Once upon a time the US songwriter and polymath Tom Lehrer quipped, “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” No doubt in 1973, when President Nixon’s controversial Secretary of State received the prestigious award, few American liberals would have questioned Mr Lehrer’s claim. But across the pond the tradition of pithy political satire flourished throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, reaching such astounding heights during the 1980s-1990s that it became a cherished part of mainstream entertainment. This is perhaps why it is all the more surprising that the genre now finds itself in decline.
But first, some history.
British political satire as we know it stemmed from the sudden explosion of innovatively surreal humour in the late 1950s and early 1960s. BBC Radio’s The Goon Show, starring the likes of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, was an early attempt at poking abstract fun at the establishment. However it was not until the highly successful stage show Beyond the Fringe, performed by Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, was first broadcast in 1960 that popular satire made it to the screen. Their high-brow yet accessible method of ripping into the establishment (a notable target was Prime Minister Harold MacMillan) proved an instant success in both the UK and US, where President Kennedy actually attended a performance. Their brand of Oxbridge humour was shortly followed by Monty Python, whose Ministry of Silly Walks sketch remains their most well-known act of surreal mockery.
Yet it was the 1980s that really brought satire into the popular sphere. A radical right-wing government, shambolic management of the opposition and of course Margaret Thatcher herself all provided ample ammunition. Spitting Image, the grotesque puppet show that parodied everyone from Ronald Reagan to the Queen Mother, attracted millions of viewers. Rik Mayall’s portrayal of the sadistic and sexually depraved Tory MP Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman likewise tore into the concept of ‘no society’ Thatcherism (although it ironically proved popular with Conservative MPs, after some initial shock). Indeed it was not only politicians who were lampooned. HM Civil Service, which until now had mostly escaped comedic attention, was taken down a peg with delightful eloquence in Yes, Minister and its follow-up, Yes, Prime Minister.
As politics cooled down in the 1990s and 2000s and a wave of increasingly grey and moderate men took control of the nation, satire adapted ruthlessly. Spitting Image continued to make fun of the likes of John Major until its cancellation in 1996, by which time Chris Morris’s Brass Eye and The Day Today were already laying into the ‘moral panic’ and ‘back to basics’ values that haunted the news. Once the brief adoration of Tony Blair had been replaced by general public disillusion with politics, Armando Iannucci was swift to enter the fray with his biting classic The Thick of It. Viciously mocking the ‘spin’ orientated behaviour of New Labour and the Coalition, Iannucci presented British politics with a sweary, office-bound realism that did away with the safety nets of puppetry and a studio audience.
Then along came 2016, and suddenly British political satire seemed to dry up. Aside from the odd jibe on Have I Got News For You, the collapse of Conservative respectability, the EU referendum and our relationship with the blond absurdity in the White House have not experienced much in the way of traditional satire. As several old satirists explained when interviewed by the Guardian, satire works best when the establishment still retains some power and respectability. Jokes about Thatcher were helped by the fact that she was successful. Mocking Blair felt good when one was resigned to the fact that he would still be there come the next election.
Difficulty arises when a satirist is confronted by May, a prime minister who is so tragically undermined by all around her that her political survival is never certain. There really isn’t much humourous material that has not already been played out in real life, whether it be her excruciating public mannerisms or her own cabinet’s attempts to oust her. So far only Tracey Ullmann has come close to providing an effective satire with her impersonation of the PM earlier this year. Sadly, whilst the make-up and voice gave it an eerie realism, the script remained relatively modest. One got the impression that half of those who laughed probably voted for May anyway.
Jeremy Corbyn provides a similar issue, although it works more in his favour. Ever since his leadership victory in 2015, Corbyn has been subject to vitriolic abuse from both the press and online public. Consequently any attempts to satirise him just sound like a Daily Express headline being read aloud. In a similar vein, more contrived politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson know that their affected eccentricities give them a degree of immunity from satire. An outdated accent and complex vocabulary apparently turns one into a meme amongst politically active students. Once one reaches this status, satire becomes harmless.
So, as Lenin once raged, what is to be done? Satire is by no means dead, but in an era where anyone can make a joke online and see it snowball within minutes (remember how funny ‘pig-gate’ was, despite it never happening?), it is certainly struggling. Traditional satire, usually put across by middle-aged white men with Oxbridge degrees, is labouring to keep up with the modern world. A time of unpopular right-wing government, feeble leadership and doomed economic blustering is ripe for satire, but energy is required to provide something new. As Spitting Image writer John O’Farrell points out in the same Guardian interview, political satire needs younger talent to drag it into the modern age. What made Beyond the Fringe so successful back in 1960 is that it provided a new and innovative humour, rather than gentle, family-friendly laughs. Modern satire must do the same.