Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Taking the piss

A few days ago, Matt at Fisking Central had a go at Steve Bell, The Groan’s long-standing chief cartoonist.

“People actually see these things, nod in agreement, then spout about how, 'George Bush really is as stupid as a monkey'. And cartoonists, sadly, are now aiming at this audience. Satire has become straight-forward piss-taking, and it rarely works on that level.

Satire is supposed to reveal something we don't know, make us think about public figures, and occasionally policy, in a new and different way.”

Well, as I said earlier, ‘The Thick of It’ does that I think

I suppose I should reply to this with a rant about the absurd way that sensible discussion is made almost impossible by the way that complex forces are routinely either ignored, or simplified and given celebrity avatars of one kind or another.

But, seeing as I’ve been doing a bit of that lately, I’ll leave it for now.

However, I would like to ask a question about how comedy and serious issues can work together. Comedians, like songwriters, are at their best when they allow their work to take on a life of its own. If you set out to write a song in order to make a point, you usually end up with a tortuous bit of sixth-form poetry set to a three-chord trick. You get Billy Bragg’s ‘It Says Here or Elvis Costello’s ‘Tramp The Dirt Down” when you could be getting ‘St Swithins Day’ or ‘New Lace Sleeves’ instead.

The exception seems to be when a songwriter sets out to say something in a particular way. So, Gil Scott-Heron, for example, in ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is mucking around with a particular way of saying something. The song doesn’t have any particular objective – it doesn’t make concrete criticisms or suggestions like Bragg or Costello, instead he draws fruitful parallels. It’s a funny song as well as one that’s mad as hell about everything.

“You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver's seat.”

The same is true, I would suggest, with jokes. I went to see Jeremy Hardy a while ago with Mrs NTaH. When he’s not trying to say anything specific, Hardy is a fantastically talented and inventive comic. But when he sets out to make a point, he gets a touch of the Billy Braggs as well. When I saw him, the audience (mostly sympathetic to his Pilge-simpleton view of the world I suspect) tittered along nervously while he told us just how mad Bush was. But you could tell when he had dropped the breifing from pseudo-central and started freestyling.

His talent for observational humour came to the fore, and he's hilarious at it.

I’m not (just) saying this just because I think his politics stink. If Jeremy Hardy were to stop trying to say things, and just …er…. say things, I suspect he’d start getting more bookings again.

Similarly, Steve Bell is only really funny when he’s picking up on the random ticks that individuals in the public eye have. His ‘I’m norra fookin dog’ characterisation of Prescott is funny despite the point that he’s trying to make. Not because of it.

Matt is right. He’s good at piss-taking. But you can take the piss out of absolutely anybody, can’t you? What does that prove?

1 comment:

Ed the editor said...

Pisstaking and satire are just parts of a writing/delivery style that informs and hopefully, tickles the reader/listener. Whilst intellectually clever, it need not not necessarily cause you to fall on the floor laughing hysterically, gripping cracked ribs. Just point out an inconsistency, job done.

I wonder if there is any need to define or analyse whether a writer or performer is a pisstaker or a satirist or a parody guru or whatever. Just take things that are said or written at face value, and if you find the points clever and the style makes you laugh, they are satirical/pisstaking/entertaining - to you.

Also there are loads of different ways of taking the piss - Be cruel about appearance, (Hitler was a typical short ass with an attitude.) Or you can state the obvious psychological flaws in a person (Hitler wasnt too bright insisting the master race looked a certain way - a way that was unlike him in every aspect!) or it can also be clever in terms of word use ie Hitler had a blast wiping out France. Or it can be clever in a subtle way and end up totally off the wall (Hitler should have kept in touch with his house painter friends as he could have made fortunes post war putting refurb contracts their way. Sunken battleship grey would have been all the rage.) Or as satire seems to be viewed in the mainstream nowadays, take an event and rewrite it with silly names as if it were a news report - a style I have real trouble dealing with as a reader or writer.

I think taking the piss takes many different forms and just because one person cant be funny by following a particular political line, doesnt mean someone else cant take the piss out of the same subject in a hilarious and free flowing way.