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When satire gets serious

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos: Various

Illustrations: Kenneth Schultz

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When the world seems too ridiculous to mock, the line between the serious and the satirical can be hard to make out. 5 asked the comedy writer and actor David Schneider whether satire can still pack a punch.


  • Current events have become too ridiculous to make fun of, satirists complain.
  • Today’s most respected political commentators include comedians and satirists.
  • Satire can still have a big impact – although not always the one the satirist intends.
  • In theory, satire “punches up” at those in power. But which way is up?
  • Satirists can’t solve everything, and are happy to satirise themselves.

We’re “through the looking glass”. You “couldn’t make it up”. I have “no words”. Each news story that breaks seems to prompt more reactions like these.

There may not be a lot that everyone agrees on in today’s polarised political landscape, but one point seems to unite us all: that the world has gone “beyond satire”.

When exactly did this happen? What was the moment when events got so absurd that mockery no longer hit home? Was it 2015, when the words ‘Building a country that works for everyone’ literally fell off the wall behind British Prime Minister Theresa May, while she tried to make a speech? Was it 2016, when Trump claimed he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters? Or was it every year since?

Read more
To learn more about polarisation, read our interview with Dutch philosopher and polarisation expert Bart Brandsma.

“Events now self-satirise. There’s so much hypocrisy that you just need to serve it on a plate”

David Schneider

For people who do satire for a living, it’s a strange state of affairs. “Events now self-satirise,” says David Schneider, who has written and acted in various satirical comedy shows on UK TV and radio, including On the Hour and The Day Today, and co-wrote the 2017 black comedy film The Death of Stalin. “There’s so much hypocrisy that you just need to serve it on a plate,” he says.

Satire is a ‘Trojan horse’ for getting serious messages across,
says David Schneider. Photo courtesy of That Lot

On Twitter, Schneider aims his satirical barbs at targets including Brexit supporters and Conservative politicians, and his 474,000 followers lap it up. But as events seem to get ever more farcical, and politicians ever more brazen, it’s not an easy task. “For satire to work, the targets need to have a sense of shame,” Schneider tells 5 via Zoom. “What Trump and Boris Johnson don’t have is the shame bone. People have gone beyond feeling ashamed of what they’ve said in the past and what they’re doing, [instead they’re] doubling down, and so we’ve got to a point where satire is often killed. Things have gone really far.”

Roles reversed

If the targets of satire – the powerful figures whom we are supposed to respect – are now beyond ridicule, perhaps we should have seen it coming. After all, for years, the jokers who point and laugh at the powerful have been on the opposite path, becoming increasingly revered as serious political commentators.

In the run-up to this year’s US presidential election, viewers will be glued to their screens for news and analysis, with shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah among the biggest ratings draws.

Trevor Noah combines comedy with political commentary.

But these are not news shows. They’re entertainment. The Daily Show, for instance, doesn’t air on CNN or NBC, it’s on Comedy Central. Back in 2004 the show – then helmed by Jon Stewart – beat off more poe-faced rivals like Frontline, 60 Minutes and Meet the Press to win the Television Critics Association award for outstanding achievement in news and information. It also won Peabody Awards in 2000, 2004 and 2015, not just because it was funny but because, in the judges’ words, it was “a trusted source of news for citizens united in their disappointment and disgust with politics and cable news”.

Shows like these have earned fame for their razor-sharp attacks on the pompous and powerful. Stephen Colbert’s withering review of this year’s Republican convention, delivered live on air, will go down as one of the most memorable records of the event. (“We laughed, we cried, we threw up a little in our mouths,” Colbert said.)

In other areas too, satire has grown to resemble news reporting. The anti-Brexit campaign group Led by Donkeys employ a form of satire that involves taking direct quotes from ministers which contradict their more recent words or actions, and displaying them as large as possible on billboards, banners and beaches. It’s an effective – and often very funny – way to highlight hypocrisy, even though the content is simply the politicians’ own words, repeated. That, in 2020, is all it takes.

A poster by the crowdfunded campaign Led by Donkeys.

Trojan horses

Despite talk of the death of satire, it remains a brilliant way of getting through to people, says David Schneider. “It’s a way of being angry that hides the anger in a sort of Trojan horse of making people laugh. If you just shout at someone, they might remember, but if you put it in the form of a joke, they’re much more likely to remember it, they’re much more likely to share it, it’s much more likely to be effective. There are times when I’m tweeting when I get so angry, and I stop myself hitting send, and I go, hold on, this is just 200 Greeks rushing at the Trojan gates. It’s not going to work. Let’s build a horse! And I just spend a little more time putting it in a little comedic coating, because I know the Trojans might then let it into their… metaphor.”

There’s “no question” that satire can make an impact, Schneider believes, even in these topsy-turvy times. For example, the word ‘remoaner’ (coined to describe people like him, who voted for the UK to remain in the European Union, and still moan about the result going the other way) is “a piece of satire that has stuck”, Schneider says. “It’s not brilliant, but it has an effect on people like me, or on the perception of people like me.”

Often the effects are more tangible – just ask Sean Spicer, Donald Trump’s first White House press secretary, who was fired after his puffed-up, pugnacious manner was skewered by the comedian Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live. McCarthy’s satirical take “completely castrated him as a spokesperson,” says Schneider.

Did Obama trigger Trump’s presidential bid by joking at his expense?

“I don’t think Trump would be president if Obama hadn’t made that joke at his expense”

David Schneider

At other times, satire can have unintended consequences. Take, for instance, Barack Obama’s mockery of Trump at the 2011 White House press dinner. In the wake of the ‘birther’ conspiracy pushed by Trump and others, Obama revealed his “birth video”, which turned out to be a clip from Disney’s The Lion King. “I don’t think Trump would be president if Obama hadn’t done that,” says Schneider. “Trump was in the room, everyone laughed at Trump. He was so humiliated by Obama doing that and getting a laugh. That was effective satire at a piece of racism, but it changed Trump.”

Of course, to have that kind of impact, your satirical message has to go beyond people who already agree with it. And Schneider realises that “you’re often in an echo chamber and you’re often just making yourself feel better”. “Having done thousands of memes and tweets, anti-UKIP, anti-Brexit, anti-Tories… It just doesn’t seem to make any difference at all. But you feel better. Greta Thunberg isn’t making jokes and she’s much more effective than many satirists, I would say.”

In today’s online landscape, Schneider sees satire as just another ingredient in the bewildering mishmash of opinion, abuse, sock puppets, memes, bots, cat videos and shouting. For extremist groups, content that looks like satire can even be a way to air unacceptable views, under the radar. “It’s very complicated now,” he says. “Maybe it always has been, but it feels that way now because of social media and because of misinterpretations, wilful or otherwise. There are times when I’ve put out what I feel were clearly jokes, where people say, did he really say that?”

“Greta Thunberg isn’t making jokes and she’s much more effective than many satirists”

David Schneider

Punching up?

Dr Jo Waugh is an expert in satire, and a member of the unit for the study of satire at York St John University in the UK. The kinds of things happening today have much in common with the work of 18th century writers such as Jonathan Swift, she says, with the difference that now – thanks to the internet – “anyone can do it”.

Satire is generally “perceived as being an attack on people with power and influence,” Waugh says, and as such comes more often from the political left than it does from the right. However, we can’t ignore that satire is also “associated with a reasonably elite, often white, often male, establishment background”. In other words, people with a fair amount of power and influence.

This has been true since the time of Swift, but today, it seems like everyone sees themselves as the downtrodden outsider rattling the gates of power. “Brexit was led by figures who manifestly were of the establishment but marketed themselves as being anti-establishment,” says Waugh. “With Trump, it’s the liberal elite satirising him, and that’s exactly who the Trump voters are voting in opposition to.” Satire, if done correctly, “is punching up,” she says. “But perhaps now we’re more uncertain of which direction is up.”

No wonder political debates feel like such a free-for-all.

Amid all this, David Schneider is mindful of the Marxist view of comedy as a “safety valve” that allows people to release anger without actually overthrowing their leaders. According to this theory, satirists can end up propping up the powerful, rather than really threatening them. So it’s only natural that they sometimes satirise themselves. In a 2014 routine, the British comic Stewart Lee declared: “I’m not interested in laughs. What I’m aiming for is a temporary mass liberal consensus, that dissolves on contact with air.”

Decades earlier, the satirist Peter Cook compared his own work to the vibrant political cabaret scene of 1930s Berlin, “which did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler”.

Clearly satire has its limits. And even if some are declaring it dead, there’s no need to go into mourning yet. “Satire has many more lives than the cat,” says Schneider. “It gets killed all the time.”


Photos: Alamy (Stephen Colbert, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Trevor Noah, Donald Trump, Led by Donkeys), Scanpix (Barack Obama) and Wikimedia Commons (Boris Johnson)