After Brexit, satire is well and truly dead. Now we have Boris Johnson answering questions at press conferences about how he’ll explain to Hillary’s face that he once said she looks like a nurse in a mental institution. We have an unelected prime minister who got the job largely because another woman baited her about not having children. We have Andrea Leadsom: a non-entity who is swiftly revealed to be exceedingly stupid and tactless and is then rewarded with a serious cabinet role. And we have no opposition, except Jeremy Corbyn with a leadership style entirely lacking in leadership or style. This stuff just writes itself. How can you be funny about an entire political set-up that is already a joke?
And it’s a joke of epic proportions. As Amy Davidson put it in the New Yorker, our current news narrative is ‘one of tragi-farcical, politico-comic self-destruction.’ (Not sure the Americans can really talk. But more of that in November.) Frankie Boyle, usually our most acid satirist, wrote despairingly pre-Theresa May that ‘commentating on the Johnson administration would have been like writing a cutting review of a dancing dog’. And yet here Johnson is anyway as Foreign Secretary. We are already a long way into autoparody.
Frankie Boyle is usually one of our only hopes in skewering the idiocy de nos jours (soon to be a banned phrase). And yet he quit BBC2‘s Mock the Week seven years ago, saying ‘I don’t think it’s even PC as such…It’s just dull people who want dull TV.’ For a long time now a lot of what passes for political satire on television and in the mainstream media is not doing what Boyle specialises in: annihilating his targets – and with malice. Instead it’s cosy, weary and cynical: ‘Aren’t they all silly? Isn’t politics a farce?’ We’ve had at least a decade of this feeling and this is what it has resulted in: an actual joke.
Yes, there are signs of life of British satire. But they’re superficial. Private Eye has the highest circulation it has had in years. Spoof news reporter and YouTube star Jonathan Pie (actor Tom Walker) is anticipating a sold-out Edinburgh run. Bridget Christie has scrapped her Edinburgh show to write a Brexit one. Jan Ravens has a new lease of life impersonating a prime minister (and very well she does it too). And yet. Dara O Briain admits that Mock the Week has become ‘more reflective.’ And Have I Got News For You is now more likely to cast Eddie Izzard and Russell Brand on the show as political figures with points to make for themselves than as comedians with points to score against others.
The successful comedy we’ve got used to ridicules not the individuals but the system. This doesn’t fuel anger in the audience. It fuels political apathy. This is the stock-in-trade of Veep and The Thick of It. We are a long way from the glory days of The Young Ones, Ben Elton, Spitting Image and the anti-Thatcher comedy of the 1980s. Over the past decade where was the comedy attacking Gove, Osborne, Cameron? Or Sadiq Khan? Or Chuka Umunna? Or even the Lib Dems?
A lot of what passes for political satire now is not about hitting a target or nailing a truth about someone, it’s a general feeling of ‘Aren’t they all just hopeless?’ That is not as powerful as using humour as an attack. If anything, it convinces people not to vote and not to bother with politics because ‘they’re all the same.’ It also makes us all safe in our little political bubbles, unable to laugh at ourselves, let alone at others. Even Thatcher’s most ardent supporters could see that she was a worthy target for her opponents. They could ‘get’ the jokes.
Why has this happened? The rise of observational comedy has played a huge role. People now expect to go to comedy not to be challenged (and to laugh whilst being challenged, regardless of their political views) but to agree with the comedian. They expect to nod their heads and chuckle, ‘That’s exactly what I think.’ It’s rare now for anyone to go to comedy and think, ‘I disagree with everything that person has said – but it was bloody hilarious.’ And yet the idea of an audience laughing because they agree with you – and only laughing because they agree with you – is dangerous. Because it means you can only ever speak to one kind of audience: the one who votes the same as you. This is toxic.
We got the political class we deserved. Now it’s time to reactivate targeted satire on a grand scale. Otherwise we’re screwed. Because it has all got too weird. As Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes, Minister, said recently, ‘If all else fails, Theresa May could have a future as a comedy producer.’ No-one wants that. And yet here we are.
Viv Groskop’s Edinburgh show Be More Margo is at The Stand from 4-28 August