Law & Politics

Satire saturation

I like to think of myself as having a good sense of humour. I am certainly not woke. I am alarmed at cancellation culture. And I fail at being a true believer. 

Moreover, I come from a minority community that relishes making fun of itself, and even accepts – albeit with acute sensitivity to its misuse – humour from outside the community about itself. 

And, of course, I recognise that humour thrives on sending up holy cows and is an important tool of social critique. Think Tom Lehrer, a pioneering social satirist of the 1950s (and still going),  or my favourite current comedian, the inimitable Larry David.

I also believe that shows like Wogs Out of Work that, back in the 1990s, unapologetically drew on ethnic stereotypes to affectionately enjoy them while gently challenging our prejudices, made a hugely positive contribution to Australia’s acceptance of its ethnic diversity. They were testimony to some of the best features of the Australian character.

So why is it that, while recently re-watching a skit from the undoubtedly funny and well-meaning Sammy J, I suddenly realised that I was pretty well over political satire – and, therefore, most Australian comedy? (It’s nothing personal, Sammy. Nor do I enjoy the similarly talented Shaun Micallef, Hannah Gadsby or others of their ilk.)

My speculation takes me to a number of likely reasons, aside from the possibility that I have become a boring old fart – which, of course, I completely reject!  

Perhaps the most immediate cause of my disenchantment is simply over-exposure. Social media, and the capacity and licence it gives anyone to play at being a clever satirist, has led to a saturation of satire previously unimaginable. Platforms for humour were once limited to newspaper cartoonists and to comedians on the four TV channels that went to bed at the same time as their viewers and that were constrained by a combination of prudishness and politeness.

It also seems to me that today’s political humour too often lacks charity or affection, and instead has become reliant on unalloyed scorn and viciousness.

Political satire need not be nasty. Was there ever a more affectionate but telling cartoon than Nicholson’s unforgettable ‘Did the earth move for you?’ cartoon while Gough and Margaret Whitlam were staying in a hotel in China during an earthquake?

Contemporary political satire also occurs during a time of high polarisation, attribution of bad faith to opponents, and a belief that it is the non-negotiable reality of self-defined identity rather than contestable policy debate that is at stake.

In this climate, nuance and civilised teasing, even including the playful use of stereotypes, let alone more brutal humour, has little place. We now live in a victimhood culture that engenders a double standard in which offence is taken too readily by or on behalf of the allegedly victimised or powerless, while the offended are unconstrained in the way they can mock those whom they believe offend them.

Perhaps, too, the fact that there seems to be so much at stake in the challenges confronting today’s world takes the edge off my ability to enjoy irreverence. For how long can we find humour in the dread consequences of global warming, nuclear Armageddon and pandemics? And if the stakes are so high, can we afford to further fuel our lack of confidence in our political processes by caricaturing politicians in a way that assumes their incompetence and bad faith?

Maybe I – and the world – need to lighten up and be grateful to humour for helping us do so. However inadequate satire may be in enhancing the conversation that will assist us in meeting our challenges, surely living in a humourless world would be worse. 

But, when I reflect on who makes me really laugh, I think of comedians such as the late Victor Borge. Even though Victor endured the Holocaust and wrote very solemnly about his experiences, he and his piano required no targets. His comedy was not at anyone’s expense. It was not cynical and did not need his audience to sign up to a particular worldview. Like many others who came before him – such as the Marx Brothers, and Abbott and Costello – he was, in a word, funny. All he did was actually make you laugh!

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Photo by Michel Grolet on Unsplash.


About Michael Liffman

Dr Michael Liffman AM was the Founding Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy, Swinburne University. He was also Chief Executive Officer of Myer Foundation.

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