Throwing Out the Welcome Mat: Guests and Victims on Television Satire

Curator's Note

Two strategies for involving public figures. The Simpsons offers public figures a chance to look humble and laid back, in exchange for a slight tinge of subversive attack (Blair as the misfit Mr. Bean even as he tries to be James Bond). Chris Morris’s Brasseye (1997), meanwhile, was a biting social satire and news journal parody that created public service groups dedicated to fighting ludicrously conceived social problems. Public figures then came to the slaughter, unwittingly participating in the show’s mockery of their gullibility and over-eagerness to jump on unknown media panic bandwagons. Some have commended The Simpsons for its soft approach, yet others accuse it of merely rolling out the red carpet. Brasseye was a cult hit (and inspiration for Ali G/Borat) that spilled into the real world (even making Parliament’s question time here!), but many audience members alleged that the show made public figures less likely to help actual good causes. Placed together, they raise issues of the rights and responsibilities of satire that uses public figures, and we might ask both how “far” is “too far,” and how effective each strategy might be in provoking analysis of celebrity and public image.


Interesting question, Jonathan. I definitely think that the strategies politically-charged satirical television engage in when representing political figures needs further investigation. Where I differ slightly is in questioning the complicity between politicians and entertainment television. Clearly, when politicians lend their voices/guest on series like The Simpsons or The Daily Show, they sacrifice a certain amount of old-school prestige for an important dose of hipness. It is a great vehicle for re-branding political figures as "cool" or able to take a joke (at least on a personal level; policies and ideologies are still sticking points). Shows like Brasseye seem to work well in exposing politicians who do not understand/know how to play the media branding game. In humanizing political celebrities, The Simpsons often fails to demystify, making political figures seem more heroic because of their foibles (or willingness to be the butt-end of a joke), rather than representatives of particular (if also, contradictorily, multiple) political positions. When Tony Blair is one of the guys, we don't need to think about how political leadership is established and what the barriers to access are. On the other hand, Brasseye seems to humanize politicians in a different way, by rendering them ridiculous, and in so doing, does seem to depict a certain absurdity to the whole process, but still, inevitably, singles out individual personalities for derision, rather than institutional practices. I guess what I am trying to say -- very long-windedly at this point -- is that I am less concerned with whether satirical representations make political figures more or less willing to do their jobs well, as I am concerned with whether satirical representations make the public aware that these people are their employees and need to be subjected to oversight and criticism not only as individuals but as representatives of the people. I say slaughter the sacred cows, but with the intention of demystifying the sacred, not poking fun at the cows weight!

To me, the difference seems to be one of degree rather than quality of critique. The Simpsons always seems sweet-natured when parodying officials to me--maybe because of the mayor is so Kennedy-esque. Brass Eye might seem more brutal in its exposing of gullibility, but in rendering the critique ultimately on the individual, it doesn’t seem any more “biting” to me. What separates the Daily Show, I think, is how the “fake” interviews are accompanied by Stewart’s “real” interviews. While the fake ones breakdown the overall spectacle/surface pretension of officials, it is the real interrogation--however tempered by Stewart’s self-deprecation--that really stings. Hence, perhaps his most powerful moment was his refusal to be funny on Crossfire.

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