Satire was supposed to have died in 2016, when Donald Trump was elected President and Nigel Farage helped to secure Brexit. How could you parody such walking parodies, people wondered in despair. Now, though live stand-up and TV production remain locked down, finally, online, satire is thriving again.
New York comedian Sarah Cooper, used to “playing to audiences of 50 people” in clubs, now reaches millions through TikTok videos where she mimes to unedited soundbites from Trump’s press conferences. “Taking away Trump, the image of him, and having the words coming out of my mouth, makes it even more clear how ridiculous he sounds,” says Cooper. Her take on the President’s suggestion that people imbibe bleach has been seen 16 million times.
She’s not the only one by a long way. Scottish stand-up Janey Godley’s videos, in which she swearily re-voices Nicola Sturgeon’s speeches, have accrued 30 to 40 million views across all platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) since the beginning of lockdown from as far afield as Tonga, Canada and Australia, she tells me. “People say to me on social media: I can’t watch a whole hour of Nicola Sturgeon: I’ll just watch Janey, and get the message condensed and funny in one minute 40 seconds.”
Michael Spicer has been able to quit his job as a copywriter after getting regular slots on the Late Late Show With James Corden and a book deal with Canongate through his YouTube video series The Room Next Door. Spicer edits himself into disastrous press conferences by various public figures, playing an aide in another room trying to keep the speaker on brief through an earpiece. He’s done several by Boris Johnson, Trump and Liz Truss (and one by the Dalai Lama) but the most popular so far is his take on Priti Patel’s speech where she talked about combating “counter-terrorism”.
“She said it eight times,” says Spicer. “All I had to do was react. She wrote 70 per cent of that sketch for me.”
The beauty of Cooper and Spicer’s work is its simplicity: they literally allow politicians to condemn themselves out of their own mouths (TikTok mimes are a whole new genre: check out @meggiefoster’s bratty takes on Patel and the spat between Caroline Flint and Emily Thornberry, all verbatim).
Even Godley sticks broadly to Sturgeon’s arguments, while expressing the frustration that may lie underneath. “I am sympathetic to her policies, but I’d rip them to death if I thought she was doing something wrong,” she cautions.
The template for this subtle form of satire was arguably established by Led By Donkeys (LBD), four friends in their forties who felt politicians were not being held to account during “the Brexit wars of 2018”.
They started putting up billboards featuring hypocritical quotes, such as Farage’s statement that a 52-48 referendum result would be “unfinished business”, and David Davis’s view that “if a democracy cannot change its mind it ceases to be a democracy”. In Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency, they put up a poster of an empty Tweet, and invited members of the public to fill in what they thought his views might be.
— Janey Godley (@JaneyGodley)May 25, 2020
But such simplicity is only half the story. LBD hired mobile billboards and drones to dog Farage’s March to Leave, and helicopters to photograph quotes carved into fields of crops (wheat, presumably). On January 31, Brexit Day, they projected Europhile quotes from Second World War veterans onto the white cliffs of Dover, and damning clips of Johnson and Farage onto the Houses of Parliament.
Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, the quartet have put up posters which shame those who they believe have behaved questionably (Green, Branson, etc) and compiled a timeline of the Government’s failures which has gone, er, viral. This weekend, they were criticised for driving a video billboard showing Boris Johnson listing lockdown restrictions past Dominic Cummings’s house, potentially upsetting his young son. They later clarified that the drive-by took place in view of the waiting press pack while the family was out.
LBD are not professional comedians or writers. Social media has democratised satire and stimulated new forms of creativity. Christopher Spencer was working as a parole officer in Sutton Coldfield in 2016 and making crude collages on his phone as a way of coping with mental health problems. The Brexit vote and Trump’s election galvanised him to create grotesque Hogarthian visions of politicians and light entertainers together in council flats and squalid lay-bys, always with EastEnders star Steve McFadden (who plays Phil Mitchell) looking on as an appalled Everyman. He posted them on Twitter under the name Cold War Steve.
His visions have become more baroque and elaborate throughout the Corona crisis and now feature in bestselling books, cards and puzzles, on art gallery walls and on the cover of Time Magazine.
“I have to keep pinching myself to say I am a professional artist,” says Spencer. For him, Cold War Steve provides not just artistic fulfilment and therapy, but community: Twitter is a place where he and his 246,000-plus followers can “meet and vent our anxieties”.
Caroline Flint vs. Emily Thornberry pic.twitter.com/so6Vl3HiIr— Meggie Foster (@meggiefoster)May 13, 2020
One of the most enjoyably elaborate and deranged online satires is the account that spoofs — and has reportedly enraged — Essex MP Mark Francois. The creation of a 37-year-old from Yorkshire, who has no media or showbiz connections and wishes to remain anonymous, the Mark-ne-Francois-pas MP account started out as a straightforward lampoon of Francois’s naff, bumptious jingoism. It has blossomed into a brilliantly warped fantasy with the MP as Samuel Pepys, living out the plague on a diet of Monster energy drinks and Peperamis, harangued by a vagrant Ann Widdecombe and a supporting cast of Right-wingers. The account has gone from 20,000 followers to more than 44,000, and a book deal is in the offing.
George S Kaufman’s famous dictum that “satire is what closes on Saturday night” (that it won’t make money or find an audience) has been disproved. Even those who haven’t so far directly monetised their online work, like Cooper and Godley, have seen their public profiles soar.
The second truism about satire, that it changes nothing, is harder to answer. Cooper claims her videos have forced some Trump supporters to acknowledge the President’s craziness. Spicer suggests that expressing the general exasperation of the population with the ruling government may be enough.
“You can only do your best, can’t you?” says LBD’s Ben Stewart. “We felt that if we found the project funny, satisfying and educative, that was enough. And if other people liked it and learned something, that was the cherry on the cake.”