After 24 years…Spitting Image set to return

The return of the puppets: “More outrageous, audacious, and salacious” than before. © Mark Harrison

Is satire simply cruel? There is a long tradition of ridiculing the famous and powerful. But in an age of increased sensitivity, the return of TV’s Spitting Image might not be that welcome.

A puppet version of Greta Thunberg will deliver the weather reports.

Why? Because Spitting Image is coming back. The satirical TV show, which ran between 1984 and 1996, uses grotesque puppets to mock celebrities and political figures.

The characters have grossly, enlarged features and heavy, swollen hands.

Meghan Markle is mostly teeth. Prince Harry will have lots of ginger scruff and huge ears.

Roger Law, one of the show’s original creators, said: “The new Spitting Image will be global through a uniquely British eye, it will be more outrageous, audacious, and salacious than the previous incarnation.”

But many will wonder whether such a show has any place in our contemporary post-truth, anger-fuelled public discourse, especially when many politicians – think Donald Trump or Boris Johnson – appear beyond ridicule.

Satire (the act of making fun of other people for comedic effect) has a rich history that dates back to ancient Greece. In Britain, from Jonathan Swift to William Shakespeare, comedy has been an arena where laughing at the errors of others can teach us the difference between right and wrong.

But today, society is so divided that it is very difficult to laugh at one thing without offending or upsetting others.

While some might attribute this to a “woke” younger generation no longer having any sense of humour, it is more likely that young people simply prefer a different type of comedy: one that is more absurd or that centres on self-deprecating jokes.

Making fun of someone because of how they sound or where they come from is seen as unnecessary and cruel.

Satire is also not without its dangers. In 2015, cartoonists and journalists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered by terrorists for supposedly having mocked the Prophet Mohammed.

There were marches around the world in the name of free speech, but some still said that the cartoons were offensive and wrong. Indeed, there is an old motto of journalism that says that writers should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. When satirists mock an entire ethnic minority, it is hard to argue that they are “punching up”.

So, is satire simply rather cruel?

Fair game?

No. It is healthy. Celebrities and politicians choose to be in the public eye. They know what they are getting themselves into. We learn how to behave in our own lives by laughing at the mistakes made by famous figures. Satire is also an incredibly useful way of letting those in power know when they are going too far, and telling those who wish to do harm that they can still be laughed at.

Yes. Satire is often just plain nasty. In order to laugh at someone, you have to look for their worst qualities. At a time when people are routinely abused online, and people of all backgrounds struggle with mental health issues, we should not be encouraging more outlets for nastiness. For centuries, satire has been used to belittle minority groups and reinforce the views of an often close-minded majority.

You Decide

  1. Do you ever find yourself disagreeing with your parents over what they find funny? What do you think separates your sense of humour from theirs?
  2. Do you think it is ever okay to mock another person? Does it matter whether they are in a position of power or not?

Activities

  1. Try your hand at satire. In groups of three or four, pretend to be a group of famous people at a party. Sit in a circle. Each person chooses who the person on the left has to pretend to be. Share the funniest bits with the rest of the class.
  2. Imagine you are a producer of the new Spitting Image TV show. List three famous people you think should be satirised. Write down several attributes that you would focus on to make their character funnier.

Some People Say...

“Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), satirist, poet, and cleric. Best known for Gulliver’s Travels.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In Roman times, satire came in several forms. Horace’s satire playfully criticised some social vice through gentle, mild, and light-hearted humour. On the other hand, Juvenal's satire abrasively ridiculed societal structures and public officials.
What do we not know?
We do not know whether a society without satire would function any worse or better. We do not know whether offending other people, no matter how humorously, actually changes their behaviour. It is also very difficult to ever know where the line is between something being funny and it being rude.

Word Watch

Audacious
Daring, risky, controversial.
Salacious
Rude and explicit, often about sex.
Incarnation
In this context, a version, a new embodiment of.
Post-truth
Term used to describe a state of public life where reality is difficult to agree on, and politicians regularly tell lies.
Discourse
Written or spoken communication or debate across society as a whole.
Self-deprecating
Overly modest about or critical of oneself, especially humorously so.
Afflicted
Those who suffer or are caused pain.
Punching up
As opposed to punching down, when a satirist takes aim at someone in a position of power, someone who can afford to be mocked.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.