Status anxiety

Satire is dying because satirists are too successful

When you have a higher status than the people you mock, something goes wrong

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

I appeared on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago to discuss the age-old question of whether political satire is dead. I don’t think it is, but it has lost a good deal of vitality in recent years and the role of satire in the general election campaign is a case in point. There has been no shortage of ‘satirical’ television programmes, but none of them have cut through. The only sign of life has been the flurry of photoshopped images on Twitter that have followed each misstep of the parties’ campaigns, such as Ed Miliband’s decision to carve Labour’s election pledges on to an eight-foot stone slab. If Stanley Kubrick was still alive he’d be suing people for illegally reproducing images from the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What accounts for satire’s declining health? I don’t hold with the textbook explanation, which is that standards in public life have sunk so low that nothing a satirist could come up with could be as bad as the reality. This was what Tom Lehrer had in mind when he said political satire died when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. The trouble is, every generation thinks politics has hit rock bottom, but it just keeps on getting worse. In 2012, the Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union.

A more plausible theory is that political correctness has made satire much more dangerous. There’s no shortage of big fat targets for satirists to take aim at, but most of them are protected by a praetorian guard of professional offence-takers, ready to take to the airwaves at the slightest sign of disrespect and demand the arrest of the miscreant in question. Or if that doesn’t work, they come round to your place of work and shoot you. If Spitting Image was still on, would anyone involved dare to broadcast a sketch called ‘Miss Arab World’ in which the religious leader of Iran had to judge a parade of Muslim women in full burkas? I doubt it.

But I’m not sure you can blame the decline of political satire on these attacks on free speech. After all, some of the most celebrated works of satire have been produced under the most brutal, oppressive regimes. A case in point is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, an indictment of life in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Admittedly, it wasn’t published until 33 years after Bulgakov’s death, but the fact that satire was considered so subversive by the Soviet authorities gave it a power and importance that it lacks in liberal democracies. Forcing satire underground keeps it alive.

No, I think the reason political satire has lost so much of its bite is because the status of politicians had declined in the past 50 years or so. Back in 1961, when the Establishment first opened its doors, the sight of Peter Cook on stage doing an impression of Harold Macmillan was genuinely shocking because the political class was still looked up to.

Not any more. Today, a satirist expressing a modicum of respect for a politician — Steve Coogan endorsing Ed Miliband, for instance — is front-page news, whereas a comedian showering the Prime Minister with insults goes unnoticed.

In terms of prestige, politicians and satirists have switched places. A successful satirist like Armando Iannucci is respected in a way that no current political leader is. As a result, he enjoys a degree of soft, cultural power that politicians can only dream of. He probably lives in a bigger house, drives a nicer car and earns a higher annual income than most of them, too. Hardly surprising, then, that The Thick of It ran out of steam. What gives a really good satire its seditious power is that it’s an attack of the weak against the strong. The Thick of It, by contrast, was an assault by a clique of rich and powerful satirists on an already beleaguered political class. Not so much slaying giants as tripping dwarves.

Yet I don’t think political satire is dead. I’m sure that it will blossom in the most unlikely of places — Isis-controlled Syria, for instance, or in an American Ivy League university, where any criticism of a protected minority is instant career suicide. The book I’m most looking forward to reading this year is Michel Houellebecq Submission,which is set in a dystopian future in which France has become an Islamic state. Great satire, like great journalism, speaks truth to power, and that means taking on the truly powerful, not mocking an already despised group of white middle-aged men.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • lmda

    I have read Submission. I think you will find, as I did, that it’s set in the present, just seen more clearly than usual.

    • Shazza

      I have not read it yet but it does not sound as though it is satire.
      I think frightening reality more like it.

  • RJ45

    Iranians are not Arabs, they are Persian.

    • Ivan Ewan

      There’s a mix of both, I think. As far as I recall, the Persians hate the Arabs and the Arabs rule the Persians.

      • albert pike

        “As far as I recall, the Persians hate the Arabs and the Arabs rule the Persians.”

        Which no doubt explains why Iran has been helping its Arab neighbours confront ISIS.

    • Toy Pupanbai

      Their tragedy is Islam.

  • Callipygian

    If Stanley Kubrick were…. And the reason is that, though you have no interest in writing like an educated man for some reason. It doesn’t cost anything to do it right: why do it wrong?

    Not so much slaying giants as tripping dwarves. That’s a good line. I’m still a better writer than you, though.

    Henry Kissinger deserved the peace prize and Lehrer was a confused Lefty, as most broadcasters are.

    • Verbatim

      Entirely because all inhabit the purely theoretical world.

    • Ivan Ewan

      It’s possible that his work on realpolitik expanded the Pax Americana, which would mean he deserved the prize. But at the same time, it seems he was fighting the enemies of the day by arming the enemies of tomorrow, so that’s not so great.

  • tttt

    Satire is alive and well in the US where 70% of all TV and radio is NOT controlled by a small group of wealthy, privately educated Marxists – i.e. the BBC.

  • Sredni Vashtar

    Can we put to bed this line about Henry Kissinger and satire? In 1994 it was awarded to Yassir Arafat.

  • Paul H

    superb. Nail on head as usual – welcome back, Toby.

  • grimm

    Where (no seriously – where?) are the satirists who have the wit and courage to mock:
    Homosexuals and lesbians
    Fanatical environmentalists
    Animal rights activists
    Irish Republicans
    Black “gangsta” thug culture with its mind numbing music
    The righteous Left (especially Polly Toynbee)
    The European Union

    • alfredo

      Certainly not writing for Private Eye, so what’s the use of it?

    • albert pike

      Are you a jew, grimm?

      or perhaps a grim jew sitting behind a computer waiting for your investment in some weapon’s manufacturer to make you rich, after Israel has decided its time for their poodles to attack another moslem country.

      • Harry

        Jews control the world, blah blah blah blah
        Jews start all wars, blah blah blah blah
        Jews are to blame for everything blah blah blah

    • oldoddjobs

      Uzi lover

    • paul helssom

      If you can’t tell the difference between satire and mockery you should stay off the internets.

    • Matt Hone

      You seem to be confusing “satire” with “being abusive to people / things you hate”.

    • Daniel

      Read the Daily Squib as mentioned above.

  • Sean L

    Mate Iran isn’t Arabic. Even if its religion is theirs, the Shia version, they retain their own language .

  • Sean L

    Anthony Burgess wrote a futuristic novel *in the 70s* depicting an Islamic state in England. And before that, in the 60s, another one where marriage was illegal and homosexuality compulsory.

    • TrippingDwarves

      See also GK Chesterton and ‘The Flying Inn’. Highly prescient.

    • Jape

      Burgess shouldn’t feel too bad, I wrote a story when I was 6 about everyone having a robot head by space year 2000. Can’t all be winners.

  • MrSonicAdvance

    You forgot to mention Obama winning the Nobel peace prize in 2009 for doing nothing.

  • TNL

    If someone had suggested a storyline in The Thick of It where the Opposition Leader suggested building a massive tombstone with his policies on them in the final week of a close fought election it would have been dismissed as ludicrous.

    Ladies and gentleman, that is what satire is up against – a reality too stupid for fiction.

  • albert pike

    Satire is dying because the satirized actions these self proclaimed satirists make a living from has long ceased to be funny.

    In a society where there is hope for a better future for our children their humour could be said to be humourous, but when there is no hope these satirists are just part of the problem.

  • Gerschwin

    Satire died when the left took it over and it stopped being funny. Simple as that.

  • Kit Hogue

    “He probably lives in a bigger house, drives a nicer car and earns a higher annual income than most of them, too” – it’s interesting how Toby Young’s arguments often come down to status envy.

    • Sten vs Bren

      When he found out that there were private schools and that he wasn’t in one, a little part of him died.

  • trace9

    Satire is a means of sitting on the objects of your ire, & farting

  • Sten vs Bren

    “The Thick of It, by contrast, was an assault by a clique of rich and powerful satirists”

    This Jones person is a walking bag of shoulder chips.

  • MC

    We should satirise the satirists – the smug, self-congratulatory liberal elite we’re forced to listen to on Radio 4. Can you imagine how prickly they would get?

  • Loconinja

    The best satire currently available is from Dead Ringers and The Now Show on Radio 4. I can’t think of any decent satire on TV right now.

  • Rowland Nelken

    There is a Facebook group called Iranian Atheist and Agnostics which regularly posts satirical material.

  • kathee

    I remember lying in my room when I was in high school and writing in a journal to my future husband. I’d write all sorts of notes and questions and things I’d wonder or ask this man when I eventually met him. I would wxonder where he was and what he was doing and if he was thinking about me too. It has always been such a strong desire in my heart to find a wonderful man to marry, someone who would love me and cherish me and appreciate me for the person I am. I always thought I would get married right out of college, just like my parents, so when that plan didn’t work out, I started to get discouraged. A school mate snatched my future husband away from my arms just because she had spiritual powers, all hope was lost to me before i came across the help doctor (
    ) who i confided in, i told him my long story and he helped me regain back my lover with his prayers which is now my husband today. if you have any problem email the help doctor (

  • Daniel

    Unfortunately the internet is now heavily controlled by the PC police. Toby’s article does hit the nail on head though with the observation that politicians are now viewed as very low status. I personally get all my angry satire needs from the Daily Squib, they’re the only ones IMHO pushing the envelope at the mo. But what about left and right political satire, no mention of that? I believe most British satirists are staunch leftists including Iannucci, I dare say, a very rich leftist of the champagne socialist kind.