By Shakthi Thyagarajan
Satire is an incredible tool to scrutinise our state affairs, but the experts warn any aspiring satirists out there not to take the easy way out by attacking just the person and not the politics – you’ve got to make your punches count.
We have just crawled out of a global health crisis only to fall back into a financial one. One frenzied morning you find yourself unable to commute to work because the train drivers are on strike and the next you’ve got to give up your usual imported cheese because Sainsbury’s hasn’t been stocking it in weeks. Satire is a glorious outlet to vent your frustrations about the shitstorm that is UK politics.
It is agonisingly clear that the circus act cruising the corridors of Number 10 isn’t very entertaining, so the burden falls on the ordinary (wo)man to keep things light during a time when we, frankly, might have been a bit too generous with the shrooms.
So I sat down with Liv Struss, one of Britain’s leading irony ladies to discuss the craft behind taking the piss out of the people – but with a little more decorum. She also goes by the name Nerine Skinner, a comedian who discovered during lockdown that she resembled the infamous blonde.
“I see this person and they’re so ridiculous in terms of character that I’ve got to do something about it. I took her campaign video and thought I’ll do a mock-up of it,” Nerine says. And a rather successful mock-up it was, with thousands of positive reviews that would have had the original Truss envious.
By only imitating the characteristic facial tics, hand gestures & phonetic pausing, Struss cuts an indistinguishable figure to Truss. “I felt like an imposter, particularly in the beginning, because I don’t have a political background,” Nerine says. “I never knew much about politics so it was a lot of learning on the job.”
She’s nailed it then.
Although Truss has proven herself to be rather unsympathetic to just about everyone that isn’t middle class, white, and in their fifties, Nerine isn’t as callous in her satirical taunts.
“I do worry about the content I put out there. A little bit of me feels bad because it just looks like I’m attacking the woman.”
But only a little bit, right?
I suppose it’s not exactly ‘nice’ to take a jab at those with contrary beliefs to yours by acting a bumbling fool, exaggerating their body language or bringing up questionable hairstyle choices. But, neither is it nice to vote to increase tuition fees and reintroduce fracking, or refuse to increase benefits in line with inflation during a financial crisis the nation crumpled under because of a rash economic decision you signed off on.
“A jester’s role was to remind the king that they were human, but also to remind the king of the people out there,” says Dr Ray Campbell, a lecturer teaching BA Comedy and Satire at Goldsmiths University. A court jester of the past could insult without consequences. In the contemporary day, they’ve been reduced to inanimate scraps of fabric and even then dread to say anything of the king except their allegiance.
Dr Campbell explains that satirists and the state have always had a troubled relationship. A stand-up comedian as well, he’s seen the way the idea of political correctness has been used to silence critics of the government.
“It was a borrowed term used to smear us in the eighties. It comes from communist China where members of the party were required to follow the party line, and not doing so meant they were politically incorrect.”
But it’s not as if we have been truly silenced by any new public order laws, or had our primary satirical panel show cancelled after two decades of airing with no clear reason.
See, satire is a delicate art requiring great skill. If that is understood, the satirist will have chastened the despot, and all across the land people will admire their spirit in taking on the tyrant with only wits. If not, they’re just the average playground bully that hasn’t quite left primary school.
A lot of the “jokes” before the left started peddling their woke agenda were sexist, racist and/or transphobic (thanks Gervais). It also wasn’t very clever. Considering the prevalent chauvinism within the industry and the political alienation of women, I understand why Skinner feels bad when she parodies a woman who’s already getting a lot of flack.
Satire, being a physical act, will have physical effects on those it’s directed at, Dr Campbell says. We’ve seen that free speech has its own caveats. It doesn’t exist in a discourse-free vacuum, and discourse produces ideology. Speaking freely will reveal the inner psychological workings of the joke teller.
But just because it’s been used by a few irresponsibly to stir up hate, it doesn’t have to be all bad.
“If you’re a political satirist, you have a duty to expose the inner workings of the political system. It’s not necessary to comment on a politician’s physical features, although that’s all part of it,” Dr Campbell says.
Satire is nuanced and multifaceted. It includes ridicule, irony, mockery and sarcasm, which at times can be physical. It makes leaders of the state, previously thought to be untouchable, and their decisions identifiable to the public. It has a didactic function, as long as its focus is on the politics an individual represents rather than on just the individual.
If debasing humour is what it takes to spell out the political system, the system so divorced from reality that ordinary citizens end up ignoring it altogether for their own sanity, then so be it. Who wouldn’t ignore a system that is quite comfortable with mass homelessness and dwindling wages, to the extent that parents give up their own watered-down cabbage soup suppers so their child can have something? This is no longer a fable in a children’s storybook, but a heartbreaking reality.
Liz Truss pledged to restore the country into an autonomist food nation with talks of pork markets, domestic apples, and cheese, and what she actually delivered was a soul-destroying, food-bank-dependent nation.
By no means am I saying that this is a valid excuse to rip into her, but it is a valid excuse to castigate the absolute train wreck of a leadership she briefly battered the country with.