Satire? The joke's on us

Michael Monkhouse on the comedy that's an insidious enemy

I was chuffed to read that shy Frasier actor Kelsey Grammer is turning into a sensational cinema attraction. I was even chuffeder to hear he's providing a new spin on Scrooge, a fellow he's (a) already taken the mick out of and (b) nabbed from the pen of the mighty Charles Dickens. And when I heard the whole shenanigans is gonna be a snidey satirey swipe at the U S of A, I fairly bust my breeches…

Because, I smiled, satire is a word I adore. A world I adore, one I've sorely missed after countless years out of the UK - years lost in France, where comedy means Monsieur Ploppie breaking wind yet again; years squandered in Italy, where the facetious face of Not The Nine O'Clock News morphed into the slapsticky smirk of Mr Bean; years forgotten in Germany, where - ah forget it.

Satire is the last bastion of democracy. The working class's last chance to strike back. Our sneering poo-smear at some capitalist claptrap about never having it so good…

It's also a con.

I'm not talking about the way Kelsey's Yankee-baiting performance will milk megabucks out of the very system he's abusing, that would be too obvious. I'm talking about the way satirical comedy as a whole milks laughs out of us paying punters; then settles comfortably down into the very fabric of the society it's trying to topple.

Satire presents a welcome alternative to our habits of grey acquiesce - then tells us to laugh at it. And why should we laugh? Because our acquiescence is the norm. And if there is an alternative, satire tells us not to take it, rather to take the proverbial piss out of it.

Let's wing our way back to the halcyon days of the Eighties and the joys of Spitting Image, Week Ending and six billion other flavour-of-the-decade satire shows. Oooh weren't they brave? When they weren't basking in their Oxbridge degrees they were deigning to inform us of such gems as: The royal family's a bunch of liars, thieves, swindlers and crooks. Mrs Thatcher's a jumped-up Hitlerian hack with her tongue so far up Reagan's jacksie it's no wonder she's full of poo. The Eighties are nothing more than Aids panic, politicians piling our cash into prostitutes’ pockets, and rock stars revelling in their own glorious self-esteem.

Then they told us to laugh about it, like it was funny.

It's the same with the paparazzi today. They say they are belittling the rich and famous by presenting them as mere mortals: Look she's Victoria Beckham but her pantie line's showing, what a scoop. But the fact we need to see them as mere mortals only goes to show how much we respect them in the first place. Which in turn only goes to confirm that they're still up there, we're still way down here.

I don't want to get all poncey intellectual on you, but this kind of crap reminds me of the comedy of the ancient Greeks. Poncey intellectual scholars thereof get mightily confused at how gods-fearing Greeks could watch - and even enjoy - Olympic heroes prancing around like Young Ones rejects. But for me that isn’t confusing, it's logical. Because for them it was just comedy. You laugh because things have gone tits-up. And lest we forget, hit the end of the show, it was always the gods who had the upper hand. Which was the way the punters liked it, in theatre as in life.

All of which is not too far away from some bogstandard sitcom episode, anything from Terry and June through Porridge to The Office. Part One: Things are the way they are – technically speaking, a puddle of poo. Part Two: Something extraneous comes along to rock the boat; things are questioned, analysed, even threatened. There's a struggle, a climax… Part Three: Things are back the way they are, thank God(s).

One of the few provocative moments in Ben Elton's otherwise limp Man From Auntie series was Top Of The Stupid Old Gits, in which Benjie highlighted the obscenely lenient ways in which judges treated sex offenders. He was perfectly right to attack this… And perfectly wrong to punctuate each indictment with studio laughter. A reasoned - and more logical - audience response wouldn't be a listless laugh but a stunned silence. Followed by horrified hatred. Followed - we hope - by aggressive action.

And so we come to today, where the 'alternative' comedians of the Eighties write the sitcoms they used to abuse. Where a new generation of stand-ups risk thousands at Edinburgh in the hope of a contract, a bestselling DVD and a couple of swimming pools. Where sitcom stars get a few more bucks in the bank and giggle at what silly old world it is. And all the time we laugh ourselves stupid. Then bugger off home, nod off and wake up next morning wondering why things never change.

Because that's how stupid we are. For one moment we see reality and instead of grasping the bull by the horns we snatch our sides in silliness.

And that's why satirical comedy - be it Aristophanes alternatives, snidey sketches, snappy stand-up - ain't our funniest friend. It's our most insidious enemy.

Published: 24 Feb 2008

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