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With the near constant assault on the media by the current occupants of the White House, some are arguing that the role of satire, and the role of satirists, is more important than ever. Here, we’ll take a look at the historical foundations of satire, and its ever-evolving role in the society of the day.

Aristophanes

No historical account of satire would be complete without mention of Aristophanes. While he was by no means the only comic playwright of his age, it is his plays that have been preserved in the greatest number. His works are the only extant examples of Old Comedy, the initial phase of ancient Greek comedy from Athens in around the 5th Century BC. Old Comedy combined elements of fantasy with burlesque, physical comedy and outrageous satire, mercilessly lampooning the politicians of the age.

Aristophanes’ attacks targeted not only the leadership skills of politicians, but also took the form of deeply personal attacks against figures he particularly disliked. One example that defies translation from his Wasps is of the recounting of a slave’s dream in which the lisping, aristocratic Alcibiades responds with a sputter to his crony Theorus suddenly appearing with his head replaced by that of a raven: “Look!” he cries. “Theolus is tlansformed into a laven!”

In this single line, Aristophanes simultaneously mocks Alicbiades’ aristocratic affectations, and Theorus’ character – the word κόραξ (raven) becomes κόλαξ (flatterer).

The slave’s companion recounts his own dream, in which “a rapacious-looking creature with a figure like a whale and a voice like a scalded cow” rants to the assembled sheep of the Athenian assemblymen. This figure was none other than Aristophanes’ favourite punching bag, Cleon. It isn’t entirely clear why Aristophanes took such a dislike to Cleon in particular, other than perhaps how successful he was in preying upon the mob mentality that Aristophanes so disdained. He is well and truly taken to task in Aristophanes’ Knights and the two main characters in Wasps are named Philocleon (Cleon-lover) and Bdelycleon (Cleon-loather) – no prizes for guessing which of these characters speaks with Aristophanes’ own voice.

Aristophanes frequently denounced the fledgling democracy in Athens in his plays, representing the masses as being too easily swayed by a convincing speaker or rich nobleman prepared to promise material comforts the many poor tenant farmers who lived in the region. He chose to fight the influence of these men by depicting them in his plays, and it’s important to understand that this is not simply immortalizing them in fiction. Aristophanes’ comedies were performed to the entire assembled men of Athens in the great dramatic festivals, the Lenaia and City Dionysia, where it is quite likely politicians like Cleon would be in attendance.

Beyond the formalized structures of Athens’ democracy at this time for holding politicians to account at the end of their term in office, politicians were very much expected to take their licks in the amphitheatre twice a year. An archon of ancient Greece was expected to be able to take a joke at their expense, and in public.

Later satire

The satirical tradition established by Aristophanes was one that embraced its role as a check on the power of demagogues, but didn’t take itself too seriously. He was a man who understood the value of a good fart joke when making a point. This tradition was embraced by Roman satirists, especially the good-natured Horace and the cutting Juvenal, and it was the works of these writers that formed the basis for satire through the ages, with a particular revival in the Enlightenment, where writers like Jonathan Swift attacked the indifference of the rich to the plight of the poor in A Modest Proposal. Other writers of the age, like Dryden and Defoe, took on their own personal bugbears in their own satirical works.

Victorian England

In Victorian England, literary satire became hugely popular, with Charles Dickens frequently shining a light on the Victorian treatment of social issues, and satire returned to the theatre in the comic operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

1878’s HMS Pinafore became an international sensation, poking fun at the Royal Navy and satirizing the rise of unqualified but socially acceptable people to positions of authority, as seen best in ‘When I Was a Lad’, sung here in an excerpt by Richard Suart in the 2005 BBC Proms.

In 1885, Gilbert and Sullivan had their greatest ever success in The Mikado, a very English story of English bureaucracy, tradition and corruption thinly disguised by its Japanese setting. In this clip from the 1939 production, Martyn Green’s Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko petitions Sydney Granville’s Lord High Everything Else Pooh-Bah for advice about how to do his wedding on the cheap.

In choosing such an exotic, faraway location for the opera, Gilbert and Sullivan could satirise British institutions far more brazenly than they otherwise have been allowed to. The journalist and poet G K Chesterton said, “I doubt if there is a single joke in the whole play that fits the Japanese. But all the jokes in the play fit the English… About England Pooh-bah is something more than a satire; he is the truth.”

The remarkable thing about the success of these satires was that there would be many a modern Major-General, Lord Chief Justice and First Lord of the Admiralty to be found in the audience at the Savoy Theatre; they became the society entertainments of the age, a favourite of the royal family, and viewed as all being in good fun.

Television satire

Satire first appeared on television in the 1960s, with David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was becoming an instant hit on British TV. Unfortunately, the broadcasters had serious reservations about making enemies of politicians, and the show was cancelled after just two series. It moved to the US, where enjoyed similar successes of popularity, and suffered a similar fate, being cancelled half way through its first season.

Broadcasters were understandably skittish about lampooning politicians and lawmakers, and erred on the side of caution far more often than not. In the US, it wasn’t until the mid-70s that American audiences got their first dose of satire in years, with sketches like this Weekend Update from Saturday Night Live:

President Nixon was formally pardoned for all Watergate crimes today, by the People’s Republic of China. Honoring the ailing former leader, the Chinese have named a new dish after Mr Nixon, called of course, sweet and sour Dick.

Chevy Chase
Saturday Night Live, 28th Feb 1976

In the UK, satire saw a resurgence in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, which for Have I Got News For You’s Ian Hislop is no surprise:

I have a theory about satire in that it functions best in eras when politics is very polarised. When everyone is in the middle agreeing, it’s much harder for satire – to identify what the issues are and to find the contrasting personalities – but if you look at the Thatcher era in Britain, you had the parties way apart: we had riots on the streets. People weren’t politely disagreeing about policy, they were actually out there – and that gave a set of very, very disparate, larger-than-life people in a Punch & Judy show.

Ian Hislop

Shows like Spitting Image and Not the Nine O’Clock News pushed the envelope of what could be broadcast, though as Spitting Image producer John Lloyd says, getting that past censors wasn’t always easy:

There’s a famous sketch where Norman Tebbit’s puppet was being interviewed about the unemployed, and he said, “If the unemployed are so hungry why don’t they eat themselves?”

The chap at the IBA [Independent Broadcasting Authority] said “Now John, this really has gone too far – Norman Tebbit eating the unemployed.”

And I said, “Well you see, sir, it’s a nod in the direction of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, where he proposed the Irish unemployed ate their own babies.”

“Oh, satire!” he said. “Yes that’s right. Thank you, sir.”

“Oh, well if it’s Jonathan Swift then it’s fine – absolutely fine.”

John Lloyd, Creator of Spitting Image

While producers in the UK could hide behind satire’s place in the literary tradition, in the US, the response to the pressure from broadcasting standards bodies like the FCC was for satirists to make the move to the safety of cable networks. In the 1990s, The Daily Show arrived on Comedy Central, and was followed in the mid-2000s by The Colbert Report.

Despite the relatively lax regulation on cable TV, late night satirists are no strangers to controversy, and Bill Maher is no exception. His show Politically Incorrect started on Comedy Central, but moved to ABC in 1997 in search of bigger audiences. The show was cancelled in 2002 after comments Maher had made about 9/11.

[As a nation] we are very conformist, which has been great for me, because if you are not a conformist, you have a lot to work with. We have a very polarized electorate right now, and the problem is they don’t need to ever hear anything outside of their own echo chamber. They do not want to have their views challenged, so there’s a lot of things that people just have not examined, or re-examined, or ever sat down to think about, and it gives me a living.

Bill Maher

Shortly after ABC pulled the plug on his hugely popular show, Maher was offered a deal by HBO, so he returned to the relative safety of cable TV once more.

And it’s on HBO that we find one of the biggest names in contemporary satire, John Oliver, whose show Last Week Tonight has now won six Emmy awards since it premiered in 2014. Unusually for a show on the subscription-based HBO, the main segment of each episode is published on Youtube the day after broadcast, where his videos have attracted over 5 million subscribers and over 1 billion views worldwide.

While at its core, Last Week Tonight could be described as a leaner, more tightly-produced version of Stewart’s Daily Show (where Oliver himself worked as a correspondent), it has bucked many of the conventions of the genre, where significant (and sometimes mundane) social issues receive the spotlight for upwards of 20 minutes, where painstakingly-researched facts and figures are presented alongside commentary and John Oliver’s customary acerbic wit.

At least some of the show’s monumental success has come from Oliver’s embracing of social media, including regularly-trending hashtags broadcast each week:

And enlisting the aid of internet trolls to fight changes in net neutrality legislation:

The show’s production company have also shown a keen understanding of meme culture. In 2014, video footage was released by the show, where US Supreme Court justices were played by dogs, in judicial costume. To make a point about transparency, as video cameras are not allowed, Oliver encouraged viewers to publicise proceedings in the highest court in the land by editing together publicly available audio recordings with the video footage of the canine jurists.

In 2017, an episode reporting favourably on the Bolivian government’s attempts to educate people about traffic safety by deploying armies of people in zebra costumes was supported by the show, who produced video footage of a person in a zebra costume dancing in front of a green screen, encouraging viewers to remix the footage and share it online.

Perhaps the most popular episode contained his first main segment covering Donald Trump. This episode aired on the 28th of February, 2016, in the run up to Trump securing the Republican nomination in the Presidential election. To date, the video has 33.5 million views on Youtube, and offered a point-by-point rebuttal of the most commonly-held beliefs about Trump. The 23-minute segment demonstrated Trump’s casual relationship with the truth, providing evidence that he had lied about a personal attack on Jon Stewart hiding his Jewish heritage by changing his surname, and showing repeatedly that his perceived independence was misguided and that examples of his toughness were outnumbered many times over by examples of his petulance.

The segment, which culminated by playing on Trump’s attack on Jon Stewart with the revelation that Trump’s ancestors’ surname was originally Drumpf, launched the hashtag #makedonalddrumpfagain. It was the perfect mix of biting satire, fact and research, and was lauded by media outlets the following day as a “brutal takedown” of Trump.

This is where we see the unintended impact of satire: many of those millions of viewers, watching live or online, saw this logically-presented argument, listened, and agreed with it, and in doing so they dismissed the possibility of Trump ever securing the Republican nomination. It was simply too ludicrous a notion to entertain. When he did so, they assured themselves that he’d never win the election, and when he did that a great many mouths hung open in surprise. Oliver’s systematic approach to taking down Trump simply didn’t appear on the radar of Trump voters, and left liberal, HBO-subscribing voters complacent in the run up to the election.

A 2016 New Yorker article about meme-based satire of Trump referred to Oliver’s segment, saying “the clever correctness of John Oliver’s much-discussed #makedonalddrumphagain [sic] segment, in which Donald Trump’s foibles are elaborately dismantled by the exasperated comedian, seems as if it belongs to a more innocent era. […] When multiple news organizations have earnestly fact-checked the size of Donald Trump’s penis, how can satire compete?” (Chen, 2016).

Fake news

This argument suggests that satire loses its bite when politics devolves into farce, but Vogue magazine’s Olivia Marks argues the opposite is true: “there is a huge appetite for topical comedy, despite the belief that satire is redundant in an age when our politicians are cartoons come to life.” (Marks, 2017)

Not only is the appetite for satire alive and well, but people are increasingly turning to satirical shows like Last Week Tonight for much of their news consumption, and doing so more and more online. To this end, shows like Oliver’s have embraced a journalistic approach to fact-checking and research that has been praised by many. Oliver himself maintains that he is a comedian, not a journalist, and that making people laugh is higher in his list of priorities than educating or informing the public. He just doesn’t believe that the two are mutually exclusive.

The echo chamber

The notion of the echo chamber is an interesting one, but not necessarily as new as we might think – we have always chosen our sources of information and entertainment based on personal predilections. There have been left-wing and right-wing newspapers for as long as there have been newspapers. There are far more liberal stand-up comedians than conservative ones, which in turn leads to largely liberal audiences attending their shows. As comedian Katherine Ryan says, “A lot of it is preaching to the converted. […] But it’s important to keep doing it because there’s a great danger that journalism and comedy will be silenced under Trump and Putin.” (Marks, 2017)

What is worrying about the digital echo chamber – allowing algorithms to automate that process for us – is that in such polarising times as these, with the proliferation of patently false information online, we should be paying more attention to where we find our information, not less.

The purpose of satire

To finish, we reach an important question: what is the purpose of satire? Ian Hislop says:

If you’re looking for concrete results, satire doesn’t tend to produce them – you swell a concensus, you make a point, you crystallise opinion – that’s what you can do. People say, “well, why haven’t you toppled the government?” and you say “well, it’s a democracy, and you’re supposed to do that, with your vote.” What I hope to do is add to the debate.

Ian Hislop

Jon Stewart largely agrees, saying:

If its purpose was social change, we’re not picking a very effective avenue. In some respects, the real outcome of satire is typically catharsis, and whether that is positive or negative, I don’t know – and by the way, catharsis for me. As far as the audience goes, I have no idea […] but it starts with me.

Jon Stewart

With major changes in the political landscape happening on average only once every four years in modern democracies, there is a clear need for catharsis for the losers; the 65.8 million Hillary voters in the US, the 48.1% of remainers in Britain. It’s easy to convince ourselves that things have never been as bad as they are now, but as Ayesha Hazarika, writing in the Financial Times, said:

These are serious times, with the rise of extremism and racial, religious and cultural intolerance, it feels like the world is on fire. When things in politics get dark, dour and scary, there’s only one thing to do. Laugh.

Ayesha Hazarika

This was a lesson Aristophanes knew very well, as did Horace and Juvenal, Swift, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Satire may not directly change the world, but laughter is a much safer – and saner – alternative to letting despair take hold.

Sources

Aristophanes (2007). Frogs and Other Plays (D. Barrett, Trans.). London: Penguin.

BBC (2010). Frost on Satire [Television programme]. London: BBC.

Chen, A. (2016). ‘A political satirist for the internet election’ in The New Yorker [Online], Available from: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/a-political-satirist-for-the-internet-election

Dark & Grey (1923). W S Gilbert: His Life and Letters. London: Methuen.

Hazarika, A (2017). ‘In dark times, we need good satire more than ever’ in The Financial Times [Online], available from: https://www.ft.com/content/ab6f3f28-8406-11e7-94e2-c5b903247afd

John Oliver (2017). Last Week Tonight [Television programme excerpts]. Los Angeles: HBO.

Marks, O. (2017). ‘Is There Still a Place for Satire in the Age of Trump?’ in Vogue [Online], available from: http://www.vogue.co.uk/article/current-affairs-satire

Suart, R (2005). ‘When I Was a Lad’ from HMS Pinafore in concert. London: BBC Proms.

Toye, G. (Producer), Schertzinger, V. (Director). (1939). The Mikado [Motion Picture]. Pinewood Studios, UK: G and S Films.