– Trisha Ray
In 1971, the British comedian and musical radio legend Spike Milligan published the first volume of his The War (And Peace) Memoirs, entitled Adolf Hitler – My Part in His Downfall. The book begins in this fashion:
“HOW IT ALL STARTED
September 3rd, 1939. The last minutes of peace ticking away. Father and I were watching Mother digging our air-raid shelter. “She’s a great little woman,” said Father. “And getting smaller all the time,” I added. Two minutes later, a man called Chamberlain who did Prime Minister impressions spoke on the wireless; he said, “As from eleven o’clock we are at war with Germany.” (I loved the WE.) “War?” said Mother. “It must have been something we said,” said Father. The people next door panicked, burnt their post office books and took in the washing.“
Milligan was one of the most popular and well-traveled of WWI touring acts, doing musical shows and the occasional humorous speech for the British troops. But a soldier himself, forced into the thick of what he called the Allied Porridge, he could not refrain from the odd jab and the self-deprecating sarcasm directed at the Home Office and the troops on grounds of general inefficiency and also from having too many odd socks. He was one of many comics who did in fact criticize the war effort, frequently, and with stinging wit.
By the time WWII had come around, the contagion of political critique had spread to the US troops’ performing sections. Commenting on the unwisdom of sending green young American boys straight off to the beaches of France, the legendary Bob Hope, said “It sure has been a pleasure for us to broadcast for the sailors and soldiers; besides, it’s part of the National Defence Program to prepare our boys for anything.” Bob Hope, for the record, was made the first honorary veteran of the US Armed Forces for his longstanding services in entertaining the troops. Future comedians who pushed the envelope much much further than him, however, were hardly so lucky.
In 1939, a British comedian called Arthur Askey recorded this tune,
infamous for its criticism of senior military personnel – keeping in mind that calling your sergeant-major your mother at the time was one of the gravest insults to an officer’s authority over his men. Of course, the satire worked both ways – anti-Hitler war propaganda resulted in a proliferation of his image across the Allied countries, and even inspired a Disney tribute by Spike Jones, commenting on Hitler’s personal beauty . Another song by Askey, entitled ‘It’s Really Nice To See You Mr. Hess’, written just after news broke of Hitler’s deputy having escaped to Scotland and been reported hiding behind the red tape contingent on the Home Office seeking his extradition, was immediately banned by the War Office on the grounds that it would demoralize the troops.
Which brings us neatly to Lenny Bruce , that icon of American censorship trials whose semi-autobiographical novel was called ‘How To Talk Dirty and Influence People.’ He was arrested multiple times on charges of obscenity in performance. When he finally came to trial in 1964, famous peers like Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer and Woody Allen turned up for positive testimony and started a gubernatorial petition for immediate dismissal of charges. Bruce would talk about the police, his court battles over obscenity charges, and tirades against fascism and complain that he was being denied his right to freedom of speech after repeatedly insulting whatever famous celebrity or official was sitting in for his club performances. His posthumous pardon overthrew the obscenity law he was charged with for legal purposes, and freed up the arena for comedians to talk about politics freely in America for the first time since before the McCarthy era.
In the meantime, in England, Peter Sellers was busy parodying politicians and policemen. Having started out with Spike Milligan’s The Goon Show, he quickly found his way to poking fun at the establishment in a very anti-establishment underground club scene in post-war England. An excerpt from his standalone piece mocking vague election campaigns by upperclass Tory MPs, called the The Party Political Speech, recorded in 1958 goes thus.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Joan Rivers was revolutionizing the comic scene by taking the mantle of the man’s sexual power in a decidedly and uncompromisingly feminine way. She became famous in the 1950’s for her outrageous stand up skit first performed in New York, where she professed deep undying sexual desire for the then queen of American pop music, Barbra Streisand. Joan Rivers made it possible for the female comedian to come into her own, and later performers like Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman, though much more obviously political in their material, have much to thank her for.
It is fair to say, however, that the post 1960’s generations of young comics were inspired by a towering figure in the USA who overshadowed past and present creators in the genre and left his playful compatriots in England, such as the Monty Python Circus or Fry and Laurie, far behind in terms of political satire. The great George Carlin sold out to audiences across America and the world, showcasing his bitter and vituperative pieces against religion and government. So in England, where we have this, as a brilliant expression against the UK’s covertly homophobic militia.
In the US of A, George Carlin brings things right out into the open as to what the politics of the military and state really are in terms of bigotry.
Opening up the floodgates finally to what we are now calling the era of SNL politics, featuring other non-SNL greats like Jay Leno, Bill Cosby and Ellen Degeneres also. Standup comedy now finally and irreversibly shifts to television as its main source of revenue gains. The British began to have the post 1980’s alternative comedy movements, as performed by greats like Rowan Atkinson, Dawn French, and the irrepressible comedy stand-up and sketch duo Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
Sketches like these and the other memorably hilarious ones, like the Fry and Laurie policeman sketches, Rowan Atkinson’s clergy parodies, and Craig Ferguson’s racial profiling skits had an undeniable influence on the political scene. As fast as the reins of government changed in Downing Street, these comedians had a sketch ready to mock sanitation, health, immigration and foreign policy issues among other things. With millions in TV viewership, this generation was once known as the intellectual set who brought the liberals back into power, which effect of course did not survive the Gulf Wars but did survive Maggie Thatcher.
Over in the USA, the increasingly visible race politics of the country were being brought to the forefront by Bill Cosby, who would later be superseded by a young and brash comedian called Chris Rock in the championing of liberal race values.
Coming to the post-millenium era, as TV viewership and the Internet phenomenon grew by leaps and bounds, so did the general public’s apathy towards real issues. In a world where instant gratification became the norm, mental insularity was challenged heavily by a new breed of class-conscious, race-conscious and politically conscious comedians whose identity shifted from the mainstream white to the marginalized immigrant trope. As a direct result of 9/11, as race politics and the issue of immigration came to the forefront in the USA and the UK, comedians began building a narrative around the bigotry of the state and society in propagating the myth of the evil alien non-white. These performances were often direct critiques of the invasion of Iraq and the costly war thereof. Bill Maher, long-time stand–up comic and host of a show called Politically Incorrect, actually got fired for saying something extremely politically incorrect post 9/11, namely that the suicide bombers were not cowards. The quote was – “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” Jon Stewart continued this tradition of the stand-up comic turned TV show host, using the platform of television comedy to express the anti-military and liberal stance of an educated Democrat who could make fun of both parties.
But nobody on American TV was making quite so much noise as SNL. Relentlessly hammering at the administration during the Bush era, the writers and performers at Saturday Night Live New York thrived in the grandstanding political divide of red vs blue. McCain, Bush, Palin, Clinton, both Bill and Hillary, Obama and Biden came under equal fire. A study published by the APA (American Press Association) even showed that electoral politics was so heavily influenced by SNL that after the very famous skit where Tina Fey played Sarah Palin, the Democrats actually drew six points ahead in opinion polls nationwide. As for Obama, the most prominently aggressive supporter he had at the time held him in a great deal of respect but had no problem bashing him and the entire black Democratic demographic in the same routine.
As the comedy in the UK turned towards the surreal and the introspective, the USA’s vibrant electoral politics spawned bigger and better genii of the stand-up genre. But in both countries, the tradition of performative satire remained strong principally because in the age of political correctness doubled with state censorship, comedians are allowed to say the shocking and the outrageous things nobody else can under the guise of humour. Carlin was anti-Vietnam, Chris Rock is anti-military, Sarah Silverman is a Jewish comedian who frequently bashes the corporations, Ellen Degeneres is openly gay and has done routines hinging on it. All the comedians mentioned here have in one way or another influenced the political issues of their day by forming public opinion and mediating between a censored press and a people ignorant of political media propaganda through black satire. It is a tribute to that freedom of speech so jealously guarded by these two countries that these comedians are allowed to exist – it is another matter that the struggle to preserve civil rights even in these utopias of free media is a constant battle. The stand-up comedian speaks from the margins of the political arena, but like the court jester he or she has the freedom to satirize, politicize and humorize with impunity on issues extremely central to the welfare of the state and her people, and as such represents one of the few remaining corners of commonsense and relative honesty in the political circus of the present era. In both the USA and the UK, politics and political satire or political comedy are inextricable from each other, one buoying up the other in terms of media attention and public relevance. George W. Bush will be remembered decades, perhaps centuries from now for his political, linguistic or grammatical blunders, each of which have been documented, examined and mocked in a ruthlessly built-up and well-substantiated body of parody that surrounds his image in public memory. He becomes not just a leader or politician but an emblem of a particular kind of intellect, perspective, and time, created for purposes of satiric comment and lingering as a mocking substitute for historical identification. The stand-up comedian has deconstructed the politician, mined him for his archetypes of saddle-less cowboy and gentle idiot, and given us an impenetrable public image of the powerful puppet with limited motor control. In doing so, satire has embedded itself into the machineries of publicity used by the state, hijacking PR and harnessing it to the funny-man who tells it like it ‘really’ is, giving us a somewhat-reassuring, somewhat-hypnotic feeling that even if we don’t have any power to change things, at least we retain the control-motive of being able to laugh at them in the final analysis.