The Magazine

Fawlty Humour

The limits of British satire.

Sep 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 03 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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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.