Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God, afraid of me.—Alexander Pope, 1738
To function in society, we rely on our ability to get along with other people and we do this largely by showing that we take the same things seriously as they do. We therefore urgently need a place in which people are not only licensed to scoff at things others hold dear but rewarded for doing so. We need a group of people whose profession it is to speak the truth on our behalf—even if it’s inconvenient, impolite or downright offensive. That place is the comedy club (and its televised and social media equivalents), and those people are our comedians.
When we laugh at a comedian’s edgy jokes, we are acknowledging difficult truths that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to mention. Laughter comes easily to us, of course, when the comedian’s mockery is gentle and affectionate or when she is mocking something we already find ludicrous. But one of the main purposes of comedy—and especially of satire—is to break through the veneer of conventional politeness, to say the things people don’t want to hear, to undermine our comfortable delusions, puncture our self-importance and demonstrate the gulf between how we want things to appear and how they are. This realisation is bound to be painful. If no one is offended by a satire, that satire has missed its mark.
We cannot grant the people who are most offended veto rights over what we can joke about—not least because it is often the shibboleths of the prim and proper that most need to be challenged. It is especially important to satirise religion, precisely because the devout so often lack a sense of humour. In an ideal world, we would, for example, saturate the airwaves with images of Mohammed, until Muslims became sufficiently inured to this that no one responded with more than an exasperated sigh.
It is an indictment of our cowardice that we continue to permit this absurd taboo against images of Mo to go largely unchallenged, even as the death toll of people who dare to question it continues to mount. Salman Rushdie lost an eye; Samuel Paty was beheaded; and an English grammar school teacher has remained in hiding for nearly two years, after he showed his pupils a Charlie Hebdo cartoon. To their shame, the school involved initially responded by officially condemning the teacher. They have since reversed that judgement on the basis that he “had not intended to cause offence” and have cravenly promised “never to use images of the prophet in any future lessons.”
Rushdie, Paty and the unnamed teacher are not comedians, of course. But the freedom to question taboos must be upheld whether the context is jocular or serious. In fact, it is vital that we are allowed to not just discuss but mock ideas that people hold sacred—even when the mockery is deliberately provocative. It is only by questioning previous certainties that we can ever come to a clearer knowledge of things. This is as true of moral pieties as it is of scientific facts. Just as the clash of ideas has led to progress in science, the questioning of previous eras’ ethical certainties has made us more moral people, people who, in general, no longer burn witches, ostracise unmarried mothers, castrate homosexuals or torture people for their opinions on theological niceties such as whether the Eucharist is the real body of Jesus or just a symbol. Comedy often helps to promote this moral progress because comedians stress-test our social assumptions and our ethical intuitions, challenge our polite agreements as to what we should think and how we should feel. This cannot be done effectively if they are constrained by the rules of etiquette.
The Pleasance in Edinburgh recently cancelled a show by controversial comedian Jerry Sadowitz because of audience complaints, one of the chief of which was that in one of his sketches Sadowitz refers to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as a Paki. But to assume this is a racist gibe is naïve. Sadowitz is not a politician, making an appeal to his constituents or voters. As with all the best comedians, his audience is his target. It is not only unavoidable that some people’s sensibilities will be offended by his act—that is part of the point. Just as we are congratulating ourselves for understanding what he is trying to say and indulging in either cosy agreement or delicious moral outrage, a comedian like Sadowitz will add an unexpected twist that demonstrates what fools we are. “A lot of black people once ran up at the stage and that’s when the muggings began,” Sadowitz told the audience at one of his shows. After letting the shocked silence linger for an uncomfortably long time, he added, “and I’d mugged half of them before I realised what I was doing.” Brian Logan has brilliantly described Sadowitz’s skilful audience manipulations:
The unsavoury opinions, the use of an ableist slur, the tedious conspiracy theorising … These are deeply uncomfortable moments. Unforgivable, you might think—until our host begins stealthily to send up what you took to be an incursion of real-world paranoia or bigotry into his comedy. It’s a mug’s game parsing what’s irony and what’s the “real” Jerry. He keeps scrambling those signals and withholding that satisfaction—or that get-out clause.
It puts the onus back on his audience, to ask ourselves: why am I laughing? Why are my ethics and my funny bone in disagreement?
It’s tempting to think that the Edinburgh organisers must be sensible enough to be able to separate gratuitous slurs from shocking but important points. But this is a subjective distinction, and the track record of such censors has not been good. Sadowitz was forced to withdraw the live recording of a previous Edinburgh show—on that occasion, the offence was caused by a reference to Jimmy Savile. “A friend of mine reckons Jimmy Savile is a paedophile. Rubbish! He’s a child-bender,” Sadowitz reportedly quipped. “That’s why he does all the fucking charity work: it’s to gain public sympathy for when his fucking case comes up.” Savile is now believed to have sexually abused more than 200 children. He was able to do so with impunity, despite being a well-known celebrity, constantly in the public eye, because of the UK’s ferocious libel laws, coupled with people’s fear of giving offence. If we have no means of calling them out, criminals can get away with horrific behaviour for decades. And satirists are among the most fearless in denouncing the vicious but privileged.
Satire often strips away the layers of decorum to reveal the ugly, naked reality. Two well-known poems by eighteenth-century writer Jonathan Swift provide especially literal examples of this. In “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” Swift describes a prostitute undressing, removing her wig, glass eye, mouse-fur eyebrows, jaw and bosom plumpers and applying a salve to various sores. A series of mishaps in the night—her glass eye is stolen, a rat nibbles off her plasters, a cat urinates on her padding and a dog fills her wig with flees—leaves her even worse off in the morning. “Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison’d,” comments the poet. “The Lady’s Dressing Room” luxuriates in equally revolting descriptions. The naïve narrator, Strephon, enters his beloved’s boudoir to find the detritus of her beauty treatments, including towels “Begummed, bemattered, and beslimed/With dirt, and sweat, and earwax grimed”; handkerchiefs “All varnish’d o’er with snuff and snot”; and—most repellent of all—gloves made from her dead pet dog Tripsy’s hide. These descriptions aren’t pleasant, flattering or respectful to women. But, despite the hyperbole, they are more real than the romantic delusions of someone like Strephon, who is shocked to find that the woman he idolised defecates: “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”
We tend to defend ourselves against the uncomfortable truths satire presents by kidding ourselves that they don’t really apply to us. Swift himself famously described satire as “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” Cheap satire panders to the audience; we smugly laugh together at things we’ve all agreed to consign to scorn. As literary critic Christopher Ricks points out, “the shrewd satirist will welcome such complacencies, glad that he can have all the prestige of being hard-hitting with no risk of bruising his knuckles,” whereas a great satirist will not be satisfied with the smug applause of people who know his barbs are not directed at them. The best comedians have therefore often been hated because they are dangerous—we never know what we are in for. We don’t know if and when the things that we find most sacred will be placed under the satirist’s magnifying glass, which reveals every blemish and flaw as mercilessly as, in Swift’s poem, Celia’s mirror reveals the hairs on her chin and the whiteheads on her nose.
As Jacques reasons in As You Like It, the best thing to do if you’re satirised is therefore to pretend not to be offended. To take personal umbrage at a satirical depiction, after all, is to show that you recognise it as an accurate portrait of yourself:
they that are most gall’d with my folly,
They most must laugh …
He that a fool doth very wisely hit
Doth very foolishly, although he smart,
Not to seem senseless of the bob.
Hence the mixture of nervous laughter and uneasy looks among the audience of this Ricky Gervais performance, in which he describes how corrupt, sycophantic and debauched most Hollywood actors are:
This desire to seem above it all, personally unaffected by the satirist’s words, may partly explain the obsession with critiquing comedians for punching down. This accusation allows people to take offence vicariously, without admitting that they themselves are vulnerable to mockery. The affronted can always claim that they are championing the vulnerable—as opposed to simply being unable to take a joke.
Ironically, this same impulse to dodge the personal implications of satire may be behind the offence often caused by irreverent and blasphemous humour—even though attacks on a god are the ultimate in punching up. The devout often justify their outrage with the excuse that they are defending the honour of, say, Mohammed or Kali. But gods don’t exist—and if they did, surely they would be immune to mockery. We take offence on their behalf because we are unwilling to acknowledge the satirist’s real target: the wrongheaded actions and bizarre mental contortions of so many believers.
In fact, since folly and absurdity exist in every sphere of life, the satirist’s fists should fly out in all directions: up, down and sideways (even if that means that innocent bystanders occasionally get pummelled). No one is either above or beneath ridicule and contempt.
Of course, some mockery feels mean-spirited. Like all forms of free speech—indeed, like all freedoms—the freedom to joke about whatever you like has trade-offs. Some comedy is tantamount to bullying. But it is still vital that we do not allow anyone or anything to be exempt from satire because to do so is to place blinkers on ourselves. We must be free to point out the evil or absurdity of any person or phenomenon.
The advice if you can’t something nice, don’t say anything at all is helpful in personal interactions, but destructive to truth if it’s used as a guide to public discourse. Norma Major completely missed the point when she complained that on the satirical BBC show Spitting Image, “they never have anything nice to say about anyone.” Satirists aren’t nice. They don’t present a positive vision of society; their criticism isn’t constructive. Generally, it just conveys the message the current state of affairs is bad. But when we are only allowed to say nice things about people, naked emperors walk among us with impunity, with their hairy testicles dangling free.
People often argue that some jokes shouldn’t be permitted on the grounds that they aren’t funny. But, setting aside the fact that humour is subjective, truly effective satire will not always raise a chuckle. From 1984 to Black Mirror, satire has often been more disturbing than hilarious. In any case, whether we find something funny depends on many factors, including how painfully close the satirical depiction comes to the thing that is being satirised. Watching the brilliant recent Netflix series Leila, which depicts a dystopic near-future Hindu theocracy, I didn’t crack a single smile.
There is also the complicating factor that many comics employ a kind of ventriloquism to make their points. Anyone who has been to a comedy club will know that comedians often adopt personae, relating long anecdotes in the voice of a bigoted, obsessive, neurotic or startlingly eccentric figure, say. This provides plausible deniability, allowing them to express otherwise unacceptable opinions under the guise that they are just part of an act. And often, it lets the comedian lull her audience into a false sense of security. The speaker begins by sounding eminently reasonable, only gradually revealing the depths of her insanity. This approach has a long tradition, stemming back at least to Swift’s treatise A Modest Proposal, in which the narrator, in calm, business-like language, proposes that the Irish sell their children’s flesh as culinary delicacies. It can be extremely difficult to distinguish hoax from reality, especially when the work closely resembles what it would have been if it hadn’t been a parody.
The writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu tells the poet Alexander Pope in a poem of 1733:
Satire should, like a polished razor keen,
Wound with a touch, that’s scarcely felt or seen,
Thine is an oyster knife that hacks and hews,
The rage, but not the talent, to abuse.
Yet Lady Mary’s tone-policing is wrong here. She ignores a tradition stretching back to the ancient Greek satirist Juvenal, in which the satirist is motivated by anger at injustice and hypocrisy. Juvenal writes “facit indignatio versum” (‘indignation makes the verse’) or, as literary critic John Mullan parses it, “The satirist’s anger … makes silence impossible.” It may be necessary to hack and hew one’s way past the briars of convention, not to lightly nick, but to nuke it all from orbit. And rather than taking offence at the satirist’s acerbic depictions of things, we should be offended at the absurdities that provide him with so much material. As Pope writes in his Epilogue to the Satires:
Ask you what Provocation I have had?
The strong Antipathy of Good to Bad.
When Truth or Virtue an Affront endures,
The Affront is mine, my Friend, and should be yours.
Not all satire will make you laugh. It can make you feel embarrassed, humiliated, confused, exposed, hurt or even angry. But none of those feelings invalidate it—let alone justify silencing the satirist. Satire is far too important for that and every free society must allow it to flourish.
This piece originated, in much shorter form, as a talk I gave for the Academy of Ideas.
Erratum: In an earlier version of this piece, I misremembered the details of Sadowitz’s joke about muggings. That has been corrected here.