Soapbox: The funny thing about satire
Writer, activist and eight-time McGillicuddy Serious Party candidate Mark Servian unpacks the power.
Laughter is the defining political act of our time. I am not joking.
Who laughs at who, how and why, has always been inherently political – Mark Twain described laughter as humanity’s “most effective weapon”. In recent times this has come into sharp relief. Those who chuckle to each other at the top table are now feeling the burn of being laughed at from the cheap seats, and humour and ridicule are being weaponised in response.
When world leaders laughed at Trump at the UN (re-confirming his supporters’ complaint that they are sick of being laughed at), the resulting media commentary explained the political impact of laughter as being a function of status and exclusion-inclusion. Only the most secure personalities are unbothered by mockery: POTUS will want the last laugh.
Social media and smartphones mean everyone can now have their own soapbox and use it to poke the borax at the powerful. Once upon a time getting an audience for your satire when you were outside the defined channels took a bit of effort. I would know, because for fifteen years from the mid-Eighties I was one of the main movers of the McGillicuddy Serious Party, a bunch of drop-outs and freaks who empowered and amused ourselves by theatrically campaigning for public office.
At first, we called our street actions ‘stirs’, which describes the effect we were seeking. Our mission was to subvert the dominant paradigm, to disrupt popular mundanities, and show the emperor has no clothes.
The Bitch Goddess of Hamilton East, the McGillicuddy candidate for Hamilton East in 1993, was a character from every bigot’s nightmares. One of two fates awaited all men in her vision - castration for the males needed to do heavy lifting, losing all limbs for the males needed as breeding stock. Someone took offence at this as street theatre and the Eunuchs demonstrating the policy were arrested.
Such a performance piece would be carried far and wide on social media now. Back then we had to do it twice in Garden Place before anyone called the cops. They got off as the complainant died before it reached court.
In those days before the universal presence of recording devices, our provocations were rarely taped and were usually only experienced by those physically present. For a laugh we crucified Santa Claus in the Hamilton Christmas Parade, revealed a candidate’s new kilt to counter-gatecrash Winston’s first rally in the Tauranga By-Election, and burned the Beehive in effigy outside the real thing.
I myself ran for the Hamilton Mayoralty in 1992 as Don Serviano, a Mafia Godfather hellbent on criminalising everything and turning the city into the corruption capital of the south seas. Three intense weeks of campaign roleplaying saw The Don survive numerous assassination attempts and dodge a paternity claim that featured a live baby being used as a prop at a meet-the-candidates meeting. In the end he had to fake his own death to avoid getting elected, but the city fathers clearly took him seriously, because soon after they stole his keystone policy and built a casino on the main street.
Little of all that was covered in the media and few experienced our live tomfoolery as no one could ‘share’ it. Eventually we discovered the fax machine and that a media release was the easiest way to get in the paper. So we started responding to the stories of the day. We called for all NZ First supporters to be deported, for 33 percent of the population to be homosexual, for fresh air to be privatised – ideological judo that used the logic of the grey politicians’ own arguments against them.
But times have changed since the McGSP was in its pomp. It is not harmless clowns like us who are now out to overthrow the dictatorship of tedium. No, the colour in political life so many have craved for so long is instead being painted by dangerous lunatics, who play their pranks on those who vote for them, for outcomes the undeceived meet with gallows humour.
Social and technological developments have changed how oppressor and oppressed are reacting to being laughed at by each other. While that hackneyed and endlessly malleable term ‘political correctness’ is all about who is in on the gag, and who isn’t.
As every grumpy uncle says “jeez, can’t you take a joke?” Frankly no, not when you’re laughing at me. You may think or demand that you’re laughing with me, that I should feel I am in on your joke. But, funnily enough, I’m not so like you that we can chuckle at the same things. I actually do see the world differently from you and have never had the security you think you lose when I tell you ‘that wasn’t funny’.
The meaning of all acts derives from the relative power and privilege of the actors. Discrimination only becomes an insidious and insurmountable oppression, an -ism, when it is exercised by those with the superior power and/or privilege, an impact amplified by humour. A woman making fun of men is satire, a man making fun of women is bullying; a Māori parodying a Pakeha is satire, an old white man making fun of the uppity natives is bullying. In the real world these are not symmetrical exchanges, and probably won’t be for generations to come.
So, Bob Jones is simply and definitively wrong when he claims his racist fable can be delivered as “satire”, because when the rich ‘take the piss’ it is not the Jester pricking the King’s pompousness, it is the King sending the servants to the dungeon.
Margaret Atwood, brilliantly quoted by Courtney Barnett in Nameless, Faceless, eloquently explains the gender version of this - “I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Men are scared that women will laugh at them / I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Women are scared that men will kill them”.
Not every joke lobbed by the less-powerful at the more-powerful is satirical. Dario Fo distinguished the inherently subversive nature of true satire from mere ‘teasing’, which humanises the powerful. Think Jimmy Fallon tousling Trump’s quiff, an act intended to belittle him, instead strengthened his ‘one of the guys’ credentials.
Over time I became acutely aware of the conditions of our satirical license. Clan McGillicuddy was a safe haven for us awkward and alienated social rejects, but we were (and are) also predominantly white and mostly male. So while we knew what day-to-day discrimination felt like, it was our innate privilege that allowed us to fight back with satire.
Our most reliable satirical formula was to take the third side of the argument (e.g. legalise abortion to a full term of eighteen years and nine months). To take the piss out of both sides at once, I came to believe our privilege meant that we had to be willing to have the piss taken out of ourselves, and be immune to the resulting discomfort.
This extended to self-depreciation, the outsider-comedian’s classic stance. Thus we ended the McGSP with Party Leader Graeme Cairns being publicly slapped in the stocks and tarred and feathered.
But as Hannah Gadsby recently asserted so poignantly in Nanette, for the marginalised, taking yourself down is not humility but humiliation. The difference between those two feelings marks out the nature and extent of us McGillicuddies’ personal alienation – self-depreciation usually felt fine when we used it to attack the powerful in society, but could become suddenly painful if you spotted someone with more power in your life, a workmate or a lecturer or an old school bully, in the audience. The effect of laughter is always down to the power relationship between the laugher and the laughed-at.
Now don’t get me wrong, seriousness and certainty are the bane of humanity, as we McGillicuddies have always asserted. Pretty much everything that’s wrong with our world comes back to people who take themselves too seriously, too bloody certain of themselves, whether economists or suicide bombers. Laughter is of course not just a tool of sedition and cruelty, it is a function of happiness, and humour can unite as well as divide.
Humanity will only truly progress when we can all chillax and afford to take things less seriously. In the meantime, keep laughing at those who deserve it.
The main works of McGillicuddy satire have been reprinted in a single chunky volume. The McGillicuddy Serious Party Manifesto 1987-1999 Folio Edition, by Mark Servian and many others, is available from Thebestlittlebookstore.co.nz and Trade Me.