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The birth of satire

23 May 2014

WHATEVER happened to satire? Is the present passion for observational comedy simply a failure of nerve? Abba Anthony must be turning in his desert grave.

There was a lovely outbreak of satire on social media recently, aimed at David Cameron. He'd tweeted a photo of himself on the phone, looking statesmanlike and concerned. We learned from the caption - provided by him - that he was talking to President Obama. The caption said: "I've been speaking to Barack Obama about the situation in Ukraine."

I was happy that he had spoken to the President, but that is his job; and why post a "selfie" of the moment? Why not use the time spent taking the photo to phone President Putin, for instance? On display is an exercise in self-importance: "Here I am, a serious-minded leader, talking to the President."

The response on Twitter was magnificent. People posted pictures of themselves looking suitably concerned "on the phone" to President Obama; but none of the phones were phones. The comedian Rob Delaney held a tube of toothpaste; the actor Sir Patrick Stewart joined in the transatlantic call holding a tub of Wet Ones; and the writer Michael Moreno held a dog to his ear.

Talk of death here should not surprise; for the parent of satire is the desert: the savage authenticity of the big sand, and, in particular, the Seven Deadly Sins, which emerged in the fourth-century Saharan wastes. For let's be clear: satire is a moral business, assuming a right and a wrong. Like some of the preachers they attack, satirists are extreme moralists, obsessed with good and bad. And how do they make judgements about people? They start with the famous seven: wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.

Behind satire is the idea that there is a good path you can leave; that there is such a thing as authenticity, which can be jettisoned for inauthenticity - particularly prevalent among those with snouts in the trough of power, which makes liars and rascals of us all.

No one has been more satirical about religion than Jesus; his "whitewashed tombs" jibe was one of many verbal assaults. But then, in his day, religion had great power, and needed dismantling.

Today, our well-paid comedians mainly offer observational comedy. There is nothing wrong with that. It is fun to make wry observations about our quirky world: "I bought my girlfriend some flowers from the garage the other day. It seemed the quickest way to end the relationship." But it is satire-lite - a diluted form of the original, and some way away from the desert.

Like the Desert Fathers, satirists rage at the world's vanity. The seven deadly sins? You're 'avin' a laugh.

Twitter: @simonparke

 

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