Can we still use comedy as a political weapon in the age of Trump?
We’ve reached a new political age, one in which everything that once seemed ridiculous and absurd has become our daily news cycle. Comedy has always been home to political dissenters, from Charlie Chaplin to Saturday Night Live, but in the age of Trump and Brexit, can we still laugh at ourselves?
I’ve spent two years playing Trump at sold-out shows around the UK, and even in that time the landscape has changed dramatically. What was once silly and unbelievable is now all too real. In my latest book, The New Satire, I want to investigate the past, present and future of satire (much like a Satiric Christmas Carol) and help satire find itself again to say something that makes audiences take action and responsibility.
The history of satire is a story of writers and creatives taking on authority, from Charlie Chaplin and Peter Cook, to Sacha Baron Cohen and Chris Morris, satire has been outraging the public since its inception. By helping us to understand how comedians used satire as a political weapon in the past, I hope we may learn to do so again in the future.
Because this is also a story about the future: it’s about humour as protest, and using satire as a catalyst for change. And in this most ludicrous age, The New Satire asks challenging questions like:
Have we become too thin-skinned to laugh at our political ideals?
Is it too painful to see alternative views?
Is satire a preoccupation of the left, or do all political persuasions use satire?
I’ll be discussing satirists from many different eras, as well as talking to contemporary writers and creatives to chart satire’s impact on contemporary discourse. With contributions from: Adele Anderson, David Benson, Pietre Fellows, Matt Tedford, Sophie McCartney and Benjamin Bankole Bello.
But this book won’t exist without your help – so if you’re interested in the comedy, if you’d like to know more about how some of our most famous satirists have influenced the world, or just want to show that nothing is too ridiculous to be laughed at, please support the book.
Satire and Character Comedy.
In this chapter we look at how satirists channel their satirical agenda through characters.
"I keep thinking, one day he'll wake up, and Dame Edna will have taken over completely."
- A. S. Byatt
Barry Humphries is one of the most prolific comic performers of our age, a career that spans half a century, and is critically acclaimed in three continents. His most notable work is the creation of ‘Giga-star’ Dame Edna Everage; a polymathic icon of cruel wit and star-culture. The fact that she is a self-described star yet so damning to her ‘peers’ doing the same forms the basis of his satire on celebrity culture. How has Humphries taken a fictional character and placed her at the centre of something we see as ‘reality’?
Humphries’ Agent Provocateur nature has exposed stars true behaviour through his act, and the regular appearance of Dame Edna in ‘the real world’ alludes to the fiction stars create about themselves. As John Lahr (1991) puts so well in his book Dame Edna and the Rise of Western Civilization; ‘Dame Edna’s mere presence at public occasions and amidst public figures calls the reality of society into question. She is frivolity incarnate and therefore irony in action’. (p14). During a book launch, he negotiated with press and paparazzi as ‘Edna’, answering the press’ humiliating questions about Humphries third divorce with ‘I am glad he’ll be kept away from his kids’. Humphries fully inhabits Edna and the performance becomes complicated game he plays with the audience. To be ‘Carnivalesque’ is to subvert the assumptions of a leading style or tone through humour or disorder. This is the approach Humphries takes with the satire of the self.
Humphries was born in Melbourne in 1934. He had a very provincial middle-class childhood. From an early age he began to read widely, his mother found this odd and sold his books to the Salvation Army, saying ‘why do you want those old books Barry’. He has since attributed his life-long obsession with collecting rare books to this betrayal. From adolescence, Humphries drifted severely from the life mapped out from him; he became obsessed by the Dadaist art movement, a strange ‘anti-art’ ethos that revelled in subverting the normality of everyday objects and images. He incorporated this ethos into his everyday life, becoming a well-dressed dandy and staging practical jokes. He hid a cooked chicken and a bottle of champagne in a public bin, then came back to it dressed as a tramp, searching through the rubbish as morning commuters looked on in disgust, only to be trumped when the vagrant sits down to tuck into a gourmet meal. Such Dadaist acts fed into his varsity life, where he made paintings with forks or gloves with one very long finger.
After he dropped out of university, he began life as an actor, touring with a local company. He did impressions on the bus, including the character of a woman with a high-falsetto voice. This prompted him to create a character for a revue in 1956, called Mrs Edna Everage, a housewife complaining about furniture in her home. As Humphries recalls: ‘A little clown hat, flat shoes, no real sense of make-up’. This character was intended as a one-off thing.
But Humphries used Edna again and again in recordings of monologues, stage-shows and later sketch shows, as one character in an ensemble of many. It was not until the seventies, that Edna became a Dame when appearing in the film Barry Mackenzie. She appeared in talk shows, such as Russell Harty and Michael Parkinson. Throughout the seventies and eighties, Edna’s popularity grew to a point where she was regarded as a person in her own right. By the nineties and noughties, Edna’s appeal in the U.S.A. meant that an entire audience only knew of Edna and not of Humphries. Her guest appearances on Ally McBeal, Edna played a character called Claire Otoms, Humphries citing in his memoir ‘the first case of meta-acting’.
Although Edna’s creation was a comic accident, Humphries nurtured her until she became an independent entity. In Handling Edna, he rewrites the story of her discovery as a real act of seeing her for the first time and working as her agent.
Humphries calls Edna ‘an evocation of a real person’, (South Bank show, 1989). He as an actor ‘intervenes... between the authenticity of his own life, of his own self and its past known to himself (and as known or assumed at least in part to the audience) and the authenticated life of the character he is playing.’ (p20,21) As Edna is the star, Humphries understands that she is a media image to be manipulated and does so with obvious wry wit. She is unaware of how ridiculous she is as a woman, her private-life, her ‘talent’ and so on, and when she tells us how brilliant she is, the jokes on her.
In the ‘Life-as-theatre’ theory, Humphries has utilised the element of ‘Discrete-Identity’ to a point, yet, unattained, by any other actor. ‘This is a problem for any narrative form, in that character logically only exists in the detail of the medium, in ‘the words on the page’. (p95) Yet we are convinced that Edna does have a life off-screen, the evidence is as complicit and manifold as any other person who appears in the same medium.
Humphries development of Edna considered what make stars, stars. His first west-end show was called Housewife Superstar, another of his delightful paradoxes. He understands the star-system, how important superficial appearances are and how it indicates personality, how scrutinised are stars physiognomy, the ‘dress and the image of the star’ (p110). None of it left to chance. The reason Edna is an icon is because of her ‘wisteria rinse’, her purple hair or her jewel-encrusted horn-rimmed spectacles – an exaggerated conclusion of the icon of normal middle-aged middle-class housewives, elevated to superstardom. She is like a normal person, yet so much more, just like a celebrity. Humphries, through Edna, has created this intertextual image
‘Dress is usually taken to point both to the social order in general and to the temperament of the individual concerned’ (p115). Edna’s dresses are parodies of designer clothes ‘but better’. It is a double-insult, that Edna’s ridiculous nature we want to ridicule, where in fact we’d be ridiculing our own admiration of her.
Humphries understands the star-system, he has cast himself as the manager, someone benignly feeding off Edna’s success by doing very little. But of course, everything he does, she does. His business of using Edna to sell dishwashers, make-up and even Shell-oil, is also a satire on the way stars are used to promote products. Commercials become, for Edna, a ‘publicity vehicle’, a stage for her to take control for a supposedly adoring public.
Edna’s private life often features heavily in her shows, whether on stage, film, television or print. She talks about her home; her mother (confined to a maximum-security twilight home); her three children – Valmai (a shoplifting, mentally ill lesbian), Bruce (her favourite, although with an unfortunate wife) and Kenny (who designs her frocks and is gay unbeknownst to her). She also discusses her late husband, who suffered with chronic prostate problems. This life history is so detailed it is the subject of an autobiography released as ‘non-fiction’, including details of another daughter who was abducted and other shocking revelations. This history is consistent in all Edna’s performances, to the point she is genuinely offended when people laughed at her husband’s prostate problems and general ill-health. ‘Oh, most amusing, when your loved-ones are in intensive care, I’ll come around and have a good laugh’.
Dame Edna as a construction, is a perfectly balanced set of traits, associations and mannerisms, you want to see her because you’ll know how amusing it will be. You expect people to be lambasted and lampooned, for her to sing badly and generally bring everything = to a ludicrious level. It is interesting to note that Dame Edna does not genuinely possess most of the qualities outlined in what makes a star a star. She is not by any stretch of the imagination ‘beautiful’, but she says she is. She is not talented, yet she says she is. She may have a certain charisma, but overall just by satirising a star, espousing all these things which make us fall for the illusions they represent, we have also taken in this imposter.
Michael Parkinson’s chat-show was the bench-mark of the modern chat-show. It featured the novelty of guests being able to interact with one another in an informal way. Dame Edna has appeared sporadically on the Parkinson show from 1978 until the final show in 2008. Dame Edna thrives on this format, and is often brought on as the final guest for full-impact. Parkinson, (unlike other hosts) plays along, keeping the situation firmly grounded by referring to her the same as other guests, rather than acknowledging the falsehood of her existence.
An episode of Parkinson from 2005 is a great example of this satire in action. The other guests are Dame Helen Mirren, and television style gurus Trinny and Susannah. The bulk of the show is given to Helen, as the big star, then to Trinny and Susannah promoting their own show. It is obvious that Mirren finds sitting next to Trinny and Susannah uncomfortable, yet can only disagree with their brutal, humourless dissection of what people should and should not wear.
In the final segment, Dame Edna is introduced with her trademark ‘Niceness’ theme, played by the house band Laurie Holloway (who she worked with on The Dame Edna Experience). She’s greeted by a huge rapturous applause, louder than any of the other guests, which Edna feeds on, screaming ‘Hello Possums’. It’s irony immediately, referring to the audience as rat-like rodents. She greets Laurie, and Parky, then Helen Mirren as if she were an old friend,.Dame Helen dutifully plays along, which stands her in good stead for what is to follow.
Edna is wearing a dress which makes her look like a wasp, she is stinging her ‘victims’, the brightest most garish thing in the room, which everyone can’t help but look at. The lie of this as guests talking about their ‘real selves’ is immediately revealed by Edna’s presence. No matter how the other guests react they are complicit in this fabrication.
From her first utterance it’s clear that all bets are off:
Dame Edna : Hello Helen, (emphatic) you’ve been sitting there so long. Hasn’t it been an exciting show tonight, and as exciting as it has been, I felt a sense of gratitude from the audience when I came on.
She is immediately telling the truth of the situation: the audience greeted Helen but were not found of Trinny and Susannah. Edna highlights this and the audience go wild to see her tell this forbidden truth.
These people are helping to fund The New Satire.