Does satire work? Peter Cook points to the audience in his sketch on the upper classes

I’m just finishing a book about satire.

Satire is flourishing. We satirists like to think that we change things – ideally for the better.

But for all the fuss, does satire work?

Can 3,000 years of literature be wrong?

When the great satirist Peter Cook opened his new comedy venue the Establishment Club in London in 1961, he said it was based on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets … which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War!”

We laugh. And then we stop laughing and think. Which is possibly one of the most crucial definitions of satire.

Nothing is sacred to the satirist. Cook – never one to turn down a sitting-duck – couldn’t help satirising satire itself. But was he right?

Power, mockery and sex

Although the word satire was originally coined in Latin, the first satires are generally considered to have been written in ancient Egypt, over three thousand years ago, such as The Satire of the Trades,which tells of a bunch of students who were tired of reading.

If it was ever funny, the humour hasn’t travelled too well.

Mind you, their target probably got off lightly. It was said that the Greek poet Hipponax, in the 6th century BC, wrote satirae that were so cruel that his victims hanged themselves.

Around a hundred years later, came the earliest satirist we read today, Aristophanes, who used his writing to attack politicians and political positions in Greece with satisfyingly bawdy broad comedy.

His play Lysistrata – still often adapted – stars a group of women try to force their husbands and lovers to end a war by denying them sex.

While, in the first and second century AD, Juvenal became famous for his scintillating poetic rants, especially about the sexual hypocrisy of his fellow Romans.

So, from the earliest satires we see the familiar satirical themes that thrive today: the fight against power, the refusal to be polite, earthy humour, mockery… and sex.

Satire across the world

Historically, the desire to laugh at the powerful and ridicule opponents, seems to have thrived all over the world.

From the Afro-Arab writer Al-Jahiz, in the 9th century AD, through the “ras” of ancient Indian literature, to modern Indian poets, singers and stand-up comedians, who ridicule the incompetent, the authoritarian and the fundamentalists, to Shanghai-born Zhou Libo, whose shows regularly sell out.

In the English-speaking world, many still read Chaucer’s mocking of false nobility and hypocritical clergy in The Canterbury Tales.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is mostly now known a children’s book but is in fact a sparkling attack on the society in which he lived.

The tradition continued, through the rise of political cartoons, inspired by the artist William Hogarth, to the nineteenth century operas of Gilbert and Sullivan and the novels of Charles Dickens, and on to more recent novelists, such as Evelyn Waugh, who wrote Scoop – one of the greatest ever satires on journalism.

And Dave Eggers, whose novel The Circle caricatures internet giants such as Google and Facebook.

Plus, of course, we haven’t even touched on the flood of satire in cinema, on TV, on the radio and in satirical magazines.

Many of these works are available now on the internet, ironically helped in part by those same internet giants.

But then with satire, irony is never far away.

So, does satire work?

Certainly, the cartoons didn’t stop corruption, the novels didn’t do away with poverty and the cabarets didn’t stop Hitler. But who knows how different things might have been without them?

After all, more Jews were protected and saved in Berlin than in the whole of Austria. And while war was not prevented, it was ultimately won.

But to even think this way is to fall into a trap.

Who ever said that satire was about stopping anything anyway? Sometimes, faced with the inevitable, the only humane and sane response is to have a good laugh.

To hell in a hand-basket

We certainly have a good many reasons to laugh today. Depending on your point of view, the world is going to hell in a hand-basket one way or another. If it’s not global overheating, it’s Godlessness. If it’s not untrustworthy politicians, it’s unreliable voters.

Luckily for us who have to share the hand-basket of humanity, much satire is now available for download entirely free, while much of the rest can be found at bargain price.

Which I’ll be writing more about soon.

Meanwhile, send me your favourites and, whether satire works or not, let’s at least have a good, acid-tongued laugh.

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Peter Cook

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