Is Satire A Dying Art?


Please visit, from where I stole this image.

I just watched a David Frost documentary about television satire in Britain and America. Frost is of course an alumni of the first British satire programme, That Was The Week That Was (TW3), which ran from 1962-3 in the UK and from 1964-5 in the US. In both cases it survived for just two seasons before a nervous establishment shut it down.

I’ve always thought good satire should go for the jugular, in a moment that’s shocking, funny, and true, all at the same time. That was certainly true of TW3 and the splendidly splenetic Spitting Image, which brought a Frankensteinian element to satire. After that it seems to have lost its bite in the UK, though Saturday Night Live is still going strong in the US.  Tina Fey is Sarah Palin, and more people probably formed an opinion about her based on Fey’s interpretation than from exposure to Palin. With the later addition of The Daily Show and Bill Maher, satire is in good shape in the US.

Here I’m not so sure. For example, would this song and dance routine from the final episode of TW3 in 1963 make it onto the screens today? It’s inspired by the murder of a white civil rights worker in Mississippee.

We’d be embarrassed both by what is coyly referred to as the N-word, and the black-faced minstrels, as much as the explicit lyrics. In fact, the BBC broadcast The Black and White Minstrel Show from 1958-1978. Here’s Part 1 of the last show.

And Part 2. Go on, you know you want to click on it.

Public figures were pilloried unmercifully in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The gentleman below, in this cartoon by James Gillray, is the Prince of W(h)ales.

James Gillray's A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion (1792)

This tradition of robust satire temporarily found a home on television. Now it’s returned to its original home in political cartoons in newspapers. Steve Bell of the Guardian is the foremost exponent of going for the jugular. Rather than maunder on forever, I’ll finish this post with one of his favourite targets.

Pope Tony

Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin

A new biography of  Sarah Palin is coming out next week.  Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, by Joe McGinniss, claims that Palin used marijuana and cocaine, and had an affair with her husband’s business partner.  Whether you believe that, or not, probably has more to do with political affiliation than proven fact.  It’s enough for me that Palin is the very last person who should be entrusted with political power, purely on the grounds that she’s an ignorant bigot.  Joe McGinniss is a biographer’s biographer, getting as close to his subject as possible by moving into the house next door.  The book was panned in the New York Times.

According to this Guardian article, McGinniss teamed up with Garry Trudeau to incorporate revelations from the book into a story line in the Doonesbury cartoon strip.  If you’re interested in getting just the juicy bits, here are the cartoons, starting with the first on September 5th.

Disclaimer: Yes, I know the photo is a fake.  Palin’s head was photoshopped onto another model’s body.  But I’d argue that they got the political ambiance right.  And if the allegations are correct, then they got the hypocrisy factor right as well.