Where are the satirists when we need them most? The rise of Donald Trump, the triumph of Nigel Farage. There is just so much material around. Yet, in a postmodern way, the politicians perform their own parodies. How can you out-Farage Farage or out-Trump Trump? The latter problem has been solved brilliantly by Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live”—he doesn’t mock Trump, instead he takes him seriously. A deadly serious impersonation is right because that is precisely what Trump is—deadly and serious. And it reportedly infuriates Trump.
But the question remains what role there is for humour when, in the words of Hunter S Thompson, “the going gets weird.” This is not a new question. “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize” was satirist Tom Lehrer’s famous quip in 1973. By that time, however, he had been silent for eight years, not having produced a new satirical song since 1965. Lehrer’s work has stood the test of time. “The Vatican Rag” was composed to mark the creation of the second Vatican Council. Lehrer explained that the church ought to “redo some of the liturgical music in popular song forms,” arguing that he had a modest example of this.
He then launches into a sublime ragtime which I can personally quote in its entirety, but the following lines will suffice:
“Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
If it is, try playin’ it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
Two, four, six, eight,
Time to transubstantiate!”
The song features on Lehrer’s album “That Was The Year That Was,” a collection of songs he performed on NBC show “That Was The Week That Was” or “TW3”—the US version of the BBC show. And, of course, the cancellation of that show by the BBC in 1964 is often held to be the end of the sixties satire boom.
The complaint that satire is dead is a recurrent one. We heard it raised again recently in a thoughtful piece by Zoe Williams. She quotes Armando Iannucci reflecting on the combination of extreme political correctness and Trump-like extreme incorrectness:
“Iannucci believes that in this polarization—excessive…