Dear Russell Brand; on the politics of comedy and disengagement
By Matthew Flinders
Out Paxo’ing Paxman might be one thing but it is quite another to make the leap from comedian to serious political commentator. Russell Brand claims to derive his authority to speak out on the state of democratic politics from a source beyond ‘this pre-existing paradigm’ which can only really relate to his position as an (in)famous comedian. The problem with this claim is that – as many comedians have themselves admitted – in recent years the nature of political comedy and satire has derived great pleasure and huge profits from promoting corrosive cynicism rather than healthy skepticism.
I’m writing to let you know that when people talk about you I usually feel a dull thud in my stomach and my eyes involuntarily glaze over. Your relationship with a shallow, generally brash and often abusive contribution to the cult of modern celebrity represents a lot of what is wrong with the world. Therefore, I was expecting your guest editorship of the New Statesman and your interview with Jeremy Paxman to be similarly inane and egotistical affairs. And yet – and I really hate to admit this – your arguments possessed a certain depth and intensity that left me strangely impressed. Have you really just been playing the fool for all this time?
To be honest poor Jeremy was not on good form. (I wonder if there is some reverse Samson-like spell at play that weakens his powers as he gets increasingly hirsute). However, your opening position about not deriving your authority from ‘some pre-existing paradigm’ but from an alternative source of legitimacy made me wince as I reflected on the broader contemporary role of comedians and satirists vis-à-vis political disengagement and apathy. In recent months there has been a groundswell of opinion against political comedy and satire as evidence grows of its social impact and generally negative social influence (especially over the young). ‘The whole comic-entertainment species is under-attack’ John Walsh recently argued in The Independent ‘there’s a groundswell of opinion that too many stand-ups are smug, over-paid, potty-mouthed enemies of the common people’. Janice Turner recently observed in The Times that there was ‘a tang of the school bully in the satirists barbs’ and highlighted Sandy Toksvig’s recent description of Michael Gove on the BBC’s The News Quiz as a ‘foetus in a jar’ before Toksvig added that Gove ‘had a face that makes even the most pacifist of people reach for the shovel’ [cue laughter and wild applause].
You might think this is all just good fun and that politicians deserve everything they get. But isn’t there a deeper tension at play here that makes your recent contribution somewhat at odds with the general direction of your profession? John Morreal, a leading international authority on the social impact and role of humour has written that ‘satirists have justified their trade by saying that satire corrects the shortcomings being laughed at’ but what if political comedy and satire actually contributes to and reinforces the shortcomings that are being laughed at? Mick Billig, author of Laughter and Ridicule, also questions whether political comedy and satire are always a ‘good’ thing, especially when ‘the message more readily spread is skepticism’. It is at exactly this point that comedians and writers scoff at the suggestion that anything has changed and without fail remind me of the historical contribution of writers such as Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift or caricaturists such as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. Yet such nostalgic reflections overlook the simple fact that the world has changed and so has political comedy and satire. The rise of the 24/7 media machine with ever more pressure on ratings combined with the rich pickings offered by mass market DVDs and large-scale arena tours has fuelled a transition best captured in David Denby’s notion of the change ‘from satire to snark’. The latter being snide, aggressive, personalized: ‘it seizes on any vulnerability or weakness it can find – a slip of the tongue, a sentence not quite up-to-date, a bit of flab, a flash of boob, a blotch, a wrinkle, an open fly, an open mouth, a closed mouth ‘ but all designed to reinforce the general view that politics is failing and politicians are bastards. In a recent piece in the Financial Times (a paper not known for fun and jokes) John Lloyd felt forced to ask ‘Has political satire gone too far?’
“Satirists often say that their trade is necessary to excoriate the decisions or prick the egos of the powerful: that they are necessary to the functioning of a democratic society; that by wit they can say what commentary and news and even polemic cannot… [and yet] Satire that is polemic can turn ugly and authoritarian when it has powerful media behind it.”
Just think of the changing nature of political comedy and satire in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1950 the then Chairman of the BBC, Lord Simon, blocked the broadcasting of a light comedy about a fictional Labour minister and nuclear secrets on the basis that ‘this is not the moment in world history to weaken respect for democracy by jokes of this kind’. The BBC, he claimed, had a duty ‘to do what we can to maintain and strengthen democracy and the belief in democratic values’. Fast forward through the path-breaking satire of That Was The Week That Was in the 1960s, through to the slightly sharper Not The Nine O’Clock News and Yes, Minister in the 1970s and 1980s; through to Spitting Image in the late 1980s and 1990s and the weekly politician-bashing of Have I Got News For You from the 1990s into the noughties and finally to programmes like The Thick Of It and In The Loop with their docu-entertainment style and non-stop expletives. In thinking that political comedy and satire is heading in the wrong direction, I am by no means alone. Jon Stewart, presenter of The Daily Show and arguably the leading American satirist has argued ‘if satire’s purpose was social change then we are not picking a very effective avenue’. Stewart’s Rally To Restore Sanity on the 30 October 2010 attracted around a quarter of a million people and was designed to provide a venue for members of the public to be heard above what Stewart described as the more vocal and extreme 15-20 per cent of the American population. Debates continue to rage as to whether this was a spoof event or an attempt to make a serious point about the state of the American media – ‘the country’s 24-hour politico–pundit perpetual panic ‘conflict-inator’’ – but at the very least Stewart recognized the power of political comedy and satire to frame political debate and public attitudes.
On this side of the Atlantic, concerns have been raised by Rory Bremner, Armando Ianucci, Eddie Izzard, and David Baddiel about the increasingly aggressive and destructive nature of modern humour – and this brings me back to your recent entry to the political fray. I believe in change. I want genuine alternatives. But I want to know what role political comedy and satire might play in producing this new way of organizing our society and facing the common challenges we face. How can political comedy and satire help us engage with that widespread feeling of disconnection and then channel it into a new beginning? I ask these questions because – like you – I am angry because for me politics is real. There was no Eton or Oxbridge in my life and I have an acute grasp that politics is not just some peripheral thing that I turn up to, as you put it, ‘once in a while to a church fete for’. Politics defined me and it defined you. It matters. My question is really whether satire continues to play a positive social role that helps explain just why politics matters? If, as I think, your profession is generally destructive – politically concerned with ‘joking apart’ rather than pulling together – surely this undermines your claim to an ‘alternative’ source of authority beyond the ‘pre-existing paradigm’?
One last thing, the way you stuffed Paxo was exquisite – the line about the ‘lachrymose sentimentality’ of his ‘emotional porn’ was, if anything, a little too good – and yet there was just one moment when you let your mask slip. Do you remember? Right at the beginning when Paxman jabbed you about your right to edit a political magazine? The jump between your feigned ignorance of ‘the typical criteria’ for an editorial invitation and your leap to a comparison with Boris Johnson seemed just a touch too quick, too pre-prepared: ‘he has crazy hair, quite a good sense of humor, doesn’t know much about politics’. The problem with this comparison with the King Clown of British politics is that everyone knows that Boris may be foolish but he is no fool. He is, in fact, a deceptively polished über-politician who uses buffoonery and comedy as a political self-preservation mechanism. You also seem to have pushed buffoonery and comedy to new limits but (unlike Boris) you have never actually dared to step into the political arena. I just wonder if it’s a little too easy to heckle from the sidelines, to carp at the weaknesses and failings of others, to suggest that there are simple solutions to complex problems and to enjoy power and influence within society but without ever shouldering any direct responsibility. Apologies if I am being just a tad too serious and boring about these issues!
All the best,
Professor Matthew Flinders is Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is currently working on a new project for BBC Radio 4 called (funnily enough) Joking Apart that examines the changing nature and impact of political comedy and satire and will be broadcast on 21 December 2013. Author of Defending Politics (2012), you can follow Matthew Flinders on Twitter @PoliticalSpike and read more of his blog posts on the OUPblog.