Film, News & Commentary

Charlie Pickering, the state of satire and the satire of the state

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Lamenting his alienation from youth culture, Grandpa Simpson moaned: “I used to be with ‘it’, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’, and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me.”
I empathise with Abe. Even for a slick twentysomething, “it” is illusive — too fluid and ephemeral. Finding “its” haft, bearing “its” weight, as one hacks through the dense cultural milieu is the work of Sisyphus. But we can take snapshots, to trace “its” edges, here and now. So what is “it”, at this moment, if “it” is, indeed, anything at all?
In a Californian film studio — too deliberately mocked up to parody the quaintness of low-budget community TV — a president used “it” to sell his new healthcare package, abetted by a prickly fat man with a vagrant’s beard, sat between two ferns.
The stuffy CIA used “it” to announce the agency’s foray into that nominally un-stuffy realm of incisive bon mots, Twitter.


In China, people are jailed for “it”.
In France, people were killed for “it”.
What “it” is, now, is satire. It is the cut-through language of Millennials, progressives and those who know how to speak to them. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and The Onion are the best-known modern wholesalers of this social and political currency.
Closer to home, we have the Shovel, an Aussie-centric Onion clone, now syndicated by Fairfax; the various projects of The Chaser crew; Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell; Clarke and Dawe; the triumphs of Rob Sitch and Working Dog; and, of course, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, the self-described “investigative jokesalist”, whose show is now halfway through its 20-episode run.
When The Weekly first went to air, Pickering was criticised across the board, either simply for aping John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, or for aping it without flair.
John Oliver: who’s too much like Jon Stewart, who himself has really just been filling in for Craig Kilborn (while he is on assignment in Kuala Lumpur). Kilborn, of course, was really just Johnny Carson, presenting a comedy current affairs program, which was really just an updated and edgier version of HBO’s 1980s sketch comedy show Not Necessarily the News. And anyway, most Western progressive satirists, living and dead, are and were just pop-comedy darlings repackaging the highbrow socio-political criticism of Gore Vidal, who was really just– oh, you get the point.
One of Pickering’s harshest critiques came from The Australian’s Michael Bodey, who laments the surfeit of satirical news shows. Bodey thinks we need more sketch and character-based comedy, pointing to Amy Schumer as the shining exemplar. The problem is that comedians like Schumer, though very funny, aren’t so interested in simplifying the upshots of dense (read: boring) legislative fine print. Schumer’s brand of satire is geared more toward the broad lampooning of hypocritical and outdated social mores, rather than dissecting abstruse policy matters.
She is adept at, for example, criticising the irrational defence of Bill Cosby, or the objectification of female actors. But I’ve never seen Schumer, nor her sketch-comedy counterparts, explain complex issues like mass surveillance or net neutrality, per John Oliver; nor foreign aid, the economics of gay marriage and the manipulation of partisan government inquiries, as Charlie Pickering has done. Sketches and caricature are fine, but tend to joke around legislated bigotry and nefarious neoconservativism, by mocking character quirks, not politics per se. Yes, this has value, but too much nipping around the edges leaves us hopelessly out of reach of the details that would allow us to grasp the nettle as political actors.
This isn’t to pretend that Oliver and Pickering have made something from nothing. Satire has existed for centuries. But its quantity and omnipotence has exploded thanks to the internet. News sites fashion whole articles out of Jon Stewart’s monologues, with little more than an embedded YouTube clip and some descriptive comments. And for many people, programs like Last Week Tonight and The Weekly are their first (and sometimes last) port of call for news and analysis. At the final taping for Shaun Micallef’s 2015 season of Mad As Hell, Micallef stopped in between takes to ponder the absurdity of an especially chaotic (and hilarious) sketch: “You guys know this isn’t really the news, right?” An audience member shouted back: “Yeah, but we trust you more than them!” He’s not alone. Less than 50% of Australians report having trust in commercial TV and radio news.
In the 21st century, satire doesn’t just inform and reflect public debate — satire creates it. In Australia, that point was instantiated by The Chaser’s 2007 Sydney APEC stunt, in which Julian Morrow directed a fake motorcade, including Chas Licciardello dressed as Osama bin Laden, into the APEC restricted zone. The prank made international headlines and generated some very frank discussion about the security protocols of the NSW Police.
Public dialectic pivots on satire’s hinge, and the powerful know it. In The Baffler magazine no. 27, Ben Schwartz decried the CIA’s introduction to social media. He wrote: “it was more than a little jarring to see the CIA lay claim to the language of satire. We assume satire is for the truth teller, not the truth obscurer.” Schwartz’s point is clear: we should be wary when the powerful co-opt the language of their constituents and consumers (and subjects). Satire is a megaphone through which we might speak truth to power, and we’ve grown accustomed to its lilt. But when that megaphone is seized by the powerful — not to speak truth but to manufacture it — we risk swallowing double-speak wrapped in LOLspeak, to dissemble an elitist agenda.
In Australia, satire hasn’t been assimilated by the establishment to the extent it has in the US — where former Saturday Night Live comedian and satirist Al Franken now represents Minnesota in the Senate. But Australia’s political elite does get in on the joke. Julie Bishop, Bob Katter, Barnaby Joyce and Pauline Hanson all appeared in Tom Gleeson’s “I Hate You, Change My Mind” segment on Channel Ten’s short-lived comedy panel show This Week Live, which aired in 2013.
The interviews were intentionally and unintentionally awkward, and the repartee never matched Obama’s appearance on Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns. However, just like Obama presented to advocate his Affordable Care Act before Galifianakis’ twentysomething fan base — the linchpin demographic of Obamacare — Gleeson gave Bishop the chance to sell, albeit briefly, the Coalition’s “stop the boats” policy.
We see that political matters are increasingly, in Schwartz’s words, “satirized for our consumption”. So, as comedians take a more hands-on approach to interrogating and reframing the heaviest issues of the day, what role do figures like Gleeson (who now hosts a segment on The Weekly) and Pickering assume in public debate? Writing for The Atlantic, Megan Garber offers this answer: “Comedians are fashioning themselves not just as joke-tellers, but as truth-tellers — as intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment.” Garber fancies comedians like Schumer and Oliver “public intellectuals”, riffing on taboos to make us think and to make us squirm. It’s comedy that is really “a vehicle for making a point”.
It’s an enticing claim — ordaining new champions is a heady and addictive sport — but not entirely accurate. Garber makes too much of comedians. From Oliver and Pickering, to Tina Fey and Shaun Micallef, to Louis CK and Lena Dunham, their thrust remains fundamentally indistinguishable from that of their forebears. Politics, race, sexuality, inequality, war: George Carlin was spinning jokes from this material in the ‘70s. Lenny Bruce had been doing it since the ‘40s.
What’s more, comedians’ interpretations of hot-button issues often derive from the work of other, true intellectuals. Glenn Greenwald had a fair bit to say about PRISM before John Oliver. And Gary Foley had been scrutinising indigenous incarceration since before The Weekly (and Pickering) even existed. There’s a difference between being an intellectual and being an intellectual’s proxy.
Of course, translating progressive tracts from academese to a common language has tremendous value. It was Oliver, not Greenwald, who reframed mass surveillance in terms of day-to-day privacy and dick pics — a relatable problem (or, um, so I’m told …). But it is incorrect to suppose, as Garber does, that comedians play quite the same role as intellectuals, or that “humour can change the world”. It can’t. Not by itself, anyway.
Stephen Colbert’s exalted speech at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Association dinner remains the gold standard of political satire. Yet for all his deliciously insubordinate fire, in which he roasted George W. Bush’s war strategy in Iraq, Colbert couldn’t prevent the troop surge of 2007. Funny that. What satire can do, however, is cut through and reveal truth to bored and disillusioned voters, whom politicians would otherwise take for fools.
So we must grapple with the tentacles of government, bureaucracy and its arcane organs. Because soon those organs will learn to use the weapon of satire against democracy, to obfuscate and re-educate. In that sense, Pickering’s work, and that of other diligent “investigative jokesalists”, has never been more important — to help pierce the veil of casuistry, and lay bare the ugly megalomania behind it.
[box] The Weekly continues tonight at 8.30pm on ABC1[/box]

4 responses to “Charlie Pickering, the state of satire and the satire of the state

  1. “News sites fashion whole articles out of Jon Stewart’s monologues, with little more than an embedded YouTube clip (above) and some descriptive comments” (above).
    Who was really just? oh, you get the point…

  2. Comedians as truth-tellers? What’s new? Isn’t that exactly what medieval/renaissance jesters were?

  3. DrJ – indeed, the medieval Fool was generally the olly person able to tell the tyrant the truth. Hence the high turnover i guess.

  4. Ripping of the format of Jon Stewart’s THE DAILY SHOW and John Oliver’s LAST WEEK TONIGHT is one thing, but stealing their material is BEYOND UNCOOL !
    John Oliver does extended monologue on corporate involvement in sports stadiums …
    and surprise, surprise … THE WEEKLY does an extended segment on the same topic … (which has already been noticed)
    Someone needs to remind THE WEEKLY that Chuckles Pilfering is a MAJOR NO NO in any form of comedy !!!

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