This Week I Quit Late Night Satire
My youth was marked by a “golden age” of TV and satire. A lot of the best satire came from the UK. Some shows highlighted the absurdities of everyday working life, a line we can draw from the great Fawlty Towers and The Young Ones, to more recent offerings like The Office and W1A.
But, the political satire was perhaps the most memorable, a reaction against Thatcherism and the final throes of the cold war. Much of it was dark and cynical and it had a deep impact on how my generation viewed politics and media. Shows like Drop The Dead Donkey, Have I Got News For You, Spitting Image, Yes Minister, The New Statesman and the original House Of Cards were smart, witty, and relentlessly ironic explorations of the absurd and often hypocritical side of politics. Their deep vein of obsidian humour is still being mined by more recent classics like Black Mirror and The Thick Of It.
The Rise And Fall Of The Late Night Satirists
In the last decade we’ve seen a new kind of satire coming out of the US. The late night, “fake news” brand of humour popularised by Jon Stewart, then followed by Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah.
How these comedians grew worldwide audiences for a genre of satire specifically focussed on US politics says a lot about the way US policy and culture influences us all and perhaps more importantly, the level of concern and maybe even anxiety many feel about how the US exerts its influence globally.
And, in the latest presidential campaign, they provided something else; like a balm, the satirists seemed to confirm and encourage the way many of us felt about the election, especially when reading the actual news felt too outrageous and shocking to bear.
Maybe that was part of the problem. Whatever value their comedy might have had, it didn’t seem to yield the results we hoped to see. Constant vilification by the satirists did little, if anything to dent the eventual winner. It might even have helped.
A Question Of Value
So, what value is there in continuing to tune into the satirists? Right now, I don’t see any. The next few years will be ugly. Somewhere between a more intense and polarised version of the Bush Jr years and The Hunger Games (but with less impressive speeches, Trump can never match Donald Sutherland).
But, this is a problem people in the US have to choose to fix – if they want to. The rest of us will have to consider what role we want the US to play in our lives for the next few years (including US culture, products and services). Working our way through this will require some deep soul-searching, helped by some actual news reporting (from the few organisations still able to do that) and no small measure of sustained research (which will not be a quick fix).
Wit, Irony And Cynicism
Satire feels like a blunt tool right now. Good satire relies on heavy doses of wit, irony and sarcasm. Our generation of satirists have balefuls of wit, though in recent months their inability to pair it with wry insight, something so essential for irony to have any impact, was lacking. What we got instead was a relentlessly shrill and occasionally cruel confirmation of existing, shallow assumptions about candidates, policies and the electorate they hoped to woo.
And cynicism, once such a powerful tool in societies dominated by conformity, is now counterproductive. The satirists are steeped in cynicism, it has become almost impossible to articulate a meaningful, earnest moral comment, the kind we need to parse the details of what political candidates stand for or the character we hope they show under pressure. We saw this so clearly over the last year, as satirist after satirist was unable to sustain an ethical argument from one rant to the next. The cynical wink, nod and gesture carries no weight when it has been so effectively co-opted by a post-truth media complex that has been built from the ground up to spread falsehood as fact as tool for political gain.
Time To Trade-In
My feelings about satire are not unlike the emotions we experience when we buy a kitchen tool that looked so great in the ad or in store demo, but at home seems to never work properly. I want my money back or at the very least, I want the space in the cupboard, even if I then go fill it with something else.
My goal isn’t to be some kind of humourless, disengaged hermit, judging from afar. I already issued my own personal call to arms, We Need Art, last week. And I believe we will need comedy, lots of it, to get through the coming years. I’m just not sure satire is the art or entertainment I need right now.
My goal throughout the “This Week I Quit” series has been to identify things in my life that aren’t working, that don’t align with my values, that don’t have a place in my life. Given that, satire feels like something that has served whatever purpose it might have had and now needs to be left by the side of the road.
This Week I Quit is a (mostly) weekly series where I try, in a personal way, to address the habit of overcommitment. Each week I quit something, it could be an app, a habit, a possession, a word, anything that had a hold on my attention. I explain why I made the choice to quit and what it was like. Last time I Quit Being A Film Critic and you can read all the posts in this series here.