January 1, 2016


Sinking Giggling into the Sea : a review of The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson edited by Harry Mount  (Jonathan Coe, 07/18/13, London Review of Books)

Steve Fielding, an academic, went further and argued in 2011 that in accepting this view of politicians as uniformly corrupt and useless, the public are embracing a dangerous new stereotype, since it 'can only further reinforce mistrust in the public realm, a mistrust that some political forces seek to exploit'. 'Comedy,' he continued, 'has always relied on stereotypes. There was a time when the Irish were thick; the Scots were careful with money; mothers-in-law fierce and ugly; and the Welsh stole and shagged sheep. The corrupt politician is one such stereotype, one that is neither racist nor sexist and seemingly acceptable to all.' The idea that politicians are morally inferior to the rest of us is 'a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not to blame because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong.'

Fielding's remarks were eloquent and timely; but it is remarkable how fully they were anticipated by Frayn in 1963. Even then - in the very year of That Was the Week That Was - Frayn was using the same analogy, and could see, just as clearly, how anti-establishment comedy was letting its audience off the hook: 'To go on mocking the Establishment,' he wrote, 'has more and more meant making the audience laugh not at themselves at all, but at a standard target which is rapidly becoming as well-established as mothers-in-law. To do this is not to undermine but to confirm the audience's prejudices, and has less in common with satire than with community hymn-singing - agreeable and heartwarming as that may be.' And Frayn, indeed, was echoing what James Sutherland had pointed out seven years earlier when he said that 'certain kinds of satirical writing (political satire is a good example) are not normally intended to convert one's opponents, but to gratify and fortify one's friends.' Or perhaps we should give the final, gloomiest word on this subject to William Cowper, writing in 1785:

Yet what can satire, whether grave or gay? ...
What vice has it subdued? whose heart reclaimed
By rigour, or whom laughed into reform?
Alas! Leviathan is not so tamed.

Despite all this, it always seems that successive generations of entertainers, bent on laughing people out of their follies and vices, remain optimistic about the power of anti-establishment comedy at the outset of their careers: it's only later that reality kicks in. When Humphrey Carpenter interviewed the leading lights of the 1960s satire boom for his book That Was Satire, That Was in the late 1990s, he found that what was once youthful enthusiasm had by now curdled into disillusionment. One by one, they expressed dismay at the culture of facetious cynicism their work had spawned, their complaints coalescing into a dismal litany of regret. John Bird: 'Everything is a branch of comedy now. Everybody is a comedian. Everything is subversive. And I find that very tiresome.' Barry Humphries: 'Everyone is being satirical, everything is a send-up. There's an infuriating frivolity, cynicism and finally a vacuousness.' Christopher Booker: 'Peter Cook once said, back in the 1960s, "Britain is in danger of sinking giggling into the sea," and I think we really are doing that now.'

The key word here is 'giggling' (or in some versions of the quotation, 'sniggering'). Of the four Beyond the Fringe members, it's always Peter Cook who is described as the comic genius, and like any genius he fully (if not always consciously) understood the limitations of his own medium. He understood laughter, in other words - and certainly understood that it is anything but a force for change. Famously, when opening his club, The Establishment, in Soho in 1961, Cook remarked that he was modelling it on 'those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War'. And his comment about giggling (or sniggering) as we sink beneath the sea was developed in a Beyond the Fringe sketch called 'The Sadder and Wiser Beaver',‚Äč4 about a bunch of young, would-be radical journalists who won't admit they have sold their soul to a rapacious newspaper proprietor:

COOK: Whenever the old man has a cocktail party, there's about ten of us - young, progressive people - we all gather up the far end of the room and ... quite openly, behind our hands, we snigger at him.

BENNETT: Well, I don't know, that doesn't seem very much to me.

COOK: A snigger here, a snigger there - it all adds up.

The sketch makes it clear that laughter is not just ineffectual as a form of protest, but that it actually replaces protest - a point also developed by Frayn in his introduction. Ruminating on where the sudden public appetite for satire might have come from, he wrote:

Conceivably the demand arose because after ten years of stable Conservative government, with no prospect in 1961 of its ever ending, the middle classes felt some vague guilt accumulating for the discrepancy between their prosperous security and the continuing misery of those who persisted in failing to conform, by being black, or queer, or mad, or old. Conceivably they felt the need to disclaim with laughter any responsibility for this situation, and so relieve their consciences without actually voting for anything which might have reduced their privileges.

The appeal of the funny Colbert in a nutshell and why he's failing now that he's serious.

Posted by at January 1, 2016 4:57 PM