Ideas

A Modest Proposal About Satire

Are our current politicians becoming satire-proof? Or has satire always merely preached to the choir? In search of answers Peter Brown looks to the classic satire of Juvenal, Swift and the Arab-speaking world, as well as prominent current practitioners including Armando Iannucci, creator of "Veep" and "The Death of Stalin".
Satire and politics sometimes overlap. Here, fiction meets reality as Vice-President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) from the satirical series "Veep" gets a few pointers from real-life Vice-President Joe Biden. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson/Wikipedia)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Political comedy is everywhere on TV, but contributor Peter Brown is concerned: the laughter on late-night shows seems to be giving way to the earnest partisan cheering that comedian Seth Meyers calls "clapter". Are our current politicians becoming satire-proof? Or has satire always merely preached to the choir? In search of answers Peter looks to the classic satire of Juvenal, Swift and the Arab-speaking world, as well as prominent current practitioners including Armando Iannucci, creator of Veep and The Death of Stalin.

**This episode originally aired June 22, 2018.

Things are just so extraordinary at the moment that it's impossible to come up with a fictional version of what's happening that isn't as extraordinary as what is actually happening.- Armando Iannucci

A note from Peter Brown about this documentary 

I've always loved a sharp political joke. I fondly remember the savage satire of Spitting Image in 1980s Britain, and the brilliant observations of Tina Fey a few elections ago.

But watching late-night comedy shows recently, I've started to feel something is changing. The jokes are more bitter and the experience of watching is less satisfying. I'm seeing more "clapter", where the audience applauds the sentiment but doesn't laugh at the joke. Whenever a comic is asked: is this a great time for comedy?, they inevitably look a bit sad. In a recent interview Norm MacDonald said, "It's more difficult in the time of Trump for good comedians and it's way easier for bad comedians".

What's going on? Are today's politicians becoming impossible to exaggerate? Are our mutually exclusive information bubbles eroding the norms that make satire possible?

Those immediate questions lead me to larger issues about satire. Has it EVER done anything more than preach to the choir? Has it ever changed a single policy or opinion?

Armando Iannucci is the creator of the acclaimed satirical shows "The Thick of It" and "Veep". His most recent film is "The Death of Stalin". 1:16

When my hero Peter Cook founded the Establishment Club in London, he said he hoped it would be a satirical venue modelled on "those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War".  And the great comic songwriter Tom Lehrer went even further (if that's possible), saying he "always regarded myself as not even preaching to the converted; I was titillating the converted."

So is something being lost? Or am I wrong to think that satire EVER had any influence?

That's a lot of questions. With the help of professors Chris Mackay and Terry Matheson, I looked for answers in some of the high-water marks of satire, from Juvenal and Horace to Jonathan Swift.  Alexander Key introduced me to the astonishing Arabic-language satire that flourished from 800 to 1800, which changed the frame of reference entirely.

And finally, I took my questions to two practising satirists. The first was Mary Walsh, whose credits I don't need to post here. THAT Mary Walsh. The second was Armando Iannucci, the brilliant creator of Veep, The Thick of It and The Death Of Stalin. That interview, which forms a big chunk of this documentary's second half, was a pure pleasure — one of the great comic minds of our time applying his experience, his insights and his humour to the challenges facing today's comics, and to the nature of satire itself.  – Peter Brown

Peter Brown  may be the only person in Canada to make multiple appearances on both IDEAS and The Debaters. He hosted CBC Edmonton's afternoon show Radio Active and produced The Irrelevant Show among many other projects.


Guests in this episode:

  • Alexander Key is an Assistant Professor of Arabic and comparative Literature at Stanford University. His field of interest is the Arabic language millennium, from 800 - 1800.
  • Christopher Mackay is a full professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
  • Terry Matheson, now Professor Emeritus, was for many years a popular professor of English Literature at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
  • Armando Iannucci is an award winning Scottish writer/director, who created the Alan Partridge TV series with Steve Coogan as well as the acclaimed satirical shows The Thick of It and Veep. His most recent film is The Death of Stalin.
  • Mary Walsh was a founding member of popular Canadian TV shows Codco and This Hour has 22 Minutes. She's recently published her first novel, Crying for the Moon.


Further reading:



**This episode was produced by Peter Brown and Dave Redel.

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