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2020 Marked the Return of Satire. But Was It A Welcome One?

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Whilst 2020 has been a nightmarish year for the vast majority, a select few have sought to capitalise on the chaos. The death of the office has left the owners of Zoom remotely tallying up their rising profits and the widespread closure of restaurants has delighted Deliveroo chiefs, who have watched their army of neon clad cyclists grow exponentially. Aside from corporate bosses, a somewhat shy and semi-retired group have mounted a comeback: the Satirists. They have sought to take advantage of a wealth of material surrounding the increasingly outlandish personas of our politicians, who seem to be constantly falling victim to self-inflicted ‘cock ups’.

Pictured: Donald Trump exits the Oval Office exuding grace and humility

Spitting Image: Any good?

As such, the time was deemed to be right for the returns of cult puppet show ‘Splitting Image’ and the famed Kazakhstani journalist, Borat Sagdiyev. Both of their previous iterations enjoyed huge popular and critical success, however, the technological development and changes in the tastes of the public has facilitated a huge shift in the comedic landscape since they last aired. This begs the question of whether they can be still impactful today in their traditional format? Perhaps there’s no room for them in today’s more progressive society.

In 1984 the original Splitting Image announced satire as an avant garde, edgy, and visceral form of television. In a departure from more reserved pieces of comedy, it punched up and had a go at the establishment in quite shocking fashion. It relentlessly mocked figures from both sides of the political aisle, as well as other celebrities from sports and pop culture. The show achieved remarkable success, reaching 15 million viewers at its peak and changing the way in which politicians were viewed by the people. However, in the context of the world of today, where the population have become somewhat desensitized to cruder forms of humour – partly thanks to a wealth of boundary pushing media such as the original Spitting Image – the show has lost its bite.

It ultimately suffers from a chronic lack of laughs. The jokes are repetitive, lacking in depth and originality and over the course of a circa 20 minute long episode fails to deliver any fresh insight into – or even relief from – the politics of today. Perhaps this is because the walking caricatures currently occupying the Cabinet and the Oval Office are too absurd to be parodied. Legendary writer Armando Ianucci has echoed this sentiment and argued that such a brand of comedy today is inherently defeatist as “any attempt to present a fictional version of today’s events would never be as crazy as the real thing”. 

Another issue is rooted in the fact the show no longer seems to punch up, a formerly integral part of the composition of satire. The writers are overwhelmingly white Oxbridge educated men, which makes this the targeting of the likes of Greta Thunberg feel rather more uncomfortable. Whilst more diversity within a writers room is to be encouraged, I see this as a comparatively minor issue. The majority of the show is spent throwing jibes at right-wing establishments and rightly so given the current climate. However, they lack ingenuity and similar gags are made in large quantities on twitter and across the media. 

If Spitting Image were to succeed today, it should’ve perhaps taken a similar route as the sequel of Borat, which similarly places a lot of emphasis on shock value. The latter adjusted it’s approach and adopted a new satirical focus, while maintaining the same deadpan humour which adorned the original to its fans. However, Borat does have the advantage in that it doesn’t fictionalize politicians, it puts their own in real life controversies centre stage. (See the infamous Rudy Giuliani Interview). Spitting Image would have still been better off refreshing and adapting to its new surroundings rather than translating its gags from the 80s onto new targets. If its jokes are unfunny and its political takes uninspired, questions are raised about its purpose. Unfortunately the show falls into the trap laid out by satirist Chris Morris in a 2019 interview who argued that comedy is pointless “unless there’s something underpinning it.” He went on to say that satire is not about being “slapped on the back by the orthodox elite”, it’s about wanting to “change something”. 

What is funny today?

Social media has broken down many of the traditional barriers that upcoming comedians and allowed many talented content producers to rise to prominence and given opportunities to those who may not have had before. These creatives are able to capitalise on some of the areas where Spitting Image falls down. They benefit from the ability to be more responsive in real time to ongoing events and more flexible in regards to the nature of their content. For example they are no longer shackled down to broadcasting regulations and don’t have to shoehorn content into a traditional 20 minute slot. The likes of Munya Chawawa and Josh Berry pump out consistent high quality material, swiftly satiating the satirical needs of many across the country. They are able to effectively provide a fresh outlook for those disgruntled with the current state of the political landscape, whilst not falling into Morris’ trap. Spitting Image and its ilk must up its game if it is to succeed.

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