A History: Are Brits Better at Satire?

Sponsored by Almost Royal
John Oliver and John Stewart (Pic: Comedy Central)

John Oliver and John Stewart, brothers in scorn (Pic: Comedy Central)

No.

Actually, it would perhaps be more fitting if I said YES, yes they are, and then go on to claim that the Brits are better at anything that involves saying things you don’t literally mean. I could then claim that this is why they’re so good at acting, and why they’re always telling everyone that Americans simply don’t get irony. Americans are too trusting, they say, too keen to believe in heroic myths to understand the wry aside, the spoof or the put-on, especially for comic effect. Only mean-spirited criminals enjoy the fruits of dishonesty, after all.

The British, being cynical and sarcastic by nature (did you see what I said about you in the paragraph above?), do have a natural flair for satire. There’s a history of holding up a mirror to society and accentuating its least attractive qualities that goes back hundreds of years and takes in feverish talents like Hogarth, Dickens and Austen. Sometimes the satire is biting and cold, sometimes it’s warm and encouraging, but if you want someone who can say a thing that isn’t true, but also somehow IS true in a really profound way. You need look no further.

But before we start, let’s consider one point of definition: satire doesn’t have to be funny. Some of the most celebrated examples of the form—Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm—use unpleasant fantasy as a distancing tool so we can re-examine common ideas or attitudes. They may be preposterous, but they’re not funny at all. On the other hand, when Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a Simpsons-style satire on the outdated, entrenched values of small communities in the American South, he peppered his text with racially insensitive language for verisimilitude. To this day there are people who consider the book to be racist, if not in intent, then in effect, and in a way, it has to be in order to work effectively. But the satirical barbs within the story are so charmingly hidden that they’re not always easy to spot.

There are three principal forms of satire: Menippean (fantasy realms that reflect back on modern society), Horatian (skewering cultural moments of silliness using parodic humor), and Juvenalian (skewering everything, using abrasive and bleak wit).

Menippean satires

Gulliver’s Travels and Alice In Wonderland are probably the best-known examples of the form. The wilder and stranger the events depicted in these books become, the more of a critique they provide. You can also throw the works of Terry Pratchett in there, and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, because it’s an epic space journey away from an exploded Earth, but one with a lot of very familiar ideas in it. The Golgafrincham B-Ark (the middle spaceship of three evacuating a dying planet, containing only the people with useless jobs) is a perfect example, and one which would easily be filled today with modern equivalents such as social media managers, conference organizers and bloggers.

Of course, they’re all British. But how about Star Trek? That’s a fantasy scenario in which the space race is won by all of the nations on Earth, and then all extremes of human personality are projected onto alien races. Vulcans are the intellectual elite, Klingons are soldiers, and the Borg represent our fears about the dehumanizing effects of technology. Basically any science fiction that isn’t a dystopia is probably some kind of Menippean satire. And yes, that includes Doctor Who.

Horatian satires
These are the kind of thing you tend to see most of in comedy TV shows. The key here is that the humor is playful. Think of The Simpsons, which, at its best, exemplifies what society should be, while mocking what it is not. Or Family Guy, which often comes across like a Horatian satire on The Simpsons. Huckleberry Finn is Horatian as well, thanks to that ingratiating tone and warm, fuzzy feeling amid all the shocks and unpleasantness. So are any comedies with hidden messages, like Dr. Strangelove or This Is Spinal Tap, The Producers or The Office.

Then there’s the 1960s satire boom, as launched by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller‘s gimlet-eyed deflation of British pomp, Beyond The Fringe. From there we take in the magazine Private Eye, the news review (in both senses of the word) That Was The Week That Was, and the snook-cocking songs of the Kinks. If the British have a reputation as satirists, it’s because of this tradition.

The Thick of It, while sweary, is defiantly Horatian in execution because we’re laughing at people being inept and harassed, not evil (with the exception of Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker, and even he proves to have feet of clay). Worlds are not taken over; lives are not ruined. Scabrous it may be, but The Thick Of It—and its cousins Parks & Recreation, Twenty Twelve, The Modern Family and W1A—are only damning by implication: why would you let your country/company/Olympics be run by these idiots?

Juvenalian satire
This is where all the bile is hidden behind an iron mask. If there’s an element of horror at the topic being discussed, that’s a clue that it’s Juvenalian. This can be hidden behind outrage (John Stewart is a master at Juvenalian satire, and so is John Oliver. Let’s call that one-all. Oh, then there’s The Colbert Report. Two-one to the Americans), disgust (Charlie Brooker plays a mean misanthropist when looking at the news media, George Carlin and Richard Pryor were less pessimistic, but equally scathing), caricatures (all political cartoons, all political impressions, and Spitting Image too) or black humor (American Psycho, Catch-22, and the breathtaking gall of South Park).

Here’s a brief sample of Charlie Brooker in action:

Chris Morris deserves a special mention here. As the anchor for the news media satires The Day Today and Brass-Eye, he found himself a figure of genuine tabloid outrage when his 1994 Brass-Eye special on pedophiles (which was of course a satire on the news coverage of pedophiles, so all irony was lost) encouraged gullible celebrities to join a fictitious campaign called ‘Nonce-Sense’. The sight of Phil Collins in a ‘Nonce-Sense’ hat recording an infomercial in which he actually says “I’m talking nonce-sense” is a hard one to forget. Of course, The Onion tread very similar ground—albeit in a less directly provocative way—and sometimes run into very similar problems.

Then there are the coldest satires of all, the chilling depictions of the inescapable evils of mankind such as Animal Farm, 1984, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and Fight Club. Jonathan Swift got in there first, however, with his 1729 essay A Modest Proposal, in which he suggested—with the pokeriest face in the history of literature—that destitute Irish families would do well to sell their youngest children to rich English families as food.

That’s a tough peak to scale, let alone beat, so in the interest of international accord, let’s just say that the more satire is celebrated, the less potent its effect, and call this one a draw between all nations, except Australia. That place is beyond spoofing.

See more:
‘Veep’ Fans: A Guide to Armando Iannucci’s Comedy
RIP Rik Mayall: His Greatest Roles
10 British Stand-Up Comics Whom Americans Should Know
The Brit List: 10 Sharp-Tongued British Comedians

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

See more posts by Fraser McAlpine