Something I’ve been trying to understand for probably close to 30 years is the subtle difference between satire and political comedy. I think it took me ten years to even understand there might be a difference between the two, it’s taken me another ten to work out if it’s important.
I grew up on a diet of TV comedy that included Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son, ‘Til Death Us Do Part, Morcambe and Wise, Monty Python and the Young Ones. I always grouped all these things together, funny stuff on the telly.
It was only when I started to get more involved, to meet more people who’s job it was to make people laugh, either on or off the telly that I started to see, maybe more to feel that there were differences.
Initially I sub divided it into people who just wanted to make an audience laugh, it didn’t matter how, just get the laugh, and people who wanted to communicate some challenging or disruptive idea and found that using comedy was more effective.
My generation naturally shied away from racism, sexism and homophobia, for younger people it’s hard to imagine that a lot of popular comics from the 60’s and 70’s did racist jokes, ‘pouf’ jokes, incredibly sexist jokes on prime time TV and it was all considered normal and acceptable. But that was only part of the battle.
I could find most forms of comedy amusing, except rabidly sexist/racist/homophobic stuff. I’ve laughed at cheap naff gags, one liners, absurdities and quirky world views. I’ve also laughed at hard-hitting angry, political comedy that hammers away relentlessly at the status quo.
But then I started to see that there was another strand, one that I would often confuse with hard hitting political comedy. It was satire.
I laughed at satire, it was always so knowing, so well constructed, so very clever. Monty Python used satire, as did Yes Minister and later, Yes Prime Minister.
Brilliantly clever and well written, they poked fun at the establishment but from a position of knowledge and first hand experience, almost from within the establishment.
More recently we’ve had the coruscating satire, The Thick of It of which I am a massive fan. But thinking about the slight feeling of discomfort I have after I watch it, I came to a fumbling confusion.
Satire is produced by people who exist within the establishment, political comedy is produced from people who exists outside it.
This is I admit a very wobbly theory, it’s full of holes, there will be multiple examples which will shoot it down in tragic flames but bare with me.
Well known people who I would describe as being within the establishment include the likes of The Monty Python team, Mel Smith and Gryff Rhys Jones, Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis, Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller and Armando Iannucci.
Successful people from the hard hitting, political comedy tradition would include people like Mark Thomas, Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and in America Bill Maher.
The one clear thing which separates these people is their education. Everyone in the first list attended Oxford or Cambridge university, no one in the second group did.
But then I remember Rob Newman, I saw him on stage a couple of years ago, some of the most brilliant and insightful, hard hitting, no compromise, brilliantly well informed political comedy I’ve ever seen, and… he want to Cambridge. Damn.
Anyway, moving on. I am not saying satire is not as good as political comedy, I can enjoy both or criticize both, but it is different. Satire, at its best, pokes accurate fun at the establishment but doesn’t ever insinuate that the establishment might need changing. It will tell us that pompous politicians are flawed and possibly corrupt, but doesn’t question or even challenge the structure of our society or class system. It is part of the establishment by definition. The establishment adore satire, politicians adore satire, it’s a safe safety valve, it allows people to be cynical and knowing, but within safe parameters. Mrs Thatcher loved watching ‘Yes Minister’ because it in some ways glamorised her world, the more accurate cutting and cynical, the better. Mrs Thatcher would not have enjoyed watching the young Mark Thomas or even, dare I say it, the group I was in, The Joeys.
So, here's an idea, again, waiting like a pathetic dove flitting between flaming arrows fired from people far more erudite than myself, staire is small C conservative, and political comedy is small p progressive.
Whatever, if you get the chance to broaden your intake of comedy, when you’ve seen all the clever satire on the telly, the wicked, critical, scathing commentary about our current administration, go and see Mark Thomas or Rob Newman, on stage, live. I don’t think you’ll regret it.