The Magazine

Fawlty Humour

The limits of British satire.

Sep 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 03 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A Great, Silly Grin
The British Satire Boom of the 1960s
by Humphrey Carpenter
Public Affairs, 400 pp., $27.50

THE HIT REVUE "Beyond the Fringe" opened in London in 1961. Humphrey Carpenter, then fifteen, attended the show with his father, a bishop in the Church of England. Carpenter recalls that his father "was laughing as helplessly as everyone else." And Carpenter--who describes himself as a largely obedient schoolboy, "fairly conventional in my outlook"--found himself transfixed and transformed: "My world turned upside down."

"Beyond the Fringe" was highbrow vaudeville written and performed by four Oxbridge students in their early twenties: Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore. The show, Carpenter writes, "systematically mocked everything that the British had held sacred since time immemorial." And it played a key part in sparking the 1960s' "satire boom" that Carpenter entertainingly chronicles in his new "A Great, Silly Grin."

"Beyond the Fringe" wasn't entirely original. British humor had long specialized in targeting cant and pomposity (think only of Dickens). And during the 1950s, the BBC radio's "Goon Show," featuring Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, offered a similar mix of wit, impertinence, and whimsy. But "Beyond the Fringe" was more directly political, mocking not only such hallowed institutions as the Royal Family and the Church of England but living politicians--particularly Harold Macmillan, the patrician prime minister who came to represent, for the young at least, all that was outmoded and inept about a Victorian Empire that was finally shrinking to size.

Much of "Beyond the Fringe" remains funny today. In the monologue "Take a Pew," for instance, Alan Bennett assumes the part of a fatuous cleric sermonizing dubiously on that most uplifting of Biblical verses: "My Brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a smooth man." In another, "The Heat Death of the Universe," Jonathan Miller drolly recalls purchasing pants from the Lost Property Office of London Transport--an act involving "a certain amount of fastidious conflict with my inner soul as I was not very keen to assume the trousers which some lunatic had taken off on a train going eastbound toward Whitechapel."

IN WHAT PROVED to be the show's most controversial sketch, "The Aftermyth of War," the Fringe troupe ridiculed cliched dramatizations of World War II, in which the "humble little people of Britain" endured the "gathering storm" and the "turning tides" of the conflict with unflagging pluck and endless pots of tea. At least one critic thought it "vaguely indecent for twenty-year-olds to be making fun of Battle of Britain pilots."

But in the early 1960s, indecency and irreverence were becoming common comic fare as younger performers--infants or children during the Blitz--came to the fore. Fifteen years had passed since the war ended, and for most Brits the years that followed had been drearily difficult, an interminable wait in an endless queue. By the late 1950s, however, a decade of rationing and rebuilding was finally ending and the promise of prosperity loomed. Leisure time grew and the entertainment industry expanded rapidly--helped in part by vast advances in global communication.

Thus the working-class Beatles and other pop groups--the most visible representatives of the New Britain, stylish, upbeat, and hip--turned first to American models: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly. And, no less inevitably, as Carpenter reveals, clever university lads like Miller and Cook found inspiration in the "new American humor" of, among others, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl.

Bruce and Sahl broke the mold in several ways. They were monologists, not joke tellers, and they wrote their own material. Bruce, the most influential comedian of his era, was the anti-Jack Benny, displaying an open contempt for authority and an unhidden interest in sex. Although less profane, Sahl was no less the studied outsider, ridiculing politics and politicians with bitter glee. Sahl's caricature of President Eisenhower as a golf-playing dullard almost certainly inspired the similarly dismissive impersonation of Macmillan in "Beyond the Fringe."

THE BRITISH SATIRE BOOM continued with varying degrees of success for much of the decade. In 1961, Peter Cook opened "The Establishment," a "satirical nightclub" where Bruce himself appeared in "his usual mood of tormented derision," as the influential critic Kenneth Tynan admiringly pointed out. "Private Eye," a national humor magazine, was launched in 1961. Edited by Richard Ingrams and Christopher Booker, among others, "Private Eye" (which is still being printed) offered far more bite than its more-venerable counterpart, the now-defunct "Punch."

Meanwhile, in 1962, the BBC began "That Was the Week That Was," hosted by David Frost. As described by Carpenter, the program seems mild by today's standards--part Mark Russell, part "Capitol Steps." But in the early 1960s any sort of political humor on the BBC, one of the nation's most powerful cultural institutions, was sure to stir attention--particularly since "That Was the Week That Was" dealt, however obliquely, with religion and sex, broadcasting's oldest taboos. Carpenter cites one particularly contested sketch marking the close of the Second Vatican Council. It showed the cast costumed as cardinals and singing "Arrivederci Roma." This, forty years ago, was still considered shocking--an "insult to religion" and "near blasphemy" in the words of the British press.

But the members of "Beyond the Fringe" weren't much impressed, considering "That Was the Week That Was" a vulgar, showbiz version of their own more cerebral--and rather more innocent--show. Carpenter notes that Jonathan Miller, years later, would come to characterize "Beyond the Fringe" as the largely "affectionate" display of topical cabaret in which some playful undergraduates, uninterested in stardom, simply went public with their private jokes. Initially, "Beyond the Fringe" was one of several competing student productions staged on the outskirts--or "fringe"--of the long-running Edinburgh Arts Festival.

But Frost and others, Miller complained, "rather took up the idea of its being satire, and then explicitly promoted it." Writers, entertainers, publishers "took the bit between their teeth and then raced in the direction of what they thought was a satirical goal." Satire--rather like boots for women, as one contemporary critic put it--became yet one more hyped-up 1960s craze. Certainly television producers, ever mindful of trends, ordered up ever more topical, provocative comedy programs.

"That Was the Week That Was" ran out of steam fairly quickly, in late 1963. But then came "The Frost Report" and Alan Bennett's "On the Margin" in 1966. Satirical serials bloomed on television and radio, including "Till Death Do Us Part," the British basis for the American "All in the Family," which began its long run on CBS in 1971. In both programs, a working-class bigot battles verbally with his more politically sensitive son-in-law. But satire, in its purest sense, is always intellectual and aloof--permitting no warm regard for the ridiculed victim. The American "All in the Family," at least, was at bottom a warm-hearted comedy. Archie Bunker, the mouthy bigot, eventually emerges as a likable figure who, deep down, has a heart of gold.

THERE WAS CERTAINLY no tenderness in "Monty Python's Flying Circus," which made its first appearance on the BBC in 1969 and became, without question, the most influential comedy series of its time. Two of its members, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, had written for "The Frost Report"; another, John Cleese, had contributed to "That Was the Week That Was." "Monty Python,"however, was better tuned to the darker and weirder cultural mood that began to form at the close of a decade and that was simultaneously yielding the likes of Frank Zappa, Tiny Tim, and Pink Floyd. The Pythons famously promised "something completely different"--a weekly mix of black humor, surrealism, and the theater of the absurd. By comparison, the writers behind "That Was the Week That Was" and "Private Eye" no longer looked particularly daring, but politically and aesthetically conservative--which in fact they mainly were. (The novelist Emma Tennant, Carpenter notes, once aptly described the editors of "Private Eye" as "Telegraph readers in disguise.")

But was "Monty Python" satire? Were the Pythons or any of the figures now linked to the "satire boom" really satirists--in the more traditional, literary sense of the word? One thinks, for example, of Dante's "Inferno," the most scorching piece of satire ever written. Dante assumed that his audience, small initially, shared an understanding of the world based largely on Catholic moral teaching. And his relentless depiction, in the "Inferno,"of the inversion of holiness--of pride, gluttony, avarice, lust--is balanced by the "Paradiso," which glorifies holiness, and holds forth the miracle of redemption for wretched humankind.

IN "MONTY PYTHON" (and in much of the American satire of the 1960s and beyond, from "Laugh In" to "Saturday Night Live") one finds no desire to reform or instruct--only a schoolboy's urge to shock, most infamously with jokes about cannibalism, dismemberment, and disease. Carpenter alludes to one Python sketch, nixed by the BBC, in which a prince "ignores a cancerous spot which eventually kills him; the cancer itself survives, and gets married and lives happily ever after." He also mentions the Pythons' movie "Life of Brian" (1979), in which a hapless man living at the time of Christ is mistaken for the messiah and ends up singing a music hall ditty--"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"--as he hangs with other unfortunates, crucified.

"Monty Python" was full of smart and funny bits, and "Life of Brian" is no exception. But the film's core assumption is that Christianity is a vast joke conceived and fostered by muddling dupes--a notion entirely at one with the group's bemusedly contemptuous view of human life. The Pythons were cynics, not satirists, a band of comic Hamlets pondering the empty absurdity of life beside poor Yorick's grave.

A recent profile of John Cleese, the most recognizable Python, describes him as "an unrepentant advocate of bad taste in comedy." Cleese insists that good comedy is almost always "mean"--a sentiment that the late Peter Cook, the satire boom's most influential figure, would have certainly endorsed. When their careers briefly faltered in the 1970s, Cook and Dudley Moore began performing as "Derek and Clive," and their various recordings, tissued with profanity and images of sexual mayhem, remained popular on college campuses through the 1980s. In an interview Cook once described Derek and Clive as "two ignorant berks, and their natural language is four-letter almost the entire time." The British humorist John Wells, himself a former contributor to "Private Eye," once noted that "infantilism is possibly the hallmark of our generation." He must have been thinking of Derek and Clive.

Back in the 1960s, Carpenter tells us, the prominent Tory Edward Heath was one of several political leaders who looked at the satire boom with a wary eye and wondered what would happen if satire, once the sport of artists and intellectuals, became mainstream--a mainstay of the popular media. Heath gloomily predicted that "That Was the Week That Was" and similar programs would play their own part in breeding a wide disdain for all forms of authority and a smug detachment from civic life--a "death of deference," to be precise.

But after his retirement from politics, Heath, a former prime minister, appeared as a guest on a facetious chat show hosted by the admittedly delightful "Dame Edith Everage" (the comedian Barry Humphries, dressed in drag). It was a sign of the times: Satire and its twin, irony, while no longer fresh, are certainly ubiquitous--an integral part of the daily news and entertainment flow.

Thus, in the United States, Bob Dole takes his turn on Comedy Central. Bill Clinton, a sitting president, stars in his own comic video released for the amusement of reporters. NPR airs "Wait, Wait, . . . Don't Tell Me," a radio panel show in which several of the network's reporters and news readers crack weak jokes about the week's headlines. It all reminds us anew of Peter Cook's often-quoted remark, in the 1960s, that as satire continued its spread, leading nations like Britain ran the risk of "sinking giggling into the sea."

CARPENTER notes the huge popularity, during the 1980s, of "Spitting Image," which portrayed public officials as hideous rubber puppets, including the Queen Mother, who appeared as a gun-toting gangster bearing the words "Gin" and "Tonic" as proud tattoos. He also points to BBC radio's "The News Quiz" and its television counterpart, "Have I Got News for You," which "have provided a weekly deflation of the latest absurdities--the participants in the latter sometimes being the very politicians who are being mocked."

RIDICULE is crucial to functioning democracies, and hypocrisy and arrogance must forever remain its prime targets. Carpenter knows this--as do we all. But after celebrating the "satire boom" in its earlier phases, Carpenter's book takes an understandable--and rueful--turn as it extensively quotes an array of comic writers and satirists troubled by the continuing relevance of Cook's dark remark.

Michael Frayn, for example, once a contributor to "That Was the Week That Was," concedes that 1960s satire "may have been partially responsible for the fact that there is now a tone in a lot of the press of a permanent sneer at almost everything, which is very depressing." Meanwhile, former Guardian columnist Jeremy Hardy notes that the BBC's "Newsnight" sometimes includes comedians who "do funny little skits," which is a way of "basically saying" that, "oh no, this isn't really that important--it's all just frippery, really, what goes on in politics."

Taken one by one, these 1960s satire programs--from "Beyond the Fringe" to "Monty Python's Flying Circus"--were sharp, witty, and fun. But their legacy seems somehow less appealing these days. In the long years since its British beginning, this kind of satire has grown dull, ubiquitous, and ordinary. Barry Humphries may have put it best. The marriage of satire and mass media has produced a pervasive "frivolity, cynicism, and finally a vacuousness." Everything now, Humphries suggests, is "a send-up," and "everyone is a satirist."

Moreover, there's no one left to shock. When satire itself becomes the culture, who does that leave to ridicule our pretensions and commonplaces? Who can satirize satire?

Brian Murray teaches writing and film studies at Loyola College in Baltimore.