According to Will Self, satire should always attack the powerful, and in modern TV comedy that has been the case since the 1960s. However, much of what passes for satire today seems to be the opposite. Instead of challenging power, some so-called satirists in fact support it.
In recent years, the gap between performers and politicians that arguably existed in the past, has shrunk dramatically. Comedians have become a lot richer, no longer on the margins of celebrity. Politicians, meanwhile, are now eager to appear on chat shows. I have always thought this was due to vanity, but perhaps there is another purpose; knowing the power of satire, politicians wish to limit the damage it can do to them. By getting as close as they can to the source of the threat, perhaps they can neutralise the danger. Boris Johnson, according to the Guardian, is Britain’s first self-satirising politician. Boris has got so close, he now does all of his satire in-house.
One who never gets close to politicians is Stewart Lee, but this doesn’t stop him practicing the opposite of satire. In this routine, Lee is making the point that immigration is simply a natural historical development, and that to complain about it is ignorant and bigoted. While this has a basis in truth, it is also misleading. We know now that immigration in the last two decades did not occur naturally, but is in fact the result of European Union policy. The policy is known as “free movement of people” and is one of the founding tenets of the EU. The British government are in full support of this policy. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Lee is defending the policies of the establishment against the dissent of a small insurgent party. The routine is funny- there’s no doubt about that- but it is the inversion of a familiar phrase; not “It’s funny because it’s true” but “It’s true because it’s funny”. Because it reinforces the prejudices of Lee’s audience and makes them laugh, it achieves the status of truth. In a second routine, he ridicules the views of the stereotypical taxi driver. Elsewhere, Lee has talked about “punching upwards”, i.e. challenging power, but here he breaks that rule and attacks taxi drivers, who are surely beneath him status-wise. It is in this way, that people like Lee inadvertently defend Establishment values, therefore reinforcing the divide between London and the rest of the country. Ordinary people may in fact start to see Lee and David Cameron as part of the same problem.
Although he is not known primarily as a satirist, Russell Brand has also been protecting the Establishment with his humour. When he appeared on Newsnight to promote his abstinence-based recovery programme, he and the Tory MP David Burrowes seemed to be of one accord, both opposed to the traditionalism of Peter Hitchens. Given this cosiness, I wouldn’t be surprised if the programme is government funded, although obviously I can’t prove it.
A year later, Matthew Perry from friends was dispatched to ridicule Hitchens again. It seems to me as if the government is growing an army of comedians who will protect them when they’re in trouble, dispatching their enemies with pithy one-liners. I always thought that the satire movement that has emerged since the 1960s was about challenging power, but perhaps it was only about challenging right wing power. Now that our government is liberal, they seem to escape satire, which is reserved only for attacking the right. According to the social commentator Jerome Karlovsky, Stewart Lee does not challenge the views of his audience. He affirms them.
If Boris Johnson is Britain’s first self-satirising politician, it shows that the Establishment are well aware of the power of ridicule. What is more, they have taken steps to disarm it, with the help of comedians.
Clarifications – 23/1/15
I do not think that the government is liberal in the classical sense. There is a new use of that word which properly describes the Liberal Democrats, who are neither liberal nor particularly dempcratic as far as I can see.
Modern politicians are not immune from satire, but in my view they are less susceptible than in previous eras because they play it so safe. As I said in the piece, many of them have deliberately taken steps to try and neutralise the threat posed by satire, either by cosying up to the satirists like Barack Obama, or by becoming a clown like Boris Johnson. Of course cartoonists and comedians still make fun of Johnson, but does it really do him any harm when pretty much anything they say has already been said by him? In the documentary Frost on Satire, Lorne Michaels, the Executive Producer of Saturday Night Live said of Sarah Palin, “I think we helped define her in a certain way”. Satirists want to be the first to define political figures in the eyes of the public. If the politician has beat you to it, then the job is more difficult.