The Emperor’s New Clothes, with swearing
Neil Rafferty tells spiked about creating Britain’s top satirical site, the Daily Mash, and the serious business of making fun of the elite.
‘More than half of all British children are demons whose souls have been devoured by Satan, according to a new study. Researchers claim that since 1998 around 56 per cent of British children have been possessed by some of hell’s most senior demons including Baal, Legion and the Moloch.’
No, this is not the latest, shocking Daily Mail story about the decline of the nation’s youth, but a snippet from satirical website, the Daily Mash, which was launched in 2007. At a time when ‘satire’ is at a low ebb in British life, it’s nice to have a new kid on the block poking fun at stupidity.
The Mash is the brainchild of Scottish journalists, Neil Rafferty and Paul Stokes. After meeting on a failed Scottish business paper, Rafferty and Stokes searched for a project that allowed them to indulge their shared sense of humour. ‘We saw a gap in the market, that the UK didn’t have an equivalent to [the US satirical news site] The Onion’, says Rafferty. ‘It had satire – Private Eye is a satirical institution, but the Eye didn’t have a very strong online presence at all. And secondly, while the Eye still hits the mark, I guess it’s that upper-sixth common room sense of humour, which you either like or don’t like. There was the opportunity to do something very topical with a more modern sense of humour.’
The Mash mixes the topical edge of the Eye with the lewdly adult humour of student favourite Viz and a healthy dose of the absurd. But it also has an edge in being written by people who absolutely cannot stand the current government one little bit. As Rafferty puts it, the Mash is ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes, with swearing.’ Take this example from a couple of weeks ago:
LABOUR UNVEILS PLAN TO LOSE LAST REMAINING VOTES
Labour will today unveil a detailed plan to alienate its last remaining pockets of support. The central plank of the party’s strategy involves identifying the 10 most popular family cars in Britain and then making them a nightmare to own. A Labour spokesman said: “We’re going for the double whammy of making them too expensive to drive, but also impossible to sell. And if that doesn’t work we’ll just spray paint a big swastika onto the bonnet.”
Satire is thus a rather brutal version of the comedy of recognition, not so much poking fun at the government as giving it a cathartic kick in the crotch. Good satirists draw out the absurdity of political life, while mixing it with a sizeable dose of bile. As Rafferty notes: ‘A lot of the comments we get from our readership – apart from being funny – is that we’ve hit the bullseye when it comes to what this or that story is all about.’
But simply playing to people’s existing prejudices is not enough – the aim of satire should be to crystallise a vague sense of unease about the world into a clearer understanding of why a policy or a government is just plain irrational. Humour is a powerful weapon for political opposition.
And above all, satire needs to be funny to be effective, just as a powerful lyric is wasted without a good tune – and ‘funniness’ requires an element of the unexpected. This is a point rather missed by much of what passes for satire today. Rory Bremner might be a talented mimic, but his take on the world is tediously predictable. His colleagues, John Bird and John Fortune, somehow manage to improvise their way into raising a smile, even if their basic schtick – the stupidity of our leaders – has been the same for years.
Private Eye is also very funny at times – Rafferty describes Eye regular Craig Brown as ‘the funniest writer in Britain by a mile’ – but its editorial coverage has long since collapsed from healthy scepticism into relentless cynicism, most notably in its assumption that the MMR vaccine must be harmful simply because the government says it is not.
Perhaps the worst example of the lazy art of ‘topical’ comedy is Marcus Brigstocke. Having floated around Radio 4’s 6.30pm comedy slot for a few years now, he also fronts BBC4’s pale imitation of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, The Late Edition. As writer Antonia Quirke noted in the New Statesman recently, Brigstocke is ‘truly the unfunniest arse in the universe… [whose delivery] just assumes the audience will be complicit in the utterly bog-standard, unsurprising bit of wafty liberal observation that is coming out of his mouth. Funny people don’t do this.’
Brigstocke is just the kind of dimwit who will miss George Bush when he’s gone – and be shocked to find, if Obama gets elected, that he is little different from what has gone before – just as so many commentators couldn’t believe that replacing Tony Blair with Gordon Brown could actually makes things worse.
To my surprise, Rafferty seems to believe the Mash has something in common with Brigstocke, ‘a real “fuck you” attitude to everything we do’. But while Brigstocke could never appeal to anyone but the converted, the Daily Mash would be funny even if you didn’t necessarily share its point of view.
Old-school political satire does have a basic problem today: our politicians are already so ridiculous that ridiculing them further is about as difficult as kicking a puppy. Worse, the politicians actually want to be in on the joke; Blair may have delivered a pretty decent performance when he appeared with Catherine Tate on Comic Relief, but do we really want a prime minister spending his time filming comedy sketches that ask: ‘Am I bovvered?’ The current, dour occupant of Downing Street no doubt wishes he could join in the fun, too, if only someone would ask him.
Satire needs to keep up with the times and challenge the leading ideas of the day. The Day Today, the spoof current affairs show produced by Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci in the mid-1990s, turned its aim on the increasing power – indeed, absurd megalomania – of the media. Chris Morris’ Brass Eye Special, which lampooned the paedophile panic, may only have been truly funny in patches, but it was undoubtedly brave in a he-might-never-work-on-TV-again kind of way. And Iannucci’s The Thick of It reinvented the Whitehall farce, showing the no-marks in government stitch each other up over the contents of the next day’s news cycle.
Two problems are apparent. Firstly, at least on TV there’s a lack of new satirical talent, as Rafferty observes: ‘The thing about British comedy is that the turnover is very low these days. In the 1990s, there were so many people, but Armando Iannucci is still the guy you’d look to for really original satire – but it’s been that way for 10 years. Then again, the internet is there now, so anybody who really wants to express themselves, who’s got a funny idea, can do so.’
The other problem is that, for the most part, there has actually been a closing down of the range of topics that can be the subject of comedy. Despite the failings of multiculturalism, comedy that lampoons the idea of ‘diversity’ is still pretty much taboo. Environmentalism, the zeitgeist idea, gets a pretty easy ride.
Rafferty agrees. ‘It’s the same with passive smoking. If you disagree with it, you’re a heretic, or you’re a stooge – you’re in someone’s pocket. Your point of view should not be taken seriously because you are corrupt. From our point of view, that’s just a great big target.’ When so much of political life is moribund, we need the likes of Rafferty and the Daily Mash to keep shooting – even if it’s only to keep our spirits up.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
Neil Rafferty is co-creator of the Daily Mash. A book based on the website, Halfwit Nation: Frontline Reporting From the War on Stupid, will be published by Constable and Robinson later this year.
Ian Walker reviewed the Brass Eye Special. Niall Crowley asked what the point of satire is if it ignores the new taboos. Emily Hill reviewed nihilist classic The Arsonists. Graham Barnfield called the The trial of Tony Blair a very trying satire. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.