Is satire dead? Armando Iannucci and others on why there are so few laughs these days

Its hard to poke fun at politicians in an era when theyre held in contempt and every joke is policed for offence, say top television writers

It has become a commonplace to remark on the hyper-sensitivity of the culture; a person saying a vile thing can never be debated, but only no-platformed. A person who once debated another person who went on to say a vile thing thereby shared a platform. Often its hard to establish what was vile about the thing, because if you ask, you are giving it a platform. So once an issue has platform status, the platform acquires final authority and all you can talk about is the platform. Taken as a free-speech issue, it is quite two-dimensional (your right to say what you like versus my right not to be offended), and therefore boring.

Yet the steady build-up of unsayables has had an effect on humour that you only notice when the jokes are gone.

There used to be a place called satire where you could go when politics got really bad. Say you woke up in 1991 and John Major was still prime minister, there was Spitting Image. Or it was 1994, and you had a headachey, breathless, high-altitude feeling that the government of pompous sociopaths would never end: there was The Day Today. Or it was 2005, in a post-Iraq and post-hope landscape of rule by press release, endless meaningless gestures to assuage the forces of moral outrage that only became bolder: and there was The Thick of It. None of these shows was reactive in the classic sense: they were nothing like the USs Daily Show.

Its not that we never try to do headline-humour (10 OClock Live, The 11 OClock Show, Tonightly). And its not that we always fail Have I Got News for You worked, and continues to work on and off, a bit mysteriously, like a Magimix you bought at university that lasts 20 years longer than all your other small electricals. But our defining satirical tradition has always been rather different: tangential, playful, surreal, creating amplified hyper-realities that excel politics rather than reflect it.

The Thick of It: a world where people are monstrously human, complicated, foul and furious. Photograph: Mike Hogan/BBC

You didnt watch Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It in order to think about Alastair Campbell. You watched him to live in a world where you werent alienated by polish and spin, where people were monstrously human, complicated, foul and furious in a way you understood. You watched him, ultimately, to forget Alastair Campbell.

Re-watching The Day Today now, its surrealism belongs to another age. In episode five, thieves dressed as cleaners steal the British pound. The men escaped, making good with their legs on open ground, Chris Morriss newsreader intoned. (Jesse Armstrong, who co-created Peep Show and co-wrote The Thick of It, noted: The Day Today was at least as interested in satirising form as content. At the time, it felt like traditional news might never recover from how ridiculous Morris made its conventions look.) The anchor continued that the Bank of England had issued an emergency currency based on the Queens eggs, several thousand of which were removed from her ovaries in 1953 and held in reserve.

There is a lot of trust in the surreal Morris, Armando Iannucci et al trusted the audience to get that jokes, like mercury, told you something you couldnt guess but slipped through your fingers if you tried to catch them. We trusted them to bring insight with their obliqueness, without which surreal is just another word for random. The reward of that mutuality was a sense of belonging much more profound than the gooey crowd-think of a Bake Off final.

Chris Morris: ridiculed news in The Day Today. Photograph: Peter Kramer/AP

If you told Morriss joke today, there would be a pearl-clutching, royalist faction (lets term it, for brevity, the Daily Mail) outraged that jokes were being made (with taxpayers money/where children might see delete according to the channel) about the Queens gynaecological apparatus. Followed swiftly by: And arent you lefties supposed to be feminists? How would you feel if someone made a joke about your eggs? From the other side, a feminist outcry, how can the Queens eggs function as a joke in this context without the presupposition that shame is indivisible from the condition of being female? You would find yourself having to defend it; and justifying a joke, like pleading your own character, is to have lost before you begin.

Two personnel notes. First, there are no women in this piece; political satire is a very male world. Second, as Armstrong said bluntly: Talking about satire feels like death. If I heard somebody go, Now Im going to write some satire, and I had to think what that person looked like, Id think, That person looks like a wanker.

There is a magic circle-like code: that the truest of the satirists would never speak of it. More than once, someone said: I bet Chris Morris would never go near a conversation like this. And it was true, he wouldnt.

Ian Martin, originally hired as a swearing consultant by Iannucci for The Thick of It, went on to become one of the main writers. I still remember one from a few years back, he says. One of the characters had demanded of another character that they behave like a Hutu, in graphic and unpleasant detail. It was massively inappropriate and precisely the sort of awful thing that character would say.

Nevertheless, I was challenged to explain why I thought genocide was funny. And thats the tone now, isnt it? Creepy 1984 vibe. Bumptious, puffed-up little dickheads demanding so-and-so is sacked by the BBC. Everyone patrols the boundaries of their own jokes and opinions now. But if they do go over the line, theres a great mass of outrage starlings ready to swoop down and Hitchcock them.

Iannucci agrees that something has changed. Ive found this very worrying, the idea that if anyone says anything that might offend anyone, they mustnt be given a platform. Its like when a complaint is made about a satire show, the reply goes out immediately: The intention was never to offend. The intention was to offend. If it hadnt offended, it wouldnt be funny. If we have beliefs, religious or political, and theyre not strong enough to stand up to a joke, then they cant be that good.

Yet this new respect for offence-taking doesnt touch the people who are actually offensive. Iannuccis example is: Donald Trumps campaign manager said this morning, This thing about locking Hillary up in prison, that was just a quip. Trump saying if I were in charge, youd be in jail, doesnt sound like a joke. Theres nothing to signify that its a joke. Theres no set up and no punchline. If its a bold statement that then takes 24 hours to clarify that its a joke he has reached a beautiful crescendo, like a Gettysburg Address to the honour of the joke Thats not a joke!

Iannucci believes that in this polarisation excessive sensitivity quelling humour on one side, radical insensitivity masquerading as humour on the other comedy has come to replicate the new extremes of politics. Weve lost the third way, he concludes.

Better times to be a satirist: Spitting Image had plenty of targets in the 1980s. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

Everyone, from John OFarrell, writer of Spitting Image, onwards, has what Armstrong calls a wistful respect for the endeavour of being in politics. I think politics should be held in higher esteem, OFarrell says, and not just because, without it, satire has sort of died, really. Theres no pedestal to pull them off. The public hold them in such contempt. Armstrong generally resists grand theories about the state of satire, preferring the happenstance explanation that you get little bubbles of great talent Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the Pythons, Iannucci and Morris but you dont get them all the time, any more than you get great pop songs all the time. Some decades dont have a Beatles. But if I thought there was any dip in satirical output, I might put it down to the fact that, usually, satirists are there to prick the pomposity of the establishment. Thats an over-beaten piata. Everyones kicking the shit out of the establishment. Being puckish about the trains not running on time, or cold tea, theres some fucker sitting there going: You know why the teas cold? Because of Europe.

OFarrell sees nothing new in the offence-taking: The 80s was another time of extreme leftier-than-thou, people trying to catch each other out and trip each other up, outmanoeuvre each other for political purity. Its related to a lack of confidence. In other words, its because we keep losing. But I keep wondering whether its that way round, or whether we keep losing because we have lost our confidence.

Contempt for mainstream politics is possibly a global, certainly OECD constant nowadays, and makes the work of challenging the establishment difficult everywhere. But although perhaps I am suffering a surfeit of national pride I think there is something about politics at its extremes that neuters British satire in a specific way. The Americans lampoon their politicians with direct mimicry Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and it works, its funny. Baldwin riled Trump enough that the latter responded, calling Saturday Night Live boring and unfunny (though his narcissists rage admits no dignity, so his taking to Twitter is not as unusual as it would be from any other politician). Whereas, here, anything so direct falls flat: If we did a joke, now, about Theresa May the individual, OFarrell says, that she hadnt told the truth or whatever, people would just say, We knew that. If we did those sketches from the 80s Margaret Thatcher is bossy it just wouldnt work.

Tracking to further extremes, it is really hard to mock Nigel Farage: he is already a caricature of a little England neo-fascist, defending Trumps pussy-grabbing one day, attacking Goldman Sachs without quite saying the words Jewish conspiracy the next. He is a mockery already, and he isnt laughing.

When Nigel met Donald: beyond satire. Photograph: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Martins analysis is easily the most depressing. Its the great hate shift of early 21st-century civilisation. Righteous anger has tipped over online into righteous hatred and its poisoned everything. Maybe thats OK, you know? Victimhood is a legitimate response to targeted abuse. And the internets full of wankers. And civil society is struggling to redefine itself, and all the guy ropes have snapped and its a howling gale, and maybe if the price for some sort of sanity is PC humour, then so be it. But underneath, everyone hopes that its out there, we just have to look in the right place. Satire is a young persons game, which means a digital platform, which means it probably wont be in a Soho cabaret or on BBC2.

Were due a satire boom, OFarrell says optimistically. Weve got a rightwing government doing these appalling things; its time for satirists to gather under the flag. Go on, then. Oh, Im too old now. I leave that to the younger satirists.

But what if satire isnt firing? How much does that matter? When it is at its height, does it pack any political punch? As Peter Cook said when he opened The Establishment in Soho, he was modelling it on those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second world war. OFarrell concludes mournfully but also quite jauntily, with that dualism made possible by being funny to your bones: The thing Ive learned over the 30 years of doing it is that satire doesnt work. It has the opposite effect. Our outrage turns into elation and a joke. Its a release valve. I could never bear Christine and Neil Hamilton, but then you look at them, and they are funny, and youre going, Neil hes a ledge.

George Orwell said that every joke is a tiny revolution, which I like as a soundbite. But I think every joke is instead of a tiny revolution. He pauses for a minute, to consider whether any of the Spitting Image sketches had had any destabilising effect on Thatchers government. All he can remember was one Tory MP who had changed his mind to vote in Thatchers favour, after her Spitting Image puppet looked so sad.

Armstrong says Orwell was also wrong in thinking we couldnt have fascism here, because people would laugh at the goose-stepping. I dont even think thats true. Some people would have been sniggering behind their hands, but a couple of labour camps would solve that problem. It has no objective truth. Comedy is not good for anything, really. Apart from being one of the only things that makes life worth living.

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