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That joke isn’t funny anymore

What's the point of satire when comedians fail to tackle the new taboos?

Niall Crowley

Topics Culture

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For much of the twentieth century satirists ridiculed those in power and highlighted social problems such as war, poverty and inequality. In the past, tackling such issues could be a dangerous business, undertaken by only the brave and the foolish. In Weimar Germany between the wars, cabaret clubs with their satirical performances became a focal point for avant garde artists, progressive thinkers and political activists.

One such club was Schall Und Rauch (Sound & Smoke), which opened in 1919 and took its name from an earlier short-lived cabaret. Performers and audiences were attracted by the confrontational and radical style of the Berlin cabaret, so it’s not surprising that the club employed the talents of some of Germany’s leading artists, including George Grosz and John Heartfield.

Clubs like Schall Und Rauch were frequently raided or closed down by the Weimar authorities. Those who passed even the mildest social comment on stage had to deal with routine and far-reaching censorship. Moreover they faced violence, even death, at the hands of government-sponsored militia groups, the forerunners of the SS, which later closed all the radical cabaret clubs.

Though satire found a place in Europe and the USA after the War, it developed into a gentler art form and rarely caused the same kind of controversy as it had during the Weimar years. In the early 1980s, satire of a more overtly political brand enjoyed a resurgence as a new wave of writers, poets and stand-up comedians emerged to take on the politics of Reagan and Thatcher.

Since then, however, satire has failed to evolve and address new issues. Consequently it’s rarely controversial. And while there are still places in the world where lampooning politicians and state institutions can get you into serious trouble, Britain in 2006 is not one of them.

So much has changed over the last ten years in politics and society, but satire has largely failed to keep up. The level of uninterest and cynicism towards party politics and Westminster presents quite a problem for satirists in the twenty-first century. When it works, satire can damage politicians’ reputations and undermine prejudice and conservative ideas. However, when nobody believes in politicians, state institutions or old-fashioned morality, who are satirists hurting and what effect are they having?

In such conditions simply continuing to poke fun at those in power is not telling anybody anything new, it is just reinforcing cynicism. And judging by what’s on offer, it’s not even funny any more. This is the major problem for satire right now.

To mock or disrespect important public figures today barely raises official eyebrows, except if our media-savvy parliamentarians sense an opportunity. Many politicians are so desperate for any kind of public attention that they practically beg to be mocked and satirised on TV and radio. Media-friendly politicos now like to show us what regular guys they are. So David Cameron rides his bike to work, while others like to play the fool on tired old shows like Have I Got News For You.

The strange thing is that satirists and radical comedians so often delude themselves with the idea that what they are saying is controversial and hard-hitting. They seem oblivious to the fact that on politics, war, and poverty, their audience and most other people now agree with them. Few liberal-left performers can resist ‘informing’ us that Bush is a bit thick and inarticulate, Blair allegedly lied over Iraq, politics is full of spin doctors and the big bad corporations are taking over the world.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that they believe their own hype, when stand-up comics and satirical writers feature as panellists on current affairs shows like Newsnight or Question Time, and Michael Moore is showered with accolades and treated as a serious social critic across America and Europe.

But while the liberal left world of comedy and satire continue to get hot under the collar about the same old issues, they fail to grasp what’s changed over recent years, and the fact that their material no longer hits the mark.

Since the early 1990s a raft of new social and cultural taboos has developed, accelerated by election of New Labour in 1997. Under the Blair government we are living in an increasingly censorious and restrictive society. The smallest details of our behaviour, our habits and our relationships are open to official scrutiny. It was recently suggested in a policy document published by Labour-leaning think tank Demos that hairdressers should play a role in promoting government policy to the public.

A glaring example is the relationship between adults and children. Children, it seems, are permanently at risk from paedophiles, neglectful parents, smacking parents, or indulgent parents spoiling or feeding too much. Making any kind of joke or light-hearted remark relating to children is tantamount to saying you have a bomb in your bag at an airport check-in. With the notable exception of Chris Morris’ Brass Eye Paedophile Special, which caused a storm in 2001, comedians steer well clear of this issue.

Smoking, passive smoking, obesity, eating processed food or fast-food are all taboo. Only irresponsible citizens apparently, engage in this type of behaviour and New Labour and their hangers on are determined we should kick these habits. There’s a host of ministries, departments, professionals busybodies and literature to ensure that you don’t step out of line.

Then there’s the mantra of multiculturalism, and its good friends Diversity, Race and Faith. You really don’t have to be a racist to get yourself into trouble here. Say or think the ‘wrong thing’ and you’ll fall foul of some piece of legislation or policy. Worse, you might offend someone, and causing ‘offence’ is possibly one of the greatest sins of our time.

I used to run a bar in East London and made the mistake a couple years ago of awarding the fancy dress prize at a New Year’s Eve party to a guy dressed as a suicide bomber. As a long-standing supporter of the Palestinian cause I was a little put out by accusations of Arab-bashing and racism by a customer. But she claimed Arab descent as her right and was ‘offended’ so who was I to argue? On another occasion a customer demanded a copy of our policy on ‘Hate Speech’ because some bloke offended her. We dealt with the unruly customer and his alleged remarks, but my apology and explanation that we were in an East End pub and not a university student bar cut no ice.

At any other time in history, satirists would have turned their attentions to the new taboos, but today these taboos are greeted with near silence. Of course, many have criticised some of the more wacky policies relating to these issues: so the Sunday Times lampooned the Demos proposals to draw hairdressers into the political process. But these are often treated as lightweight, throwaway issues rather than real restrictions on our freedoms.

Imagine a cabaret club called Sound & Smoke today. The reason the name was originally chosen is because a noisy and often aggressive audience was seen as crucial for good cabaret. Rioting was almost obligatory for any self-respecting audience in the Weimar clubs. Smoking was part of the ambiance of the cabaret. Bertolt Brecht was a regular at Berlin clubs and wrote about an ‘epic smoke theatre’. He also appreciated a noisy audience, and described the cabaret as a place where ‘people might come casually, not hushed in awe’.

The owners of a new Sound & Smoke would certainly be branded as irresponsible for encouraging antisocial and unhealthy behaviour and they would probably be forced to change the name. If they served food then there would be no smoking. If the growing obsession with etiquette continues, there would be no noise allowed from the audience – except if the disturbance came from babies and children, because it would probably have to be ‘family friendly’ under the new changes to the licensing laws. It goes without saying that picking on the audience, starting arguments and causing ‘offence’ are out, as are raising issues of ‘faith’ and ‘race’. If that’s not enough there’s Health and Safety, Disability Access, Social Inclusion and Diversity policies to contend with.

Unlike the clubs of the Weimar Republic, at least they needn’t fear attack or censorship for lampooning state institutions or for opposing wars. They would be for more likely to get into trouble if they failed to reflect the ‘diversity’ of the community around them. A club like this, along with performers and artists who are prepared to seek out controversy, are exactly what satire needs at the moment.

The new taboos are serious issues that affect us all and won’t go away by making jokes. But if satire is to survive it needs to address these taboos. Satirists need to revive the spirit of the Weimar artists and performers. We need people to stick their heads above the parapet and not be afraid of controversy, ridicule or causing offence.

Mocking George Bush or the war on terror might get you a polite round of applause, it might even win you an Oscar, but don’t kid yourself you are being informative or radical. We’ve heard it all before.

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