to see a Punch & Judy show… and keep laughing when we go back home where daddy’s slapping mummy in the face. True satire makes us laugh at the ridiculous then chills us with the Truth that the ridiculous is, in fact, being played out on the stage of reality. The cheap television we consume, hosted by virtue-signalling hacks has made monsters of us all: we’re not satirists anymore; we’re sadists.