There are two schools of thought regarding satire in 2018: it’s either a golden age for satirists because the increasingly absurd political landscape gives them plenty of material; or it’s a terrible time to be a satirist, because the increasingly absurd political landscape makes it impossible to invent anything more ridiculous than reality. For example, Donald Trump supplies prime fodder for the world’s comedians on a daily basis, but then what’s the point of trying to make Trump look stupid when he does such a good job himself? The question is whether writing satire in the present day is akin to shooting fish in a barrel, or more like turning up late to the barrel to find the fish have all shot themselves.
TV shows that are described as satirical abound in this troubled age, but what is satire? Are the people who claim to be making satire doing that, and if they are, are they doing it right? And depending on the answer, either the most important or the least important question of all: what is satire for? Does it, in any meaningful
Like pornography, satire may be one of those things that can’t be defined easily—you just know it when you see it. But there are a few necessary conditions that a piece of work—whether it be TV, film, theatre, prose or song—must fulfil to be satire.
First, it has to have a point. Satire, unlike simple comedy, must always be trying to say something. Put another way, satire always has a target. Whether that’s a politician,
a policy, a celebrity or a societal attitude, a satirical piece needs to take aim and attempt to demonstrate something objectionable about it.
Second, it can’t just say what it’s trying to say. Saying ‘the government is shit’ isn’t satire. Saying ‘the government is a towering cathedral of shit built by dedicated architects of shit and adorned with dozens of shitty gargoyles who watch over the high priests of shit working inside’ might be a bit funnier, but it’s still not satire. Satire shows, it doesn’t tell, and it makes its point obliquely, the better to slide the message home.
Third, satire has to heighten or distort reality to make its point. Just depicting the real world, even if that real world is itself insane and hilarious, isn’t satire: it’s realism. You can, of course, make a powerful point by writing a book or making a movie that portrays the grimness of reality—it might even be funny—but that powerful point won’t be a satirical one. For example: All the President’s Men isn’t satire; Idiocracy is.
Fourth, satire is not synonymous with parody. As noted above, satire is an attack on something or someone. This is a different thing from a mere ‘send-up’. The movie Airplane was a brilliant spoof of disaster flicks, but it didn’t satirise them: there’s no intention to expose the disaster genre’s moral turpitude or corruption. On the other hand, Tropic Thunder satirises numerous elements of the film industry, and so qualifies as satire.
So how do modern satirists stack up? In Australia the satirical market is getting crowded: TV shows such as Tonightly, Mad as Hell and The Weekly compete to acquire the cultural cachet enjoyed by the likes of The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight in the United States. How satirical are they?
Tonightly and The Weekly certainly fulfil the brief of making a point, turning their sights on a variety of targets—the government, big business, misogyny, racism and others—and driving in hard on them. At times they use satire to this end: check out Tonightly’s ‘Gardening with Greta’ skit on the Don Burke revelations, or The Weekly’s ‘Make Australia Second’, aiming at Donald Trump and Australia’s national self-image, for examples. But a big part of both shows is the to-camera addresses of the hosts, Tonightly’s Tom Ballard and The Weekly’s Charlie Pickering. Both hosts are funny men, but their monologues aren’t satirical—they’re a mix of direct attacks on the target and one-liners. Besides these segments, their shows mix satirical sketches with interviews and topical comedy sketches that are less satirical than observational.
Ballard and Pickering stylistically resemble John Oliver, whose rants on Last Week Tonight have proven eminently shareable. For truly satirical hosting, you might look to Stephen Colbert, in the days before he took over The Tonight Show, when he reigned over The Colbert Report. Colbert assumed a character, that of a blustering right-wing talking head, in order to illustrate the idiocy of the right wing. In Australia, the closest thing to Colbert in the mainstream is Shaun Micallef on Mad as Hell. But Micallef’s character isn’t satirising political viewpoints Colbert-style so much as the whole idea of the political TV host.
While Mad as Hell does skewer politicians and media clichés, it’s also just as interested in quick-witted wordplay and frequent bursts of Pythonesque, absurdist comedy. In its way the greatest satirical element of the show is its deconstruction of the conventions of tele-vision—in this it resembles Get Krack’n, the masterpiece from Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney that ruthlessly dissects the stereotypes and vacuousness of breakfast TV. Get Krack’n specialises in truly biting satire in its specific realm, and perfectly fulfils the above four requirements, while also carrying out the Dictionary.com mission of ‘exposing or denouncing vice, folly’ etc. In their impersonation of familiar entertainment archetypes, the Kates successfully illustrate and critique the problems inherent in those archetypes.
Perhaps the ‘purest’ satire on Australian screens in recent times has been Utopia, the superbly drawn portrayal of inefficient bureaucracy created by the Working Dog team, who two decades ago came up with that most viciously hilarious picture of TV current affairs, Frontline. Utopia bears many resemblances to that revered demigod of satire Yes Minister and its descendant The Thick of It, particularly in its focus on the stupidity and waste of government processes, as opposed to attacking the ideology of any particular party. The point is not the rightness of any particular ‘side’, but the ways in which political imperatives of all flavours prevent constructive government.
A different approach was taken by the sublime two-handers of the late John Clarke and his partner in comedy Bryan Dawe: here Clarke played public figures while making no attempt to mimic them, and the resulting interviews were a master class in ridiculing political doubletalk, mendacity and self-interest. The Clarke and Dawe interviews and Working Dog’s productions share one notable element: they involve no impersonations of real people, no aping of appearance or speech, putting the focus fully on ideas rather than mannerisms, in stark contrast to the Saturday Night Live school of satire, which is built around the mockery of personal idiosyncrasy. One feels that in terms of making a point, the former approach tends to be the more effective.
But what is effective satire? After Trump’s election victory in 2016, there was widespread confusion about how it could have happened, and a lot of eyes turned towards the likes of Oliver and Colbert and Jon Stewart. Many shared the opinion that, in some way, those making jokes about politics had failed because they hadn’t prevented a disastrous political outcome.
This viewpoint derives from a fundamental misunderstanding of satire’s purpose and capabilities; a misunderstanding reinforced by claims that this or that comedian had ‘destroyed’ or ‘eviscerated’ or ‘owned’ Trump. The idea that a Donald Trump voter would change their mind on the basis of a professional entertainer making Trump look silly is not only wildly optimistic but in near-direct opposition to reality: satirical attacks on a political figure are more likely to solidify supporters’ loyalty to them than to turn them off. It has been ever thus. The clever cartoonists of the reign of George III may have thought they could turn public opinion against the king by depicting his mental infirmity so brilliantly; yet all they did was increase sympathy for the poor stricken sovereign.
If you expect satire to destroy political careers, then satire will always be a failure in your eyes. One thinks of Peter Cook’s declaration on the opening of his Establishment Club, that the club would be modelled on Berlin’s satirical cabarets of the 1930s, ‘which did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler’.
So does this mean satire—indeed, any kind of politically-themed comedy—has no purpose beyond a fleeting laugh? Does a show such as Utopia provide nothing that
a regular domestic sitcom could give us? By no means. The satirist’s art is still a most valuable one. It may not be able to bring down governments or sway elections, but great satire can still enlighten an audience. It can still bring to light those corruptions and outrages that were in front of us all along but that we hadn’t been able to see. It can, thanks to the self-defeating tendency of human nature, enrage political leaders and cause them to lash out—see Trump’s tweets about Alec Baldwin, for example—and that provides enlightenment of its own kind.
It also helps to ease the pain of living in a dirty, cruel world. To laugh at the grimness of life can make it a little bit more bearable, and make it a little easier to carry on from day to day, because we’ve been enabled to look at the horror with humour rather than dwelling on it with despair. Most of all, it reassures us that we are not alone, that the anger we feel is shared and that there are others out there noticing how terrible everything is. Satire brings us together in the common cause of mocking the powerful, and thus creates a community of like-minded people whose frustration is softened by the knowledge that that community exists. There’s a sliver of hope in that thought.
It’s not as good as forcing a prime minister to resign in humiliation because everyone’s laughing at the sketch about his travel expenses, but it’s something. And it’s why satire—that art form that so often falls short of its lofty ambition, and even when it succeeds, it disappoints people who had hoped it would make more of a difference—remains among the noblest of pursuits.
Ben Pobjie is a Melbourne author and comedian who has written for Crikey, the Age and the ABC. His latest book is Aussie Aussie Aussie.