That was the wit that was

That slurry-voiced knight of the sofa, Sir David Frost, did a programme on the trade recently (Frost on Satire, BBC4 June 17), beginning with the pioneering That Was The Week That Was (1962-1963). He wobbled somewhat on the facts: he referred to Sarah Palin as an “unknown senator” (she is unknown to have been a senator, if that’s what he meant). More importantly, he grandly claimed that, with the US version of TW3 (1964), “the seeds of satire had been sown” – rubbing out Tom Lehrer, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, whose stand-up acts in the 1950s rejuvenated and radicalised an art, satire, whose seeds were sown by the ancient Greeks.

What Frost meant was satire on television, with which his life has been bound. Television remains the great arbiter of politics, the medium through which politics must be done, forcing politicians to bow to its will and its rhythms, allowing TV presenters and satirists to complain that they have become bland – as impressionist Rory Bremner did in The Character Crunch (Archive on 4, Radio 4 Saturday).

The most energetic satire on TV is provided by Jon Stewart in his Daily Show (More 4 Monday-Friday). Stewart, a liberal who excoriated George W Bush, has now turned the power of his theatrical screen personality and his banks of gag writers on President Obama. Monday’s global edition of the show had an extended section on Obama’s confident promises of closing Guantánamo instantly and stopping rendition of prisoners – neither of which has been achieved. In another segment, he mocked Obama’s promises to end dependence on foreign oil – a promise made, as he showed, by seven previous presidents.

In the course of Frost on Satire, the host asked all of his interviewees, including Stewart, what effect they thought they had. Most denied they had much, if any – an unlikely contention. Bremner was closer to the mark when he said that success was “to tag a politician with a line”, which people would then see as his trademark. Modern satire looks to fix a public figure like a butterfly in a collection, pinned and mute in his bequeathed satirical stereotype.

In a recent book – Satiristas by Paul Provenza and Dan Dion – US satirists speak about their trade and mostly agree that they’re there for laughs. In Bob Odenkirk’s words, “ultimately all it is, is just a diversion for most people”. But more important than this false modesty is the common determination to have no faith in anything. Lee Camp says: “You’re fed things; don’t just take them for face value, doubt them.” Craig Ferguson goes one further: “Obama ... is questionable because he wanted to be president in the first place ... You’ve gotta f***ing needle away at that.” The words show how radical satire has become: not corruption, not deceit, not pomposity, but the very fact of wishing to lead the nation is cause for suspicion and hostile surveillance.

Corruption, deceit and pomposity were the meat of satire in a more corrupt age. The first episode of Rude Britannia (BBC4 June 14, 15, 16) showed us that, amid the scatological brilliance of Hogarth and the scathing satires of Pope, there arose – above all in John Gay’s popular Beggar’s Opera – a scarcely veiled attack on the political class as vicious and venal. Muted in Victorian times and in the first half of the last century, satire blossomed in the postwar period.

Rude Britannia’s last episode, on contemporary satire, pointed up the fact that contemporary TV comedy and satire were, in part, a deliberate shouldering aside of the comedians who ruled the working men’s clubs and pubs and were given a popular showcase in ITV’s The Comedians, which ran through the 1970s with not-so-popular brief revivals into the 1990s. Their jokes made fun of Irish, Scots, Pakistanis, blacks and women: the late Bernard Manning was the king, now succeeded by the much filthier Roy Chubby Brown, who rarely appears on TV. Manning, in his obituary for himself, wrote bitterly that modern comedians, whom he blamed for blacklisting him from TV, “indulge ... in right-on lines about George Bush ... massaging the consciences of their middle-class audiences”.

Working-class humour is about making absurd that which is familiar – for instance, sex, mothers-in-law, immigrants, the Royal Family. (Manning: “The Queen Mother dies. One corgi says to another, ‘Thank God for that, at least now we won’t be blamed for the smell of piss.’”) It is finding relief from the mundane, from life’s irritations, from being hard-up.

Satire is about making absurd those who rule, exploding pomposities, deceit and corruption. It depends on an audience interested in governance and disposed to be critical. It appeals more to the folk of the left than the right: the latter still cleave to traditional values – family, country, authority – while the former are more likely to agree with Lee Camp, and “don’t just take [things] at face value, doubt them” – including that ambition can be other than pathological.

For this audience, Jon Stewart has become the master. In his world, everything – even Obama, whom he has lauded – has to be doubted. The brilliance of his nightly act, its hold over the young who prefer it as a news source, the power of its nihilism, will surely change politics.

For good or ill, neither he nor we can know.

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