“At the ripe old age of 34 – statistically the happiest of your life – comedian C*** D****** is now seemingly finding peace in a vegetable-planting, self-hating liberal existence… but has he made a terrible mistake?”
Hereabove is the ‘pitch’ come from a venue in my home city which is hosting a UK standup comic. The ‘pitch’ no doubt has been crafted carefully and settled upon after considerable thought so as to attract the attention of the standup’s potential audiences around about the local area.
And of course it has to carry a message, a distinctive message; one which separates out what this standup does and so stands for; one that differentiates him and one which packs enough punch to hook in people’s interest and desire to get some more or to test the water.
Thuswise he has to take an angle on life; an angle on life understood and maybe shared by potential audiences. As an economic proposition the show organisers themselves have to be pretty sure that there are enough people out there who are potential audiences before the risk becomes bearable sufficiently to speculate on a profit arising from these standup shows.
All this is merely the basics, the fundamentals to be considered when putting on any professional show.
And thus in this case as ever the standup has to ‘show’ a part of ‘his hand of cards’ to the public whom he hopes to draw in and entertain and so send them off afterwards contented and pleased. When the pitch is wrongly slanted or misjudged and there arises a discrepancy between the promise of and performance of the show, unless the organisers are fortunate, in most cases audiences will go home unfulfilled and so disappointed. So we for our purposes here can take it that yes this pitch has been worked out carefully so that it represents powerfully in a few words the kernel of the type of show audiences might strongly expect to be seeing.
Now I want to look into this pitch and on the basis of the preamble I have made hereabove; and made purposively by me so that it has established the fact that the pitch itself has to be not only strongly distinctive but also strongly characteristic of the show to be performed; so that we might unpack some of the necessary social and political presumptions and outlooks it offers up for praise and for blame.
Before I get on to this unpacking I want to backpedal a bit and add another preamble to this attempt at analysis. This analysis is then to be an analysis of contemporary humour in the UK here; and the show and the pitch I have chosen as a basis on which to analyse this humour is only an example, but a very good example, a very apposite example, of a widespread and general, almost ubiquitous strain of socio-political humour here in UK at the present time and having been very popular here for some considerable years heretofore.
The character of this socio-political humour has been and continues to be best described in a single word: as being satire. Now satire has to have as its prerequisite for being understood and even relished a broadly-shared set of socio-political assumptions and presumptions held by and shared with the satirists and those who are recipients of the satirists pearls of wisdom dropping from their lips etc like manna.
Now in the case of satire as humour these sets of shared assumptions and presumptions require a further support of audiences having general engagement with news, media, and contemporary events; and with the way the items being satirised are being presented and discussed in an informational non-satirical press and news media. Like the art of parody, which might be thought of as being satire without the bite of satire, thus often and usually a much more gentle form of mockery, there has to be a host entity or object upon which the parodist depends for the whole of his art and humour. Otherwise, as the saying goes, one is left with ‘Hamlet without the Prince’. Or as the poet TS Eliot said of Hamlet; there is no ‘objective correlative’ on which to bounce the humour of satire or parody off, and so for it to gain, and for hearers to enjoy, its effects.
Like parody them satire is a dependent artform; if it were a life form it would at best be a symbiote, although more usually a parasite, and drawing its own strength from a ‘host’ subject, a plant or animal, which may be weakened severely and even fatally by the dependency of the dependent parasite upon it.
Now with satire this dependency, and its weakening effects on its objects and its correlatives , is pronounced and often serious; and like a dependent plant or animal it draws off and absorbs the vitality, and in doing so it weakens, destroys, the host provider in drawing off its lifeblood.
There is little doubt in my mind that this argument from analogy is a sound and accurate parallel which suits quite precisely what is going on, and has been going on in Britain here with satire as a socio-political life-force for perhaps forty or fifty years now; on TV and on radio and in the magazines.
(I would like to point out here that contemporary academics often decry and dismiss arguments from analogy like this one of mine; calling them misleading and not sound; whereas had many of these same academics taken care to read on or to think about those types of argument even as they would have as being sound and valid, they would be enlightened to the fact that their certainties or sureties are not so sound and valid as they would have them be.
This prevalent and fairly recent dismissal of argument from analogy is as I see it a by-product of the materialism espoused and embraced gladly by academics like literary critics and historians and scientists like neuroresearchers and others in their quests for truth. I have seen in a number of academic books in their prefaces or when they are laying out their terms and shop windows, blatant repudiations of metaphysics and of any admission that there are many important and valid questions and researches which are not attemptable to be answered by materialist outlooks.
Thus these academics and their books are taking up political and social positions of consequence, which lie beyond their remits and range wider than their understandings of what are the limits of knowledge.
The dismissal of argument by analogy is also, like the materialism, part of a bigger repudiation of religion which we are experiencing daily; and which we have felt now for some decades; and this is the case because there has been a conscious engineering of public attitudes made by our opinion formers – including the academics – to promote their own socio-political outlooks and biases.
Deny argument by analogy and much of the traditional approaches believers have always taken in reading their Bibles, are at once tarred and tarnished utterly by the materialists’ dirty brushes painting out with a censor’s pen from men and women’s sights the divine view of things. Don’t listen to them; give them no credence; they come with a host of baggage not their property and they jettison their and your gracious and crucial baggage of history tradition and revelation into a deep miry pool of effluent which they have loved to create and yet enjoy adding to. Back now to satire)
Satire and materialism have a great thing in common; they both assume, even like to presume, they know something; and like the materialist asserts with certainty that certain life questions are closed or nonsensical – which any modest person knows are and always will be present but unknowable in this life; so the satirist asserts, presumes, s/he knows with certainty certain ‘truths’ are hiding behind events, things, public figures, and current affairs. These ‘truths’ are the acid of the corrosiveness of satire; the items which sap the strength and vitality of the object, the correlative item upon which their satires are utterly dependent.
There is an old Scottish saying which pins down the outlook of such wiseacre satirists. When an old Scottish poet, who was a simple man living a simple life, was accosted with this type of ‘truth’ divining satire by a snobbish colleague he is said to have answered with: ‘That man would have us believe he can see an inch into a fir deal’. Translated this saying means: ‘The man would pretend he can see into wood’. It’s an analogy.
These divined ‘truths’ of the satirist and his audiences of course are based on the mutual assumptions of the satirists and their audiences (who have to hold the same assumptions or else otherwise they would not ‘get’ the jokes or else ‘mistake’ them). Now there is something a little repulsive because ‘clubbish’ about this open unspoken collusion between the satirist and his audiences; that knowingness and cosy moot assumed agreement, that great self-congratulation of oneself on being on the inside of the in-jokes, and with the ‘in crowd’in ‘getting’ the jokes and the humour; in effect making an exclusion of and even laughing at, despising and belittling, those who are outside, those who either disagree with the presumptuous assumptions or else who are not sufficiently privy to the ‘knowledge’ to be an initiate.
So the art of satire I believe tends to rest upon and so feeds a sin of conceited pride and of assumed superiority; in the satirists and in the satirists’ audiences. It is often sadly a mark of distinction, of being intelligent, of being ‘on the ball’ and ‘ sharp’, to be on the inside and laughing at the satire; and conversely to be of less value, to be unintelligent, to be on the outside and bemused or else angry at the satirical banter and cross-talk. Shakespeare in his play King Lear has a marvellous sentence about the people who look down on others like these persons who are the insiders of sharp and often wounding satire. He has The Duke of Kent say:
‘None of these rogues and cowards / But Ajax is their fool’
The explanation here is that Ajax being a highly accomplished soldier (in Homer’s Iliad) a little boastful of his deeds; that rogues and cowards and insinuating folks think that, compared to themselves, a simple but valiant and honest soldier like Ajax is a fool.
Dr Johnson, a great man for aphorisms, said also that: ‘A flea can look at an elephant; but a flea is still a flea and an elephant is still an elephant.’ He meant that, yes, a cat can criticise a king, but the cat is always and ever the lesser person.
Yes, it’s easy to tear down and by ridicule so help destroy what has been built up; it’s easy to find fault and to turn a phrase to make the fault bearer squirm. Who has not messed up? ‘Let he amongst you who is without sin cast the first stone’. Satire is like what is termed ‘backseat driving’ and its admirers take no practical responsibility, and have the privilege of hindsight or of freedom from engagement, are at liberty and without prejudice able to cut and thrust here and there at will wherever they want to; but the work of bearing the actuality of constructional loads and of putting in place fixes and helps is never theirs in the same instance.
Now I want to look in particular at the pitch which I cited at the head of this essay; and at the baggage of presumptuous socio-political assumptions which rest hidden embeded in that pitch.
Let us read it again:
“At the ripe old age of 34 – statistically the happiest of your life – comedian C** D****** is now seemingly finding peace in a vegetable-planting, self-hating liberal existence… but has he made a terrible mistake?”
The satire begins immediately – since 34 years is no ‘ripe old age’ – it seems to be implying here that a person having reached mid-thirties either feels s/he has ‘arrived’ or that s/he ought to ‘settle down’ or s/he has accepted the occupations of age at a premature age, maybe? Let’s go on. The next satire – is it on the statisticians? – or on the idea of happiness itself? – or on the expectation of oneself being happy because one is ‘the right age’? See how this satire, by its presenting these alternative interpretations to its audiences, not only serves to satisfy sceptical thinking and thoughts in a variety of open ended ways; but also acts to undermine listeners’ certainties; not just of statistics and of statisticians; nor only of happiness as a possibility; nor of common midlife expectations; but in general satire also undermines the broader certainties of language communications; and also it undercuts authority and the nature of authority; and also it diminishes the positive aspects of life – in this particular case the research, knowledge and scholarship it mocks regarding happiness.
Let’s go on. The comedian himself sets himself up as a comic persona who is ‘now seemingly finding peace’ – thus the presumption is that heretofore the persona has suffered opposites of peace like conflict, stress, worry, constraint, etc etc – the whole presumption being that (his) life has been all travail and troubles to date – and the audience is appealed to thus to buy into this idea of life as being ‘a bowl of shit’ (Eric Idle) or ‘short brutish and nasty’ (Thomas Hobbes). A kind of romanticised antipathetic outlook on life which is not true; but yet becomes a general habit to profess and subscribe to; and maybe self-fulfilling?
He’s finding peace by having adopted a ‘ vegetable-planting, self-hating liberal existence’. Here is the core and climax of the taster which is the pitch to potential audiences. The killer punch. It seems to me to be telling me to subscribe to a view that at thirty-four here is a person who has retreated from the cut and thrust of life as we live it in our contemporary world; who has been defeated by this world of cut and thrust; given up prematurely. He has taken up gardening – grow your own veg, maybe a vegetarian?, they’re always good for a jibe, as being neurotics and risk averse timid rabbits. The ‘self-hating’ comes in here also, and it seems to me to be saying that such persons having ‘failed’ in life in the world are now repressed and wannabee also-rans whose inability to release their tensions has turned these tensions in on themselves and now being expressed in the form of a self-hatred. Failures, giving-in, reclusive, repressed suffering, self inflicted guilts etc etc.
Now ‘liberals’ – why liberals? Why is this persona a liberal? Because liberals deny their own animal/basic natures in a forced attempt to be a kind of humanity no one human really is able to sustain without harm to themselves? Possibly? The vegetable gardening and the self-hatred thus tie in with the persona’s liberal politics? If so then the presumption seems to be that the liberal position of tolerance and freedom is not sustainable. That is it s a false position in that it does not accord with what might be termed human nature. A dubious term and so broad that a train or two might go through it easily.
So what is this about? Is it satire on those ‘outsiders’ those of the liberal persuasion – or is it to be looked at more sympathetically and one is being asked to empathise with the poor defeated liberal persona – ‘come to me and I will give you rest’. Or is it wholly open to both or either sort of audience – to the veggie liberal who suffers and also to the red-blooded redneck who satirises harshly such ‘weaklings’? Comfort and/or ridicule.
Well; that is the persona looked at and also an interpretation of what I myself believe might be the pitch being proffered here by the comedian standup.
If indeed such a pitch does act to comfort some audience members as being a revelation and a relief of their own pent sufferings; is this them a positive aspect of satire? A constructive therapy? Well, no. One does not give scatter-gun succour to persons who are self-defeating – one confronts them with their self-regard and over-emphasis on negativity and on their rejection of others and of the world of earnest action. Not with anger or hostility but with a firm truth telling session saying that such an attitude just doesn’t do. It is itself a self-deception; which an uncritical diffuse sympathy reinforces and makes the person’s situation worse.
There is no need to make a case for the redneck outlook of sheer comic contempt of such ‘weedy’ persons. This is ignorant as well as sinful.
So we now look at where and why such satire goes wrong – such presumptuous assumptions about people, about life, about, dealing with problems or having coarse outlooks on others who have problems, and about all the socio-political issues raised by such a satirical persona scenario as we have looked at and tried to unpack a little.
And this part of this essay is the core of it; because it gives the very best of all reasons why satire and its corrosive parasitic nature is an unmitigated evil – and I use the word evil exactly here.
Satire has for its effects to bring down something which was higher up beforehand. It is iconoclastic. It laughs at professed high-mindedness, at professed sincerity; at professed virtue or value of any kind; often it does so for the sake of satire only and not for the sake of revealing any hidden deceits or truths to its audiences. Like the woman who enjoyed a fling with a man and decides on that basis to have sex casually with every man she meets and likes. Telling the satirical joke for the wrong reasons, for the laugh, for the cuttingness, for the kudos, for the spite and the superiority, for the money, to please the audience’s penchants, but very rarely for the sake of exposing nasty but true and otherwise hidden and harmful things. Perhaps this last is the only mitigating justification for using satire? – to cut with it like a good surgeon cuts with his knife.
But the things scatter-gun satire seeks to and successfully destroys are very precious and usually have taken centuries to be built up and the trust in them to be established. Government. Party politics. Representatives in Parliament – are our political life – and our social is – the Health Service; the Police; the British good manners and easy toleration; the liberty we enjoy; the relative safety – these are each without price.
At present all these are becoming day by day up for grabs – in the same way the newspaper photographer makes his living by catching prominent persons in compromising poses and situations, regardless of the true import of such catches on camera – like a Political Leader eating awkwardly a bacon sandwich; or a private document held by a politician in a transparent file in the street which is snapped and blown up in focus into a bigger photo – thus circumventing the privacy of it. And in the same way the investigative journalists smuggle recordings of private conversations with public figures which are ‘off the record’and then they publish them on their front pages. All these low and immoral tricks and betrayals, like satire also bring forth their justifications in vacuous high minded big words; when in fact what is happening is for the most part self-indulgence, quests for notoriety, and an unseemly gross self-satisfaction; and of course seeking money and growing conceitedness.
The result is that at the expense of all those good things above which as a nation the UK badly needs to keep a hold on – especially right now – these satirists and journalists and cheap photographers are all indulging in a massive self-aggrandisement. Under the banners of individual liberty to act and of a public need to know – they present false flags which hide as fig leaves their fallen states.
There is a counterpart to satire and to these other gross enormities I have laid out hereabove; to their palpable evil; and it is an item which is able to build up and to sustain all and to encourage and to honour every virtue in us; able to promote all good simply in a clear fluent honesty of heart and mind.
The fact is certain to me that there is indeed a way between being a wallflower growing veg hating oneself, and being a redneck doing the self-hating for one; and I am also certain that there is a way of keeping sane and surefooted in this crazy and imbecile world which we have made; and which against all sense we try to say it is The Only Thing.
This way is The Way – the definitive and only way – the way of love. There is no guile in the guy Nathaniel who is commended by The Lord of Life for his straightforward and uncomplicated truthfulnes of spirit:
“See! Here is an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile”
Nathaniel was a man who sat under his own fig tree and there considered, prayed, with a deep honest desire for the world to be less clever, less slick, and more generous and open and free in spirit. Thus The Lord Jesus chose him to be one of His twelve.
This type of mind represented by Nathaniel is never a presumptuous assumption of or for satire. The Lord’s mind Himself was and is the quintessence of those qualities by which, and for which, He singled out Nathaniel to join Him. The Lord is not able to be satirised and this is because all criticism of Him is defeated by the fact of Himself; and by the fact of His Incarnation and of His Eternal Presence in and over the world. His is a beauty and a grace, a truthfulness and a loving Spirit from which to take away is not possible.
‘Jesus Christ: The same yesterday, today, and forever’