Why do we laugh at satire?


As I sat this week in the plush Theatre Royal Haymarket amidst hoards of laughter watching Richard Bean’s delicious satire, Great Britain, a recurring thought was plaguing my mind: are we laughing at these characters because we agree with the playwright’s spotlight parodies of them, or are we laughing because the portrayals are so ludicrously far from the truth?

Bean’s play takes no prisoners. Its mission is to tackle the three Ps – the press, police, and politicians – and it rarely misses its targets. The production consists of a series of short, succinct and punchy scenes, which seem to exist purely for Bean to take a shot at one of his many victims. It may sound cruel and brutal in practice but the playwright is shielded by the cloak of ‘satire’.

Of course, satire has theoretically existed for as long as theatre itself. But the form of satire as we know it first kicked off in the early 1960s with the stage revue Beyond the Fringe, written by and featuring Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. These Oxbridge-educated comedians attempted, effectively, to not only shed a humorous light on the state of current affairs, but also to subvert and undermine the very establishment within which they existed. In exposing the holes and flaws of a powerful system (such as the government, the judiciary, or public schooling, for example), it somehow seemed that one could render that system impotent, or at least prevent people from taking it so seriously. We recognise similar modes of satire in our own culture now through shows such as Yes, MinisterThe Thick of It, and Have I Got News For You.

We often hear the phrase “biting satire”, as if the form itself wishes to inflict damage. There is something strangely sadistic about it. It’s the ugly sister of comedy; nowhere near as relenting or merciful. Does this mean that satire is a weapon, designed to take down or “kill” its target? When our conventional response is simply laughter, this hardly seems likely. When Brecht laid down his key components for political theatre, humour was not one of his methods for prompting social change. The audiences were, in his view, required to be invigorated and stimulated by the disturbingly bleak subjects of the stage – not to simply “hang up their brains with their hats” as they entered the theatre. He did not propose laughter, but rather alienation. Laughter would have been too passive a reaction. If anything, amusement suggests an attachment to the play’s material – a safety and a sense of comfort – when what Brecht wanted was to make his audience feel uncomfortable, to invoke his verfremdungseffekt, to say the least.

The targets are more often than not those at the top of the establishment. It’s easy and convenient for us to attack politicians and suggest that they are somehow inferior to us, for it grants us the belief that we – the mere voters – cannot be blamed for the sorry state of the affairs we are watching. We are simply victims, of course. Could we say then that satire’s ultimate aim to create scapegoats? Perhaps we revel in the mockery because we the audience are safe from its clutches. We know that at the end of the play, we are able to rise from our seats and leave the theatre, still sniggering, but the characters remain. There is nowhere for them to run.

What is it about satire that excites us so fervently? Bean’s play, after all, shows us nothing new. What we see ridiculed is what we have already seen in reality – phone hacking, political corruption, greedy corporations – the playwright is not offering us anything novel. Thus, this satire does not undermine society; it simply replays it for the stage. And yet we laugh. But did we laugh when the news first broke out on our television screens, in our newspapers, or when we discussed it with our friends and family? For some reason, seeing the scandalous events of reality transposed into and encapsulated by the realm of theatre is incredibly comical to us.

Great Britain was so current and fresh that it had to be rehearsed in secret and its entire existence was only announced a few days before it opened. This was to avoid contempt of court, as the phone hacking inquiry had yet to reach a verdict, but it begs the question: is there something inherently dangerous about satire? Understandably, satire is a form that walks hand-in-hand with controversy; it is not something that can really be undertaken half-heartedly. That being said, a mode that prides itself on attacking established structures undoubtedly has the potential to be threatening and damaging to them in the long run. It seems odd that something designed to give us a good chuckle also has the ability to be so tensely precarious.

David Hare’s 2004 play Stuff Happens, about the events leading up to the Iraq War, is often described as a satire, but it is hardly a comedy. It is similar to Great Britain in that it is also based on real events, although Bean’s play labels itself as a fiction (even though we know that it is based on very real occurrences). Both plays receive numerous laughs when onstage but it seems odd to find comedy in dramatisations of politics and events that actually transpired. The simple fact of the matter is that people like to laugh, and comedy needs targets.

If the satirical playwright is right – if we are laughing because we recognize the hopelessness and preposterousness of what we see on stage – then surely laughter is the most inappropriate response of all. A few giggles in a theatre do not instigate social change. Why are we laughing when we ought to be shocked and appalled? It seems nonsensical. Bertolt Brecht would turn in his grave. Laughter is a conditioned, shared, and collective reaction. Isn’t it often the case that we laugh because everybody else is laughing? It seems more and more obvious that we laugh at satire because we simply have no other response. We agree with the playwright, what we are seeing is terrible, but we also acknowledge that it is not within our power to change things. Soon enough, the play must end, we must exit the theatre, and, though we leave amused at what we have just seen, there is something significantly less funny about the real world.

IMAGE/NT Press Images


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