Why British satire is terrible | James Harris says you can't speak truth to power and expect to earn a living

Why British satire is terrible

James Harris says you can't speak truth to power and expect to earn a living

In the opening scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), a skomorokh or medieval Slavic harlequin, entertains a crowd of villagers sheltering from a rainstorm. He mocks everyone – the Church, the local barons, the three monks who enter to shelter too. After his act is done, he’s arrested, knocked unconscious and has his instrument smashed; we watch the soldiers’ horses disappear into the rain.

It’s pretty clear that most professional comedians haven’t dealt with comedy at that level of jeopardy for a while. Jesters are the ultimate comic edgelords, as their lives are dependent on how their acts go down. 

The life of a writer or performer on a satire show like The Mash Report or Have I Got News for you isn’t quite that hazardous; it’s studio siderooms and hastily-bought Meal Deals – and for content it’s a world of sensitivity readers and release forms. The world of the people of these shows isn’t, by all accounts, that big, and the people all know each other; there are accepted joke formats, there are words audiences laugh at. Tinder. Croydon. The Liberal Democrats. There are rhythms of British satire – the voice going up at the end, the horrified stare, arms splaying out on the desk – and behind all that an implicit knowledge as to which targets are and aren’t safe.

So why is it so bad? And I mean bad in a way which is quite fundamental; not bad because of the quality of the craft, or the sophistication of the production, but bad as satire. It seems that a lot of British satire now operates out of a fundamental misunderstanding of what satire actually is – which isn’t, by the way, articulating boilerplate leftish opinions in a voice which goes up at the end.

In my lifetime Mark Thomas brought in the idea of the satirist as activist, highlighting injustice to effect social change. Growing up I thought he was the bee’s knees, but that was also at a time when my politics completely overlapped with this. His dropping of the word ‘Comedy’ to present purely ‘The Mark Thomas Product’ was though a truly honest move – there comes a point where you have to choose between the activism and the comedy, where the good point outweighs the requirement for a laugh. 

Thomas’s activism did a lot of good; it just wasn’t, in my view, satire, as it continued to hold onto the possibility of fixing the world. In that sense ‘Spitting Image’, with its gallery of pure grotesques, is closer to authentic satire than Mark Thomas was. The issue there was and is the quality of the – pun intended – material.

But The Mash Report and contemporary Have I Got News for you isn’t activist comedy. It’s a sort of soft buzz of confirmation bias, surrounded in a Haze of nostalgia. It’s tame in part because it’s limited in scope, with the material having to pass vetting checks and avoid lawsuits, and also satisfy a certain inclusive, diversity as an ideology, eco tote-bag view of the world which pretends to be non-ideological but actually serves up identity markers for a specific, middle-class, urban liberal milieu. 

Having increasingly diverse people represent this worldview is only satisfying part of the diversity equation, and the easier one to satisfy too; a rainbow nation which toes the cultural line. The terms of these shows are in a way set up to prevent anything truly interesting happening, like conflicting views being expressed, like difficult targets being skewered. 

These shows just aren’t set up in disruptive or pluralist enough, and they’re just not at base wild enough to produce great satire. Any ideological conflict become subsumed in the general chumminess that is one of English culture’s least appealing features – the apparent need to have everyone in your culture as basically a big happy family. (‘We put Richard E Grant on a pedalo with Brian Cox and had them both tour Polynesia – and you paid for it, suckers!’) 

I can accept tolerating that family and its default ideology of things being generally ‘nice’; I just think it’s a hopeless frame to think about or laugh about politics, this being the process with which we manage our disputes. One does in all this have to feel a bit sorry for Geoff Norcott, a man tasked with representing the entirety of political opinion outside of the liberal left, though I’m sure his booking agents don’t mind.

Part of this abiding air of toothlessness to British satire is that we still and just about live in a democracy. The stakes of satire in a democracy are necessarily lower, and that’s something we should all feel good about; it’s not worth stripping our freedoms just to create a few hot-shit skomorokhs. 

In our country, the ruling class now makes a virtue of being seen to tolerate and in fact appropriate your laughter, and we in turn make a virtue of humanising and sanitising our ruling class; our current Prime Minister, dear old ‘Boris’, is of course the outstanding example of this. (Honestly, the day a former host of your topical comedy show becomes the national leader is the day you should pack it all up and go home, because there could be no purer example that your satire offers no challenge to power whatsoever).

 Compare this to the role of satire in Afghanistan, where Nazar Mohammad, the comedian known as Khasha Zwan, was dragged off and murdered by the Taliban for telling jokes about them, apparently continuing to do so as they did. Now that’s courage, that’s satire, and all we can do for Nazar is express solidarity with him in calling the Taliban the pathetic, anal-warted scumbags that they indisputably are, with all due respect to the anal wart community.

Still, perhaps the higher stakes elsewhere might also encourage us to exercise our own freedom a little more volubly and be a little less concerned for the consequences of our speech. 

Why not defend defend the right to go too far given that comedians in other countries don’t even have the right to go the shortest distance? Unhelpful or even obnoxious as it might seem, satirists need to accept the essential absence of hope as a requirement of their position – they are not there to advocate replacing one lot of idiots with another, but articulate that all in power are essentially idiots because they are human; and given that this view is centred on the idea of human nature as unchanging, you could also say it’s a conservative one. 

A satirist is there to diagnose a disease, often in stringent terms, but not to offer a cure. And that means I don’t think you can talk about left-wing or right-wing satire any more than you can talk about that fire extinguisher in the corner being left-wing or right-wing. A fire extinguisher serves a purpose; a satirist does too. They expose moral corruption and political venality by means of humour. 

In order to convince in this effort, the satirist best operates from a position of deliberate powerlessness, or else runs the risk of being accused of hypocrisy. Which means that you simply can’t have decent television satire in a heritage television format dependent on the market and avoiding scandal to survive. And you certainly can’t have a satire which divides the world into goodies and baddies. 

Heck, to get satire you may not even be able to pay satirists at all; if they’re really serious about their metier, satirists should live on donated bread and wine like that jester in Andrei Rublev. 

In speaking truth to power, anything above a mud-stained hut may be too lofty a station.

• James Harris writes a weekly comedy and politics newsletter at Stiff Upper Quip. He tweets

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Published: 30 Sep 2021

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