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Satire or Political Comedy

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.



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Reader Comments (6)

Don't forget Rick Mayall's brilliant Alan B'stard in The new Statesman and Harry Enfield's Tory Boy. Satire or political comedy I'm not sure but definitely funny stuff on the telly®. They both went to posh schools but not Oxford or Cambridge. Those characters were probably Thatcher's only good legacy to us!

November 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGerard

Hullo from Australia,

I was planning to have a writing Sunday Mr Llewellyn but you've gone and got my brain started down another path. Fiend!

How about this for an idea, it's only a slight modification of yours: Satire mocks what is established whereas political comedy actually incorporates an argument for or against change?

It'd be intersting to see if there's a cultural difference between the UK and Australia in this regard.

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDarcy Moran

I think I'd have to disagree with your next to last paragraph.

Just for the sake of argument.

Political comedy is, by it's nature, appreciated by people with similar views to the performer. For that reason it serves to reinforce existing tendencies and opinions. The overall result of which is to create a 'community' which is separate and clearly defined.

I would argue that satire is something which is more inclusive. It may not have the 'bite' of political humour but in appealing to a broader range of people it has a far greater opportunity for influencing people and getting a message across.

What's the point of political comedy if it has a message but fails to get it over to people with a different political outlook?

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTomble

Great blog. I must say I too love all types of comedy, to laugh is one of the best stress relievers. Mark Thomas is very funny and the best American Political comic was the late great Bill Hicks I think. But maybe Bill was a satirest and I have no idea what I am talking about. Will not be the fist time for that (smiles and backs away).

December 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSabre Slychimp

While I agree that the best political comedy of he last 20 years has come from Armando Iannucci, Bill Hicks, Stewart Lee et al, you have missed a vital name in the recent history of satire - Chris Morris. His work has been peerless since his GLR, Radio 1 and BBC days, and he took modern satire to possibly ultimate conclusion with Brass Eye on C4.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIan M

Three years later, a thought occurs to me somewhere between wine and martini; I'm not sure why or how it happens but it takes this form: political comedy is a not necessarily a condemnation or an affirmation of the status quo or, indeed, anything else. One can use political comedy to reinforce one's own ideas or to critique or ridicule those of others. Satire, on the other hand, is always critical but it isn't necessarily comedic; in Animal Farm Orwell satirises the Russian revolution and subsequent Stalinisation of the country but I wouldn't call the story comedic in intent.

I think that what you've hit upon is two different types of comedic satire, the former 'establishment satire' is produced by the insider and seeks to inform the outsider of what might really be going on in the corridors of power while the latter 'anti-establishment' satire is the product of outsiders who want to replace the existing power structure with one based on their own values.

I should probably have waited until tomorrow to post this, but one never knows what depth of forgetfulness sobriety might bring.

Cheers Mr Llewellyn,


July 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDarcy Moran

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