Guest Workshop: Comedy, Satire and Change with James Cook, Comedian

In this talk comedian James Cook explores the role of comedy as a part of public debate, as well as taking a look through how comedy has responded and reacted to politics and issues in society. He also talks through a few useful techniques to get you thinking about using comedy in your creative work.

You can find out more about James by following him on Twitter or check out the News With Jokes podcast series that he has created.

Here are the notes from the talk.

So we’ve heard that ideas change the world and that humour is an effective way to express an idea – so what if you had a political or social idea? How would you use humour to get that across?

When that happens it’s called ‘satire’- the holding up of vices, abuses and shortcomings to ridicule with the aim of shaming society and individuals into improvement.

In certain Native American cultures, there exists a role in society for part-shaman part-clown figures whose job is to ridicule everyone within their tribe, from the elders and chiefs to the little kids. It is agreed that this is their role, so no-one gets offended.

In the Hopi tribe, the ‘clown’ draws a circle on the ground and when inside the circle, they are given free rein to be as offensive as they like.

In our society, we have comedians who fulfil a similar role. Instead of drawing a circle on the ground, we have comedy clubs – where audience buy into the idea that anything and everything is fair game for ridicule.

The tools of satire…

Sarcasm –Saying something in such a way so that the viewer or reader understands that you don’t really mean it. ‘David Cameron is a REALLY good Prime Minister’

Parody – Mocking through impersonation, making the ‘subject’ (whether it’s a person, an institution or an idea) look ridiculous. In this example, The Day Today mocks US style news reports and the death penalty

Exaggeration – overstating the case to emphasise your point.

Juxtaposition – Take two seemingly unconnected ideas and put them together ‘what if x did y?’ For example, what if Ninjas had a parade?

Comparison – Likening the subject to something else, usually in an unflattering way – but not always, sometimes to something unexpected or ridiculous. For example, Oprah Winfrey is like an Egyptian Pharoah.

The Satire Boom!

In 1960, four recent Oxbridge graduates wrote and performed in a comedy sketch show called ‘Beyond the Fringe’ in London’s glamorous West End.

What was controversial about this show was that in it one of the performers, Peter Cook, did an impersonation of the then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan. And this had never been done on stage in Britain before. People would come from far and wide to see this amazing thing. Someone doing an impression of the actual Prime Minister live on stage.

And it wasn’t a flattering portrayal, Cook’s MacMillan was an elderly senile posh idiot way out of touch with reality. But this struck a chord with the public, because they thought that MacMillan WAS an elderly senile posh idiot way out of touch with reality.

The stage show led indirectly to the establishment of The Establishment Club, a nightclub in London where satirical revues were performed and every sacred cow was lampooned, from the army, to royalty, to politicians to the judiciary.

In 1961, part funded by Peter Cook, the satirical magazine Private Eye was founded, with the aim to mock the powerful, and in 1962 That Was The Week That Was – Britain’s first satirical television program went on air on BBC1 – at a time when there were only 2 television channels. Live on Saturday night TV, the members of the Conservative government were insulted – and sure enough in 1964 – Labour won the general election.

Satire had defeated the elderly, senile, posh, out of touch Tories.

Conclusive proof of the effectiveness of satire to change the world.


The Conservatives had been in power for 13 years, which is usually when the electorate starts looking for alternatives.
AND they’d been rocked by the Profumo Affair
AND the ‘bounce’ being enjoyed by the recently elected leader of the Labour Party – Harold Wilson.

All of which would have happened had there been a ‘satire boom’ or not.

The Labour Party ‘won’ that election with a majority of 4.

A similar thing happened in the 80s. Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives were the victims of satirical attacks from a new breed of exciting comedic talent. The likes of Ben Elton led the charge which started in the clubs of London and ended up on mainstream television.

Thatcher won three landslides, and was ultimately deposed by her own party – who then went on to win another election.

In 2011 Private Eye celebrated their 50th birthday. This was their front cover.

So there you go – satire doesn’t work. But if satire doesn’t work, why do totalitarian regimes ban it?

Dario Fo once said:
“REAL satire causes outrage. The more they try and stop you – the better job you are doing”

So maybe REAL satire what causes outrage, like the 2001 Brass Eye Paedophile Special…

Among the press coverage of this ‘sick’ show, was this article in the Daily Star. Conveniently next to an article which featured the then 15 year old Charlotte Church…

Spitting Image was a television program that started in 1984 on ITV on Sunday nights, a mainstream station at a peak viewing time. The show consisted of comedy sketches performed by caricaturised latex puppets of the notable people of the day.

In just 27 years we’d gone from no-one having ever impersonated the Prime Minister before, to the Prime Minister is a face eating alien. And that was 26 years ago – where can you go from there?

And what is the satirical point of that sketch? Which one of Thatcher’s policy is being lampooned?

Isn’t it ‘teasing’ rather than satire?

Teasing would be saying something like ‘David Cameron’s got a big face’, whereas satire would be to mock one of his policies. Which one do you think works best in front of a live audience?

I asked around a bunch of professional comedians and no-one can really remember the last time they saw anyone doing any political satire in their club sets. Why not? Is it that audiences don’t laugh as much at satire? Is it that audiences don’t want to hear it? Or is it that comedians are lazy?

Back in the early 60s Harold MacMillan went to see Peter Cook do the impression of him, and took it in ‘good humour’ and when the Home Secretary wanted to ban That Was The Week,  MacMillan said no. It is better to be ridiculed than ignored.

As can be seen in the rise to fame of Boris Johnson. An obscure opposition MP and former magazine editor, he achieved national notoriety for his appearances on Have I Got News For You. Often appearing as a bumbling fool. Here he is hosting in 2003.

He went on to be the Mayor of London.

With two weeks to go before the 2008 US election, both candidates did a ‘stand-up comedy routine’ at a dinner in New York City.  Here’s Obama (although McCain’s is probably funnier)

So now politicians are drawing a circle on the ground…

There is no evidence that any specific satirical piece, whether a book, a TV show, a film… has had any impact on specific political outcomes, although a healthy part of democracy is a population that questions, scrutinizes and in some cases, takes the piss, out of those in authority.

So it could be argued that satire’s REAL purpose is creating a culture where authority figures are questioned, which would be why there’s no North Korean Have I Got News For You.


  1. ducking for cover says:
  2. Marion says:

    Professor James will be holding a workshop at Stratford Fringe Festival on June 2nd at The Chapel@Shakespeare No 1 from 10 – 4.


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