by Tom George Hammond
The machinery of satire is broken. The machinery of satire never existed. Satire is naively cast as a mirror to our reality. It is more comparable to a light pallet-cleanser, a small portion of catharsis severed between helpings of gloom and faeces. Satire is struggling to be funnier than reality. Satire has been conquered by bad actors and has been hollowed out. Satire is a Trojan Horse for the establishment. Current satire is bad.
All new atrocities are being broadcast on a niche streaming service; a Vampiric Dominic Cummings tries to eat the Prime Minister’s baby, a prolapsed anus sends tweets, Greta Thunberg reads the weather. In the hall of images in the new Spitting Image, laughter is as elusive as flesh. The word “Covfefe” – carved into the satirist’s head by the cheerful fascist’s knife more three years ago – marks the first joke of the show’s premiere. I scrawled three questions when watching that episode: (1) Who still laughs at “Covfefe”? (2) Who still laughs at Cummings? (3) Who will watch this vulgar nightmare?
I have attempted to answer these three questions below, to lend this article what Stewart Lee calls “the illusion of structure”.
Who still laughs at “Covfefe”?
A lie of this political era is that the turmoil is good for satire. It is good for the satirist, but it is not good for satire. Satire, or rather, the satirist is/are everywhere. They are monologuing, impersonating, ranting, backslapping, selling books, picking your children up from school. Stephen Colbert – who begins every Late Show with a sideways glance at his Cheeto in Chief – begun to win the U.S. talk show ratings war around Trump’s inauguration. Saturday Night Live received a heady ratings bump, from the election through to the silly orange chap’s first year in office. In the U.K., where satire has to vaguely resemble a parlour game, we saw the birth of The Mash Report and Newzoids, and the formal recognition of Matt Forde as a comedian. It was not just the suited, slick haired television satirist, once buried under the set of 10 O’Clock Live… there is the broadsheet satirist, smirking in their by-line, or the Fringe comedian satirist, dressed in a burning EU flag, or the Twitter satirist, the first responders of the satire force, with piping hot lines about Barnard castle journeys that will be altered and repeated until the next news cycle, like a game of Chinese Whispers where everyone has a megaphone.
Britain’s Prime Minister is principally a satirist. This is evident in Spitting Image, where his puppet is a sozzled floppy fellow who just wants to party, a joke originally written by Boris himself. Michael Gove is a satirist, too. He once hosted a topical Channel 4 programme called A Stab in the Dark, with David Baddiel. He will do or say anything. When he stormed the Channel 4 building in 2019, demanding to partake in the Prime Ministerial debate, he knew he would not be let in. He was doing a jovial stunt for the camera, biting into the rotting apple of the culture war, for a laugh, like how he once rifled through celebrities’ bins, for a TV show, for a laugh.
Donald Trump was a satirist. In 2015, a few months into his wacky bid to become an unhinged despot, he hosted Saturday Night Live. He went on the Tonight Show and sat opposite Jimmy Fallon, as the comedian impersonated him. He went on the Late Show too, where Stephen Colbert improvised a scene with his future nemesis as a campy, soppy Mexican President negotiating the boarder wall. Satire faced its most potent target and hid its face in its jumper like a shy, giggling child.
And now we swim amongst Trump impressions. I remember walking around Edinburgh in 2018, during the Fringe, and seeing a Trump impersonator in venue doorway heckle passers-by. It felt like Trump was being enjoyed on the level he wanted to be enjoyed; as the most famous person in the world, and the most talked about person in the world, whose reach extends to every street corner. At Improv shows, the compere would ask for celebrities or random characters, and there would always be the inevitable shout. Did the people suggesting Trump love him or hate him? The distinction is unimportant, both can laugh at a soft-focus copy of the man himself.
I thought of this when watching Spitting Image’s Trump, when puppet Melania reminds him how to spell “Covfefe”. Satirists ran like the bulls with “Covfefe”, not even stopping after Trump put out his own light-hearted tweet about it. “Covfefe” became the name of a Thoroughbred racehorse, foaled in 2016, who was later awarded with the “American Champion Female Sprint Horse of 2019”. I do not know the political allegiance of the stable owner. I cannot answer the question of; “who still laughs at Covfefe?” I am only inclined to ask, if “Covfefe” is the punchline, what is the joke?
Who still laughs at Cummings?
We are used to seeing the political figure invade a satirical sketch. In SNL lore, this is called a “sneaker-upper”, such as when the real Sarah Palin cameoed in a sketch with the fake, Tina Fey Sarah Palin. It is, as Tina Fey said in her autobiography, a “lame” way for a politician to “get in on a joke”. But SNL runs these sketches all the time, everyone from Obama, to Clinton, to Trump have stood next to their comedy doppelgänger, blunting all satirical purpose until the show resembles a cheerful establishment love-in.
In the U.K. we are more on guard for this cheap manoeuvre. When a politician goes on Have I Got News For You, they have to arm themselves against Ian Hislop’s moral indignation, and Paul Merton’s deadpan indifference. Alistair Campbell was firmly lanced by Hislop, in an uncomfortable but necessary half-hour of comic humiliation. Nigel Farage, however, is a more insidious operator. When he sat in the recording studio, he radiated a sort of cheerful savoir faire, laughing with Hislop and the rest of the panel about the scandals of his own party. When the writers sprung a game of “Fruitcake or Loony” on Nigel Farage, he played along willingly, performing a Houdini-like escape on what was supposed to be a “gotcha” moment. The segment was supposed to make Farage answer for his party, but instead made Farage look separate from the scandals and bigotry. As Chris Morris said of current satire, it’s “about whether the people you’re lancing can get off your spike”. Farage, disingenuous, toady and self-aware, saw the spike of satire and effortlessly wriggled free.
Our satirical landscape seems to have been colonized. Politicians can use the tools of satire to humanize themselves. Next to a self-aware politician, satire has nothing. Next to a self-satirising politician, satire becomes an inverted, dangerous thing. On May 25th of this year, the U.K. gathered to laugh at Downing Street’s Smeagol, as he pitifully lied about his lockdown breaches. The Twitter satirists were given some of their most fruitful material since “Covfefe”, or Prince Andrew at Pizza Express. Everyone had a joke about Barnard Castle. It was an electric moment. And then it fizzled, and Dominic Cummings remained just as powerful as he was before.
I’ve come to see that moment as the government airing their first ever satirical revue. Cummings was debuting a one note impersonation of himself, looking like a stern turtle on a casual Friday. His scripted lies were too farcical to revolt at. The whole set up; the unelected advisor in the Rose Garden, the creaky, spare Church hall table, the distant sounds of a violin; it was too surreal for serious engagement. We were encouraged to look past the individual indiscretions and look at the entire enterprise of politics as facile, rehearsed nonsense, for which we can only shrug our shoulders and laugh and disengage from.
Thus, Michael Gove – Britain’s most prolific and committed satirist – could actively laugh at his own furthering of the Barnard Castle lie in public interviews. Chris Morris, again, said that we are too “used to a kind of satire that essentially placates the court”, and SNL and HIGNFY meet that description to a certain extent. But we are witnessing the rise of another kind of satire, wherein the court is now cutting out the middleman. The Ruling Class are now quite adeptly satirising themselves, without the assistance of a club comedian or a scruffy improv troupe. And they satirise themselves to placate us.
Who will watch this vulgar nightmare?
Spitting Image is vulgar. A lot of good satire is vulgar. Who Is America? – Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2018 mockumentary series – was vulgar but being anti-establishment is an ugly business. It was not a hugely popular show, and was not particularly funny, but it felt sharp and dangerous. It did not feel like it was there to placate anyone. That is what satire ultimately is supposed to be. A satirist should, to steal a phrase from a different profession, be a rock in the establishment’s shoe.
But the new Spitting Image is vulgar in a specific way, seemingly designed as so to head of accusations of being “toothless”. A recent Guardian review called it “toothless” anyway, because jokes about arseholes and infant cannibalism can never fully disguise the nostalgic liberal hands behind the crude puppets. Spitting Image is there to shock, but it is neutered by its “politically homeless” sensibilities; “look at Boris Johnson and Greta Thunberg”, it seems to say, “aren’t you exhausted from being trapped between these extreme polls?” It refuses to see the third dimension of the political system, preferring to mock the individual than scrutinise any broader ideology at play.
Many satirists struggle with the balance between comedy and anger. Unspun with Matt Forde – (Forde is a writer and voice actor for the new Spitting Image)– has settled for jokes above bite and is as dangerous to the establishment as a pavlova. (Forde’s new book, coincidentally titled Politically Homeless, is being sold with platitudes from Tony Blair, Anthony Scaramucci and Richard Osman). In the U.S., we are used to seeing applause instead of laughs on shows like Last Week Tonight and Full Frontal. Both shows are engaging and well-written but were once designed to be a satirical mirror to the news, rather than a swearier alternative source of serious information. On SNL, we watch something even stranger, where a film star in prosthetics repeats buzzwords from the week’s news to a whooping audience.
Both Spitting Image and SNL spun their own versions of last week’s Vice-Presidential Debate. On Spiting Image, Trump becomes a fly and lands on Pence’s head. Kamala Harris is oddly lecherous towards Pence. It was a sketch from the “seeing what sticks” school of comedy, but had nothing to say about the debate itself. SNL centred the fly too but this time it was Biden, travelling via the Cronenberg film, who became the insect. Kate McKinnon played the moderator, Susan Page, and one line in the sketch stood out to me. Page asks Pence about Trump’s recovery from Covid, and Pence thanks her for the question. McKinnon’s Page responds; “Oh, I wasn’t asking out of sympathy, Mike, I was asking with a simmering rage for his incompetence and a sadistic hope that he is not well”. The real Susan Page, who resembled this sassy, salty liberal as much as Jim Carrey resembles Joe Biden, was an ineffectual moderator who heard Pence refuse to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and then asked no follow-up questions about it. But she tweeted her delight at the portrayal, and a further delight that she was being portrayed by Kate McKinnon, America’s chief satirist in action.
The machine of satire is dead. God rest its mortal soul.