Are you a satire fan? Dave Cohen has got news for you.

A response to this article about satire

Recently a contributor to these columns wrote an article mourning the end of satire. He said there was no longer any reason to watch or listen to satirical comedy. The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, he continued, and those angry young comics of yesterday have joined the establishment they once despised.

Having spent 20 years or so making a living writing and performing topical jokes, I felt this article deserved a response – just in case you all agree with it, stop watching and listening, and put me on the dole queue.

I’ve written gags and sketches for The News Quiz, Dead Ringers and Have I Got News For You, spent three years performing with The Comedy Store’s Cutting Edge team, am proud to have written more than 20 songs for Spitting Image, less so to have worked on two series of the Eleven O’Clock Show.

The article raised several issues – but the first, and most important thing it did, which rendered it completely mistaken from the word go, was use the word ‘satire’, when in fact what was really meant was ‘topical comedy’.

The confusion is understandable. Peter Cook, with whom it’s safe to say the modern idea of topical comedy began, was definitely a budding satirist. His early writing and performing owed much to Brecht, and he was one of the first comedians of the 20th Century to openly ridicule the rich and powerful establishment.

Cook, however, was also one of the founding fathers of Private Eye, and that was where the edges began to blur, where the kind of measured satire that he brought to his High Court Judge and Civil Servant characters had to be re-written every fortnight. Satire with a deadline.

My dictionary defines satire as: ‘The use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule, often in song form.’ It is only when we get to a definition of ‘lampoon’ that we find ‘a form of satire, often political or personal, characterised by the malice or virulence of the attack.’ So we’re not satirists, like Jonathan Swift, we’re lampoonists, like Chevy Chase.

While there are moments of satire in all the great topical comedy programmes from That Was The Week That Was through Week Ending to Spitting Image, most of these shows relied heavily on the week’s news for their gags. The nearest I’ve made it to satire is the ‘song form’ part for Spitting Image.

Similarly if you’re in search of genuine satire then don’t go to The Cutting Edge on a Tuesday night at the London Comedy Store. What you’ll see instead is top quality topical comedy. However, be warned: according to that previous article on this website, you will be ruthlessly exploited for your troubles: ‘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.’

Unfortunately there’s very little that we as comics or topical comedy writers can do about that. Even at its most revolutionary and rabidly Left-wing, (which was for a period of about three weeks in 1985), stand-up comedy was always the purest embodiment of Thatcher’s Britain – live unsubsidised theatre that dispensed with all the expensive accoutrements like casts, props and scenery, and relied simply on one person talking into a microphone.

The article continues: ‘Then they told us to laugh about it, like it was funny.’ Actually no one told you to laugh. The fact that thousands of people pay money to go to comedy clubs every week, and that millions tune in and still do, means there is an audience for it – and as every stand-up knows, with no audience there’s no show.

‘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.’

Unfortunately topical comedy writers can only write about stuff that other people know in the news. The fact that Victoria Beckham’s pantie line is in the news (actually can you just remind me what that story was?) means that if we write about that, more people will know what we’re talking about than if, say, we write about British troops in Afghanistan. That we still manage to write about British troops in Afghanistan when the rest of the world is clamouring for the Beckham story is a small triumph.

I think the best way to spot the difference between topical comedy and satire is to watch Have I Got News For You, which, after 18 years on the telly, continues to entertain intelligently and shows no sign of Losing It lustre. You want lampoon, and topical comedy? Listen to the chair’s script, and Ian Hislop. You want satire? Watch Paul Merton.

Paul is quite happy to admit that he is interested in the week’s news only as a way of scoring more points than Ian. Sure, he gets fired up by our Royal Family, the Catholic church, and stupid posh people with power, but his contributions to the show are the nearest thing we have to satire, and deserve celebrating as such. ‘Human folly, vice held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.’ Sounds like Paul’s best contributions. Just don’t ask him to sing.

Published: 8 Jun 2008

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