As the boundaries between caricature and reality become so thoroughly blurred, we need humour more than ever
Ive always quite liked Alec Baldwin, but like many liberals I now regard him with something approaching hero-worship for his series of brilliant Donald Trump impersonations during the latest season of Saturday Night Live. The last sketch before Christmas was especially sharp. After the president-elect has been visited in Trump Tower by a bare-chested Vladimir Putin, who generously declares that he doesnt want a gift from Trump because You are the gift, Donald, Rex Tillerson (played by John Goodman) arrives, and soon huddles into a corner with Putin to discuss the carving up of Russian oilfields in return for lifted sanctions.
Trump/Baldwin listens in, bewildered, out of his depth and out of the loop. What are you guys talking about? he asks. Putin says Dont worry about it, before resuming his chat with Tillerson, getting ever more technical until Trump butts in with: And then we destroy Vanity Fair, right? Terrible publication, just terrible. Putin and Tillerson give him withering, indulgent looks toleration of this buffoon being the price they have to pay for a new, mutually beneficial relationship between Russia and Exxon.
When I viewed this clip on YouTube, two days after broadcast, it had had 5 million views and attracted more than 10,000 comments. Impressive that a piece of modern satire should hit its target so accurately the sketch really nails the vanity and ignorance that seem to drive Trump, and that will no doubt allow his cabinet free rein while reaching such a large audience. On the other hand, the audience may be large, but is it wide? Most satire preaches to the converted. Writing about Beyond the Fringe as early as 1963, Michael Frayn pointed out that the effect of the boom in political comedy that it spawned is not to undermine but to confirm the audiences prejudices, and has less in common with satire than with community hymn-singing agreeable and heartwarming as that may be. A quick glance through the comments on YouTube beneath the Baldwin sketch shows that this is still true, and reveals a tedious, predictable confirmation bias: the posts are evenly split between people praising the skit and those expressing contempt for the liberals who find it funny.
Its one of the perennial paradoxes of satire that it only gives pleasure to those who already share its point of view. (Those on the left who doubt this assertion should try sitting through An American Carol, David Zuckers abysmal 2008 lampoon of Michael Moore, featuring Kelsey Grammer and Paris Hilton among others.) George S Kaufman famously claimed that satire is what closes on Saturday night, and by and large he was right: who wants to pay good money, after all, to have their core beliefs challenged and insulted? Nonetheless, closing the door on 2016, this feels like a time when satirists are really needed to step up to the plate: not just to provide a bit of pleasure for progressives and liberals the world over, who suddenly find themselves wrong-footed by history and crave the consolation of that community hymn-singing more than ever; but also to offer some much-needed moral clarity, a rough and ready, cartoonish shortcut to the truth a way of exposing the ridiculousness of the lies that currently frame bigots and racists as straight-talkers, and unaccountable elites (such as Trumps billionaire backers, the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer) as friends of the ordinary people. In short, the present moment calls for absurdism, caricature and tomfoolery, because these are the only ways to capture our current reality.
The problem for todays satirist, though and I feel this keenly myself, as an occasional practitioner is keeping up with that reality in the first place. If your stock-in-trade is comic exaggeration, you face new challenges all the time. To give just a small example: in my novel Number 11, wanting to satirise the silliness of prize culture, a culture in which artists and others can only be ascribed worth by being put in competition with one another, I invented what I thought was the stupidest idea imaginable: the Winshaw prize, a prize for the best prize, in which the Booker, the Turner, the Pulitzer and others fight it out for supremacy every year. A few months later in Private Eye I read that an outfit called the Global Conference Network is setting up the Awards awards. With directors of awards companies as judges, their website proclaims, this is a long overdue chance to receive recognition for the best awards initiatives and ceremonies. (That long overdue is especially astounding.) Whats a satirist to do?
Its only a short step from this to realising that the corrupt, greedy Winshaw family I originally created for my novel What a Carve Up! is far outstripped by our own David Cameron, who, having reduced the country to chaos with his foolish referendum has now signed up with the Washington Speakers Bureau and is giving talks in the US on his Brexit disaster for a fee of $120,000 (98,000) an hour, while the rest of us flounder around at home trying to clear up the mess.
Wondering how satirists might deal with all this and thinking of the US situation in particular Ive been revisiting a novel that made a big impression on me as a teenager, Joseph Hellers Good As Gold. Back in 1979, its year of publication, this was seen as Hellers return to the savage irony of Catch-22. (The New York Times called it a huge and honourable risk and a nightmare of abuse and opportunism, of surreal graffiti.) Into the maelstrom of Washington power games it thrusts its amoral academic protagonist, Bruce Gold, a man who doesnt so much want to drain the swamp as trawl it for financial and sexual opportunities. Gold is a man who never starts anything, let alone finishes it. His book on the Jewish experience remains perpetually unwritten, just as his Washington career flourishes even though he never learns his job title, or why he keeps being promoted, or why everyone prefers him not to write the reports he is commissioned to write, or why his gloomy jokes are taken as brilliant policy pronouncements.
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