Political Satire in 2020 – Who’s Laughing Now?

By Alice Butler

2020 has been an unbelievable year so far. From bushfires to pandemic to protest, one could only speculate what might possibly come next and then, just like that, Kanye West announced his presidency campaign. 

It is not unique to observe that for some time now the world of politics has deteriorated into something far beyond what anyone might have predicted. A few years ago, when Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon parodied the ‘Trump vs Clinton’ presidential debates on Saturday Night Live, the whole gag was the very idea that Trump could ever be elected as US President. With hindsight, these sketches make for uncomfortable viewing – how could the left have been so naïve? Similarly, in the UK, Boris Johnson, whose bumbling buffoonish personality has been a target of satire for many years, is now Prime Minister.

Political satire has for thousands of years been an artistic medium which takes the normal state of politics and exaggerates it for comic affect. Satire at its heart is entertaining and yet it also reveals weaknesses, exploits transgressions and calls out absurdity in politics, provoking the audience to ask questions of their society. It doesn’t claim to set out to change the state of politics, but it does seek to keep it in check. The hit TV show ‘The Thick of It’ created by satirist Armando Iannucci aired from 2005 to 2012, spanning three UK Prime Ministers. Iannucci has claimed that the show worked so well at the time because it took a relatively stable period of politics and slightly exaggerated it. This type of satire, he claimed in an interview with the Guardian, would never work today because politics already seems like a parody. Jess Phillips MP is a fan of the show and claimed on an interview panel with Iannucci that she encounters certain farcical characters from ‘The Thick of It’ in everyday Westminster life. Therefore, when the very weaknesses, transgressions and absurdity that satire exposes are so clearly played out in the public eye, does satire have anywhere to go?

Political satire in 2020 is not looking good. The movie ‘Irresistible,’ written and directed by ex-Daily Show host Jon Stewart, satirises the process of election campaigning in the USA. It was released a few weeks ago to very poor reviews. Political Cartoons are also struggling. Patrick Cappatte, once a cartoonist at the New York Times, relates in his online TedTalk that he once sketched a parody of what Trump may tweet on Christmas Day, only for the real Trump to tweet something shockingly similar on the day. Art imitating life or life imitating art? With the rise of populism and personality politics, the liberal left, who are normally at the forefront of producing such satire, are finding it harder to find the punch line in modern day affairs. It is not a unique observation to claim that rather than satirising politics, the politics is the satire itself. 

So, where do we go from here? Is there any hope of laughing at the dire situation we are in or are we left to face reality head-on and find other means to call out politics? Moreover, with the rise of recent ‘cancel culture’ and the increasing push for political correctness, satire is to become more closely monitored. However, in these absurd times perhaps what is needed is the release of a laugh, and the freedom to openly laugh at our political state is something which should not be taken for granted. Indeed, some of the best satire has been written under times of extreme political upheaval. As the ancient satirist Juvenal once noted, in times like these ‘it’s difficult not to write satire.’ 

However, dare we joke that Kanye 2020 is an impossible thing to achieve? For in the end, it may be the very victims of such political satire that end up having the last laugh. 

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