Hands up who thinks satire is supposed to be funny?
Anyone? You at the back? Yes? Yes.
Okay, you’ll just have to imagine the sirens and flashing lights from QI, as they don’t really work in text-only format.
Sure, it can be funny, and it helps when some of it is funny – but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it tends to be at its most emphatically powerful when it isn’t funny. But these unfunny bits need to be put in context, otherwise satire would be as dry as a news report and it wouldn’t have a niche. Laugh-out-loud segments within and throughout satire are there because it puts us in the frame of mind to spot complete and utter absurdities. When we’re rolling along with it thinking this is just so fucking stupid, it puts us in a particular frame of mind. For fans of The Thick of It, you’ll know that Malcolm Tucker’s “colourful” language and insults, and Glenn Cullen’s repeated threats of mental breakdown are funny, because they are. They’re written humorously. And with satirical troupes like Bremner, Bird and Fortune, you can see the comedy oozing from every minute, with sketches and stand-up segments. It puts you in a particular mindset, one conducive to laughing your arse off at everything.
But then something happens. Something doesn’t make you laugh. They’ve just said something that isn’t funny. Normally, you’ll accept that sort of thing and brush it off, but you were expecting a punchline. Your brain was prepped and ready to hear a joke. The joke never came, but because of that pre-conditioning (where you’ve expected a joke) you see it differently. It’s no longer ignored, you think about it differently. Was I supposed to find that funny? But it isn’t funny? But it is… because it’s satire. But it isn’t, because they didn’t make it funny. But it must be funny, because it is absurd… right? I mean, it’s totally bonkers… but isn’t funny.
That confusion is the point.
Take an old Bremner, Bird and Fortune sketch from a while back. Spoofing the format of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, they asked “How much would the Northern Rock bailout cost the UK?” A) £100,000 B) £1,000,000 C) £100,000,000 or D) £1,000,000,000? It’s an easy set up to play with. After fooling around with a few jokes for a couple of minutes, the contestant finally gives in and says “I don’t know, it could be anything…”
“That’s the right answer! It could be anything.”
Cut to ad break.
It’s not funny. Because a government gambling on a private-sector bailout to the tune of an unknown sum of money isn’t funny. But it is absurd. Frequently, we need reminded that it’s absurd, that it’s stupid and that it really shouldn’t be happening. Some of this stuff you can’t convert to a joke, and most of it wouldn’t resonate for a moment in a dull and dry news report. We’d just take it, and ignore it. Satire takes these dry absurdities and, because it surrounds it in the context of laughter, makes us sit up and take note.
So when the cast of The Thick of It are hauled in front of an inquiry, you have four series of absurd situations, jokes, foul language and character development informing you and making you look at it in a different light. What the characters are like, what they have to hide and what they can reveal is all known to you in advance. You look at the interviews and the entire concept of an inquiry into a government scandal differently – because you spot the difference between this “public” image and can compare it to all the “private” behind-the-scenes stuff you’ve experienced before. And you can see that it’s absurd. This isn’t something standalone drama can do, this isn’t something the news can do. But it is something satire can do.
If you think satire is supposed to be funny, can only be funny, and must all be poop and fart jokes and sitting on pork pies to appeal to the lowest common denominator for making everyone laugh, then you’re setting yourself up to miss the most important lessons you can learn from it.
So, a couple of years ago or so, The Onion made this. If your first thought is to lament that it isn’t funny, or if you think it’s a subject that shouldn’t be joked about, then you have simply missed the fucking point.