With SBS Comedy winding up, I find myself in the perhaps unique position of being involved in two state-funded satirical projects that have come to an end in the last 5 years. Perhaps I’m part of some sort of terribly specific curse.
The first was The Roast, on ABC2: an ensemble-driven dose of satirical chaos disguised as a news show. It’s funny to think that, back then, we were still thinking of content in terms of entire episodes, with our favourite eps being those where a joke or corruption of the show was seeded in the first minute that would then escalate through the entire show. There were callbacks, recurring characters, parallel universes. You couldn’t serve up one part of the episode without having seen the rest to make sense of it.
We didn’t properly latch on to the idea of the episodes being made up of individual pieces of “shareable” content until about a year before the show met its end. In fact, we put up a few well-worded, long-form rants early on, and the feedback from on high was often “But it’s just someone talking for 3 minutes”, despite there being signs online that these were doing better than other, more off-the-wall segments. This before “ultimate takedowns” became a staple of our Facebook feeds.
Four years later, and it seems the brief for the majority of satirical content is that it has to be shareable, nail something, and travel far online. The problem here is that this can drive satire into the pathology of imagining the shares you’ll get, and working backwards from there. Unfortunately what gets shares is, more often than not, a simplistic approach to one’s rivals: arrogant ridicule, laughing at how racist someone is, pointing out someone’s stupidity. It’s simplicity, and it works, especially when appealing to people whose attitudes are now expressed largely in 140-character chunks of boiled-down, thinking devoid of nuance.
“Watch this comedian destroy racism” is far more likely to get shared than “Watch this comedian subtly explain the mechanisms by which 61 million Americans might be willing to disregard the hateful speech of a presidential candidate, and how a failure of a positive left wing narrative gave them little other choice.” I’m sorry, but 61 million Americans and roughly 15 million Brits can’t all be racists, but that’s not a popular, or even permissible, thing for a satirist to say. It certainly won’t get them shares or likes.
Too often, satire has become about satiating the online community’s desire to have their rage validated through a witty takedown or giant rant, rather than expressing a complex idea that might explain, or encourage us to examine, the systemic mechanisms that act as the petri dish for the ideas of those we disagree with. It also sees satire getting cornered into the same topics over and over again, as these get the most traction online. There’s a demand and satire is repetitively meeting it rather than branching out into more exciting territory.
“But why should satire have to do this in the first place? Why does it have to solve problems? Isn’t it just to make us laugh?” I’m no longer of the opinion that it’s ok for it to just make us laugh, or to make the daily news cycle easier to digest.
Firstly, the daily news cycle is, itself, a tool used to keep us focused on the micro, (even down to individual presidential tweets) so giving it a helping hand isn’t necessarily a noble enterprise. If the news is sewerage, then satirists can act as a beautifully-decorated sluice. In this guise, I’d be tempted to redefine satire as “funny journalism” rather than mistaking it for anything more lofty in ambition.
Secondly, there’s a pressure release in seeing someone “destroy” an issue or opponent: a sense that everything’s ok because that topic or problem has been dealt with. Yet the problem persists, possibly even with the aid of satirists, as they create a feeling of resolution where there’s been none. Surely, if comedians are intelligent enough to be able to spot the ills of the world, they must have an innate sense of wanting to curtail them as well? But too often it’s simply enough to laugh at the problem without any constructive sense of how it might be tackled.
At its worst, in that case, satirists could be accused of being disaster capitalists: benefitting in (social / online) capital from what’s poisoning society while accidentally bolstering the public’s ability to endure said poison and redirecting their energy away from any actual solution. “That’s awful, I’m going to share this… done.” Satire might just be the opiate of the Left.
As SBS Comedy and The Backburner shuffle off into the great website in the sky, this seems a good opportunity, therefore, to ask what you want from whatever satirical content you’ll be reading and sharing in its stead. Brexit and Trump revealed the dangers in hunkering down into an echo chamber, ridiculing those who have a differing opinion, assuming “being right” is enough to assure you victory. But it’s not enough. The ultimate satirical act would be to promote and increase engagement with those we’ve yet failed to reach, rather than writing off our opponents as deplorables and laughing at them as such.
And on that note, from SBS Comedy, I bid you farewell. With any luck I can attach myself to another satirical team in the near future and then get that one cancelled as well.