At a protest to mark the inauguration of President Trump, film-maker Michael Moore volunteered an unusual rallying call. “Let’s form an army of comedy,” he cried. “Participate in the ridicule and the satire of the emperor who has no clothes. And we will bring him down.”
Unlike almost every satirised ruler ever, the new US president reacts to jokes – usually peevishly, usually on Twitter. Since he came to office, there has been an open war between the Donald and the nation’s late-night political satirists: John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert. Responding to Trump’s daily scandals, this cohort of comics arguably form a more potent opposition than journalism and the Democratic party combined.
But where can this lead? Is it realistic to expect that comedy can bring about political change? In the UK, confidence in such an outcome is at a low ebb. Charlie Brooker lamented recently that “satire and mockery have changed nothing”; Mock the Week panellist Andy Parsons told audiences at his stage show that political humour has next to no effect.
Their low morale is understandable: the UK’s most prominent TV satirical formats, Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week, are respectively 27 and 12 years old, and feel cosy. Their supposed inheritors – Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show and ITV’s The Nightly Show – tanked, though I have higher hopes for Frankie Boyle’s upcoming New World Order on the BBC. Who now expects satire to play an instrumental role in the UK election? Back in 2015, Russell Brand seemed to hold the result of the vote in his manicured hands, and look what happened there.
Brand was a latecomer to political activism (and never a satirist per se) but his bolt to prominence demonstrates comedy’s potential as a tool of political change – and its limitations. Comedians have politically useful skills (self-projection, public speaking, the common touch) and they don’t take themselves too seriously – a tradeable commodity in today’s political marketplace, as Boris Johnson will tell you. But, as argued in the recent book Russell Brand: Comedy, Celebrity, Politics by Jane Arthurs and Ben Little, Brand was undermined by the trappings of his own celebrity – his wealth, his licentiousness, and the difficulty of squaring the radical posturings of his stage act with a viable programme for political change.
But Brand’s failure isn’t conclusive. There are plenty of examples of comedy making the world a better place. Most modern histories of satire begin with the political cartoonists of the 18th and 19th centuries: Gillray and Rowlandson in the UK; Thomas Nast in the States. The latter waged a one-man cartoon war against New York’s corrupt political establishment in the 1860s, presided over by Tammany Hall supremo William “Boss” Tweed. “Stop them damn pictures!” Tweed reportedly demanded – but the pictures prevailed, and Tweed was jailed.
Fast-forward a century, to proto-standup Lenny Bruce in the States and the birth of modern British satire with Beyond the Fringe and its off-shoots. Both shattered the prevailing culture of deference to authority, and the embargo on jokes about politicians and morality. “The show was designed as a revolutionary act,” said Christopher Booker, a writer on 60s TV satire That Was the Week That Was. And it had a revolutionary effect: without it, the sixties would surely have progressed with considerably less swing.
The next wave of UK satire crested with latex puppet show Spitting Image (1984-96). What positive change can such satires realistically hope to effect? They don’t take up a coherent political position: despite what the Daily Telegraph claims, they mock left and right equally. Certainly, the creators of Spitting Image made no claims for its revolutionary potential. “I don’t think, in retrospect, that it did make a difference,” says Roger Law.
But some disagreed – Judy, the wife of Liberal party leader David Steel, claimed that the show, which depicted her husband as David Owen’s pipsqueak pocket mascot in the Liberal SDP alliance, killed his political career. In that same period, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s caricature of John Major – forever wearing his Y-fronts outside his trousers – surely contributed to the slow erosion of the then PM’s authority.
Is that the best we can hope for from satire: that it’s one force among the many that together can initiate change? Certain jokes have played that role: George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine, in the 70s US battle for free speech; the “class sketch”, featuring John Cleese and the Two Ronnies, on BBC1’s The Frost Report, in the loosening of Britain’s class structure.
Alexei Sayle was the frontman of the political “alternative comedy” of the early 1980s. “You can’t go into comedy with the intention of effecting change,” he says now. “That would be arrogant and self-defeating.” But if comedy can’t cure, he argues, it might prevent. “If a ruler is even mildly socially conscious, they may be afraid of being laughed at. So they may stop doing things in the first place that they know would open them up to mockery. Political comedy can have an effect,” he concludes, “if the ruling caste has a degree of shame.”
But when it comes to changing people’s minds, let alone how they vote, Sayle is more doubtful. “My stuff is obviously very leftwing, but I was never trying to persuade people. That wasn’t the purpose of it.” If anything, it was more of a “bonding exercise”, he says, with people who felt the same way.
Sayle’s caution is understandable: alternative comedy was born in 1981, and his hated Tories remained in power for a further 16 years. But elsewhere comedy has had a more immediate effect. Tina Fey’s impersonation of presidential running mate Sarah Palin was credited with sinking 2008 candidate John McCain’s hitherto buoyant bid for office. US comic Hannibal Buress’s 2014 joke about Bill Cosby shattered the silence around the Cosby rape allegations, creating the conditions for the senior comic’s indictment and imminent trial.
At other points, comic practitioners have acted as lightning rods – or sacrificial lambs – focusing opposition to troubling socio-political developments. Take French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, for example, and the Islamist threat in Europe. Or Jan Böhmermann, the comic sued by the German state in 2016, at Turkey’s prompting, for insulting the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Did the world change after the Böhmermann affair? No. But his threatened prosecution threw into relief the moral squalor of Europe’s compromises with Erdoğan. The last few years have seen many comics reinvent themselves as politicians, with striking success. The Icelandic act Jón Gnarr bid for the mayorship of Reykjavik as a satirical gesture on his TV show; his victory, in 2010, wasn’t part of the plan. Guatemala has a comedian president (Jimmy Morales); Italy’s Five Star Movement was founded and is led by a satirist, Beppe Grillo, and has had a seismic impact on European politics; and Eddie Izzard – when not talking about monkeys up trees – promises a tilt at London’s mayorship.
Until then, the closest the UK has to a politician-comic is Mark Thomas. Thomas’s art and his politics are mutually reinforcing: as a joker/campaigner, he’s scored countless victories, the most memorable of which led to British contractors withdrawing from the construction of Turkey’s controversial Ilisu dam project in 2002. In the States, ex-Daily Show host Jon Stewart was credited with securing the passage of the so-called Zadroga Act guaranteeing free healthcare for 9/11 first responders. Stewart came out of semi-retirement in 2015 to make a series of appearances on late-night telly, campaigning for the bill.
But are these examples of comedy “changing things” – or of off-duty comedians doing so? For clearer cut examples of the revolutionary potential of comedy, you need to look further afield. To Egypt, where Bassem Youssef was arrested by President Morsi’s regime, and hounded out of the country after the coup by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, because the jokes on his satire show Al Bernameg were too incendiary for comfort.
Or to Serbia, where Otpor!, the pro-democracy movement that saw off Slobodan Milošević, practised “laughtivism” – the use of humour to pursue political change. “We took an oil barrel, taped a picture of Milosevic to it and set it up in the middle of Belgrade’s shopping district,” their philosopher-in-chief Srđja Popović later wrote. “Next to it we placed a baseball bat. Then we went for coffee, and watched the fun unfold.” Police, confused by the gaiety that ensued, ended up arresting the barrel. The regime was made to look foolish. Otpor! grew into the most effective opposition to Milošević and – using humour and ample US funding – helped overthrow the dictator two years later.
Popović now tours the globe preaching the virtues of humour as an agent of political change. In which context: why are British satirists so beleaguered? Perhaps because they sense that their work has effected change, but that the change has been negative – that is, spreading cynicism about politics in general. That’s certainly a possible consequence of Britain’s gossipy non-partisan “satire”, where politicians are mocked indiscriminately and satirists seldom imply any moral framework of their own.
If they want to raise, or change, their game, history gives them grounds for optimism. But the old models won’t do: new political paradigms need new forms of satire. What is today’s Milosevic mugshot on a barrel? There are clues on the live circuit, where Bridget Christie and Josie Long have done innovative satirical work.
But if today’s “armies of comedy” do aspire to change the world, they should be careful what they wish for. At the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011, Seth Meyers won rave notices for his jokes at the expense of a certain real-estate mogul in the audience.
“Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican,” wisecracked Meyers. “Which is surprising, since I just assumed that he was running as a joke.” The humiliation Trump felt reportedly hardened his resolve to stand, and we know what happened next. Truly, jokes can change the world – if not always for the better.
Arrest that comedian! How satire could swing the UK election – The Guardian