Beyond a joke

Boris Johnson took my job


There now follows an appeal on behalf of the Liveried Association of Fools, Funnymen and Satirists.

We all need to smile and enjoy a giggle. A chuckle with a friend can lift your mood and show you that there’s more to life than the grim misery of daily existence.

But as you titter, please spare a thought for the people who brought you your brief moment of joy. Humour isn’t something spontaneous. It’s dug slowly and painfully out of the relentless torment of the soul. Behind the “joke” you share on Facebook lies a sobbing humourist, fingers bleeding from the effort of brightening your day.

Those are the people that we at LAFFS exist to help. We’re there in the bad times, so that you can enjoy what passes for the good.

You might not think it matters if the government is stuffed with clowns, but it matters to us

It’s never been easy work, but recently we’ve noticed a new threat to the jokers we’re trying to help. The ironic political pastures where satirists used to freely roam, grazing on silly remarks and MPs with no self awareness, are shrinking.

At first, we didn’t understand what was wrong. People seemed to be laughing at the government just as much as they ever did. More, even. But then we spotted the problem. The laughter wasn’t at lovingly-carved skits produced by artisanal jesters who had enjoyed years of training. No: people were laughing at the politicians directly, without any form of intermediation.

Let us explain. The role of a satirist is to take the serious words of a serious person and then, by extrapolation, comparison or exaggeration, make light of them, generating a wry smile or perhaps even a snort from the reader. It’s a serious business.

But if an MP announces that the prime minister has been “ambushed by a cake”, what is left for the lampoon artist to do? How can they exaggerate that? Or take the appointment of Jacob Rees-Mogg as Brexit Opportunities Minister. In itself, it’s a touch obvious, but there is a time — usually five minutes from deadline — for an obvious gag. But when Rees-Mogg himself writes a Sun article comparing his mission to the recruitment of millions of young men to die in the trenches of World War I, how is he to be spoofed? Is there a larger and more pointless waste of life that we could go to?

You might not think it matters if the government is stuffed with clowns, but it matters to us.

Let me tell you about “Rob”.

“Rob” is one of our members. He spent his weekend lovingly shaping a comic article about Boris Johnson’s forthcoming Shakespeare biography. He was pleased with the result, which included several quite fine lines. It was due to run at midday on Monday.

And then, just as it appeared, the prime minister’s new spokesman decided to give an interview: “I walked in, I gave him a salute and said: ‘Prime Minister, Guto Harri reporting for duty’ and he stood up from behind his desk and started to salute.”

You know the rest. When we found “Rob”, he was hiding under his desk surrounded by empty Pringles tubes, sobbing. “How am I meant to beat that?” he asked us. “How am I supposed to beat the prime minister’s actual head of communications announcing that ‘He’s not a complete clown’?”

If we don’t act now, it may be too late to save our satirists

It’s not just in this country. No one works harder to deliver a joke than an American, as anyone who’s seen Saturday Night Live can testify. But after four years of an entirely auto-satirical presidency, the lampoonists have few places to go. Sure, when a congresswoman claims the Nazis sent the “Gazpacho” after its enemies, everybody wants to make a joke about it. But will no one think of the pain felt by professional wits who are reduced to Googling soup puns?

It’s not often appreciated that political mockery thrives in a delicate ecosystem. There has always been a place for a Michael Fabricant, a self-created “character” utterly oblivious to their own ridiculousness. But they must be minor figures, to be brought out for a brief appearance in an occasional sketch. At points in recent weeks Fabricant has been the sole spokesman for a government that has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Satire cannot bear the strain.

It isn’t good for the subjects, either. Nadine Dorries thrived as a gobby backbencher who went into the celebrity jungle. She can’t survive the pressure of being asked to set broadcast policy for the next decade. It is, frankly, cruel to ask her to do so.

Everywhere we look, the proper order of things has been perverted. David Gauke was named Tax Personality of the Year in 2011. He belongs somewhere very responsible, and very dull. Instead he is telling jokes on Twitter and dabbling in journalism.

If we don’t act now, it may be too late to save our satirists. So please, if you see an unserious person heading for government, take them by the hand and lead them to their natural habitat, sleeping on the government backbenches, or writing a column for the Telegraph. And if you find yourself in conversation with a sketchwriter, whatever you do, never suggest that “the jokes must write themselves these days”. They really don’t.

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