A bad day for satire?

Dave Cohen doesn't think so...

I’ve been reading a lot of articles recently, informing me that the conclusion of the Presidency of George W. Bush, while being celebrated just about everywhere else, is a source of nothing but sorrow for stand-ups and comedy writers.

The papers have been full of it. A Telegraph review of the Bye George comedy benefit gig for Guantanamo inmates said there were ‘occasional stirrings of poignancy as the assembled wags contemplated tougher times ahead under Obama, when easy jokes at America's expense may well prove as rare as candy at a dentist's.’ James Kettle wrote in The Guardian that ‘such a rich source of material will be missed, particularly when you consider the lack of inspiring comic characters on our own front benches’.

Even Rory Bremner wrote an article about how much he’ll miss impersonating the former President. ‘When George Bush finally leaves the White House, the satire industry will briefly join the rest of the economy in recession. It will certainly be the end of an era.’

Speaking as a lowly hack employed in that satire industry – actually all I do is write and perform topical comedy for a living, but I have now given up on my one-man campaign to stop people mistakenly calling that ‘satire’ – I’m really pleased that George W. Bush has gone. And I’m struggling to think of a single level on which it’s bad news at all.

I’m absolutely delighted to see someone in the White House who not only appears to have grasped the fundamentals of what’s wrong with the world at the moment, but also has given some consideration to the idea of a plan to fix it. I’m also really happy because not only has he made some great speeches already, but he began his presidency with an inaugural speech that hilariously trashed everything his predecessor had done over the last eight years. And not only that, this replacement is a man who appears to have a sense of humour, and a modicum of self-awareness. A politician with a modicum of self-awareness! I can’t wait to get my topical comedy – sorry, satire - choppers into that.

And I haven’t even started yet on the comedy. Even here, you have to ask: Was George W Bush really that much of a gift for comedy writers and stand-ups?

Fact is, Bush’s prime comedy trait, getting his words mixed up, was not dissimilar to the comedy trait of one of his more recent predecessors, President Reagan. So the word-mangling did not provide us with anything particularly new to work with. Also, as has been pointed out exhaustively, he was the most skilled performer in the world at making it funny himself. In the early Bush days there was a topical radio sketch show whose weekly joke about the President revolved around him trashing the language, and the sad truth was that whatever the writers came up with, it was never as funny as Bush’s own attempts.

Within a couple of years of Bush coming to power, word mangling as a source of comedy was already starting to wear a bit thin. September 11 wasn’t exactly the greatest comedy goldmine, but even less so its aftermath. Yes it was fun making jokes about how Bush failed to win Florida, but still won it. And how Dick Cheney’s grand plan for Iraq was to use it as a place to set up his favourite businesses. But how much joy did we derive from the laughter we generated, knowing that not only was this complete bunch of idiots and ideologically right-wing Christian fundamentalists effectively in charge of the world, but that they had one lone supporter in the entire universe who just happened to be our own Prime Minister? I have never for a moment imagined that one single gag I’ve written has made even the tiniest of impacts on the audience it was aimed against - but I have to say that any attempt to criticise the Bush administration with authority was always compromised by the fact that our country was his staunchest supporter.

Then there was the liberal consensus that seemed to swamp the circuit in that rare moment when the comedian momentarily broke off from talking about paedophiles and Celebrity Big Brother, in order to mention the great Dubya. Any workaday stand-up could get a cheap laugh out of George Bush and many did, knowing there was little chance of being heckled by an angry pro-Busher in the audience (unless they were playing round Tony’s house of course). It happened in comedy clubs stateside too.

As even Rory Bremner admitted in his article, Bush was almost too easy a target, providing ‘rich pickings for mimics and comedians the world over. It was like shooting fish in a barrel: hunch the shoulders, push out the elbows, pout like a chimp, look confused and talk. In small sentences. Using words like "folks". It was enough to get audiences laughing, prime them for anything satirical that followed.’

So George W. Bush was bad for the world, and he was bad for comedy. Occasionally someone would find a new angle. Who can forget Russell Brand’s description of Bush as ‘a retard’, in a phrase designed perfectly to alienate not just the pro-Bush Republicans but also the anti-Bush Democrats who would be offended by the use of such a word?

Sometimes we remember the satirical version of a politician long after they have disappeared – Steve Bell’s portrayal of John Major with his underpants outside his trousers for example, or the Spitting Image puppet of Kenneth Baker as a slug. But what images will spring to mind when Bush junior is remembered in years to come? I suspect it’ll be dodging a shoe, reading a children’s book about goats on 11 September 2001, and leaving the stage by trying to open a false door (I’m chuckling to myself even as I remember that one). Each a unique creation by the man himself.

Actually if Bush is capable of channelling even a fraction of his own comedy gold into attacks on his successor then we could be looking at a golden age of satire – and can celebrate another reason why his departure may be welcomed even by the comedy fraternity.

  • Dave Cohen’s comic documentary ‘It’s About Time’ is on Radio 4 on Monday 2 February at 11am and for the following week on iPlayer

Published: 28 Jan 2009

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