Sean Spicer made an appearance at the Emmys on Sunday evening and an institution I hold incredibly dear to my heart almost destroyed itself. It was unexpected and extremely upsetting, but with time I think things could be alright. I am not referring to the Emmys of course, but to the tradition of satire.
Since the dawn of the Trump Era (a TARDIS-like section of time that hopefully, history will see as quite brief but which feels eternal to those in it), satire has arguably become more important than ever before. I’ve written about it a number of times for The Norwich Radical and I genuinely believe that mockery of the maniacal and mighty serves as a psychological sword and shield, at once cutting into the ego of demagogues and simultaneously protecting us from being pummelled into submission by their beliefs.
These past few years, as the Right, the Centre and, though it pains me to admit it, the Left have started to construct their own realities, satire has become more confusing as writers around the globe have all but given up trying to match the farcical nature of the world, but we still fought on under the banner of “this is not normal”.
John Oliver’s line in the sand was a shift in the battlefield. It was a reminder that we need to be vigilant and keep throwing jokes as hard and fast as we can until we knock something down. Sean Spicer was arguably the first casualty of conflict comedy. His role as the mouthpiece of the White House made him a clear and obvious target and it seems that Melissa McCarthy’s star turn on SNL really got to Trump and in all likelihood was the set up for the punchline of Spicer leaving office
Whilst some managed to enjoy Spicer’s appearance at the Emmys, a huge cast of the Hollywood elite has already aired their disdain, rightly pointing out that he is complicit in the Trump Administration’s crimes. Coming on stage and repeating his lies about Trump’s inauguration crowds riding Melissa McCarthy’s mechanised podium – who thought that would ever be a sentence? – displays only that he either knew he was lying to the press and didn’t care or that he lacks internal integrity and self-respect, so happily casts himself as a clown for the sake of fame alone.
His appearance was in poor taste and whoever thought it would be a good idea is almost certainly without a job. But more than that, it has torn down the standard of “this is not normal” and jeopardises our defence. Satire, for all its beauty, wit and intelligence, is a rather blunt and unnuanced tool. It needs to be to work. It relies on surface contradictions, cartoonish interpretation of the character and even stereotyping. It doesn’t take into account the complex human nature of its target – that’s the job of tragedy – it just magnifies the ridiculous aspects of them.
This, for me, is what makes this event so sickening, in the literal sense, not the RuPaul sense. Spicer isn’t the butt of the joke in this skit. We’re not laughing at him, we’re laughing with him. The premise of this bit is “wasn’t it funny when I said those things guys”. The key to making the routine work, which is a generous review, is that it displays Spicer to be a “good sport”. It’s a rebranding of the caricature of Spicer from ‘an angry child in his dad’s suit foolishly lying to the world to defend an idiot’, to ‘a fun guy’. It’s unforgivable. But what’s worse is that we’ve been doing this for years on both sides of the Atlantic, and we have not been paying attention.
In Britain, a strange class-based Stockholm syndrome will, for some, place preposterous time-travelling toffs on pedestals.
This event was the Superbowl of satire gone sour but there are so many ongoing instances of it. In Britain, a strange class-based Stockholm syndrome will, for some, place preposterous time-travelling toffs on pedestals. The likes of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, men who wield considerable influence and outdated beliefs about the world are allowed in on the satire of themselves. They appear on television shows like Have I Got News For You and play buffoons for the camera. It’s not much of a stretch role-wise, one must admit, but the leeway it gives them as politicians is astounding.
The enemy is in our ranks, and we invited them in. We laugh at these people and allow them to ingratiate themselves. We justify it by saying to ourselves “I know what he did was not on but I quite like him.” And worse, we give them credit for “fair play, I wouldn’t have gone on that show” and forget that whilst for regular humans, being made fun of is socially terrifying, for politicians, it’s social absolution. It bypasses apology and reform with a laugh and lets them return from exile or continue to go about as they please. In doing so, they decide what is normal.
Satire has to continue but ground has to be retaken. Satire is the tool of the weak against the strong. By its nature, it can’t be for everyone. In an unfair society, satire as a political tool should be the one thing the powerful are without. To paraphrase humourist Peter Finley Dunne, satire should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Satire is cruel, exclusionary, mean-spirited but utterly vital. It is also ours and we shouldn’t share it with those who govern with those traits.
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