Brass Eye: reaching satire’s gold standard?

Alexander Pope said that satire 'heals with morals what it hurts with wit' - and that's what Chris Morris' Brass Eye manages to do.

Ian Walker

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Defending Chris Morris’ controversial Brass Eye Special about paedophilia, the UK Observer argued that it is ‘spectacularly obvious that paedophilia is not of itself a source of humour’ (1). But Chris Morris didn’t shy away from using paedophilia as a source for some of the humour in the programme – and this is partly what counts for some of the consternation about it.

As well as trying to get us to laugh at the media, Morris was also telling jokes about what constitutes the sexual abuse of children. The fact that this was funny made it even more uncomfortable. But Morris’ ability to make us squirm by making jokes about issues like this is what, in my mind, elevates his comedy beyond anybody else’s.

Morris is a brilliant caricaturist, particularly when playing his Paxman-like anchorman. Especially in his series Jam, Morris uses surreal exaggeration to ridiculous and often disturbing extremes, revelling in the absurdity of everyday life. These techniques help to create the most original comedy of the last few years.

But more important in contributing to Morris’ strength as a comedian are the subjects he takes up. While other satirists and comedians play the mainstream radical card, taking banks to task for making money or capitalism to task for exploiting people, Morris attacks animal rights activists, or self-appointed moral guardians and their ridiculous horror stories about drugs, crime, sex – or paedophiles. What makes him stand out as a satirist is that he dives right into those issues around which contemporary politics and morality is being debated and shaped, and says the unexpected.

Alexander Pope, the truly savage and great satirist, wrote that satire ‘heals with morals what it hurts with wit’. If Morris intended to hurt with wit he achieved his aim – Capital radio DJ Dr Fox and other media figures were made to look very stupid (or were exposed for their stupidity). The response of politicians, children’s charities and the tabloid press was probably just as Morris intended – he was also trying to hurt them with wit, and seems to have succeeded. But there is more to this humour than the cynical desire to hurt or ridicule people for the sake of a cheap laugh – something that other comedians, like Ali G, often indulge in.

Because Morris takes up the issues he does, his comedies ultimately become comments on contemporary morality. Brass Eye satirised society’s obsession with paedophilia by exaggerating it and showing it back to us. Morris has achieved, with mockery, controversy and laughter, what more soberly made critical points about this issue have failed to do.

Jokes about paedophilia may hurt with wit – but the ultimate measure of satire like Brass Eye is whether it helps to undermine, or heal, a morality that is being shaped by irrational fears and hysterical debates.

(1) Observer, 29 July 2001

Read on:

All eyes on Brass Eye, by Rob Lyons

Chris Morris – that old fogey, by Patrick West

Spit back in anger, by Dolan Cummings

spiked-issue: Free speech

spiked-issue: TV

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