Rita de Brún.


Stand-up assassins: Satire proves pen is mightier than the sword

If the pen is mightier than the sword, then satire is the scimitar of political pomposity, argues Rita de Brún.

Stand-up assassins: Satire proves pen is mightier than the sword

IT was a Groundhog Day moment, triggered when the nation woke to the news on Friday that businessman Denis O’Brien’s legal team had threatened legal action - again. The announcement generated widespread pondering on the pillows as to whether we were — like actor Bill Murray — repeating the same day over and over again.

Didn’t we already know that Mr O’Brien’s legal team was suing the Oireachtas Committee on Procedures and Privileges? As momentary confusion cleared from our sleep-fogged heads, realisation dawned. Mr O’Brien’s legal team had indeed been posting letters once again: this time to the offices of the satirical website Waterford Whispers News, seeking the removal of an article that appeared to be about the billionaire media tycoon, an article about which the team was clearly less than amused.

Of course, satire’s success is always subjective. At its best, it’s a proverbial piss-take, a pasquinade where humour, irony and exaggeration are used to mock, ridicule and expose the peccadillos, flaws and vices of the caricatured.

The Irish thirst for satire has generated a wealth of programmes on Irish radio and TV down the years. The portrayal of Enda Kenny as a transvestite, Edna, by Irish satirist Oliver Callen on his radio show Green Tea raised a lot of questions, mainly because cross-dressing – acceptable and normal behaviour as it is for many — is not something most of us associate with or suspect of Enda.

Compare that slightly tedious spoof by nominal association, with the unrestrainedly perceptive satire that was at the heart of Dermot Morgan’s legendary Scrap Saturday. There, a grovelling PJ Mara was portrayed as an unctuous lick, a true brown-noser, while the immodesty of Charlie Haughey was inflated to a magnificent bubble of self-delusion - self-belief on an epic scale.

Will anyone who has heard it, forget the Scrap Saturday sketch in which Haughey tells the long-suffering Mara of his impeccable credentials by birth? That he was related to Julius Caesar, that Garibaldi was a distant relative on his mother’s side, that he was 17th in line to the Doge of Venice, that his great great granduncle was a Medici, that he has a very fine collection of paintings and sculptures… of himself, and that Dean Martin was his best man…

While Morgan was supreme, Callen is more than capable of hitting the spot. His stinging parody and flawless mimicry of the inherently lovely Rachel Allen on Callan’s Kicks was hilarious, while his portrayal of a booze soaked Brian Cowen and his Drinks Cabinet (how clever was that phrase?) descending into alcoholic oblivion at a time when the economy was going down the tubes, gave voice to the fears of an increasingly disillusioned nation, in a way that no current affairs programme could possibly have done at the time.

If Kenny is tired of that ill-deserved crossdressing association, he hasn’t publicly said so. But one who has been vocal about his discomfort at the nature of the lampooning he received at the hands of the talented Mr Callen, is Kerry footballer, Paul Galvin.

In 2011, the sportsman and the satirist had a row in a Dublin pub. Some say this was because a sketch on Green Tea, touched on the friendship between the GAA star and the TV personality Gráinne Seoige. Others pinned it securely on Galvin being less than amused by his portrayal by the comedian in a sketch in which he gives Enda Kenny a body wax; a scene the footballer described as ‘excruciating to watch’.

Pub rows aside, the lack of complaint in Ireland from the unmercifully parodied – and here, think Charlie Haughey, P.J. Mara and Michael Noonan rather than Enda and Galvin - seems to indicate that as a race, we Irish (with the odd notable exception) appear to have thick skins when we find ourselves the subject of irreverent tongue-in-cheek mocking. Well, either that or we tend to pretend we have, to save face and avoid being ridiculed as humourless - along with everything else.

It’s different in the UK, where so many of the great and good have strenuously objected to their irreverent if astutely acerbic portrayals in Private Eye. The regularity with which they litigate in response, has landed the satire magazine’s editor, Ian Hislop, with a reputation for being the most sued man in Britain.

Happily, this fact hasn’t tamed the serial lampooner in the least: When Robert Maxwell sued the publication for suggesting he looked like a criminal, and won a substantial sum, the public response from a less than chastened Hislop was: “I’ve just given a fat cheque to a fat Czech.”

Of course, just because the sardonically bashed Irish tend not to pursue cheques, fat or otherwise, in compensation, does not mean that our satirists are left entirely un-mauled. In 2008, the seemingly ubiquitous Callan was advised by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BAI) that his impersonations were offensive to homosexuals and promoted binge drinking. He was also reportedly asked by RTÉ to ‘tone down’ his comedy sketch which featured a poetry-writing President Michael D. Higgins, hanging out with his executive assistant Kevin McCarthy.

There was less carefulness and more edge back in the 1970s, when Hall’s Pictorial Weekly was aired on RTÉ. Back then nothing and no one was sacred, apart from the Catholic Church perhaps. But even in the midst of such misplaced idolatry, there was a fulsome fearlessness to the show’s content, with Fianna Fáil portrayed as Feel and Fall and Fianna Gael Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, portrayed to a somewhat prudish, religion-suppressed audience, as one who might be seen in nightclubs, and this at a time when the League of Decency and the Legion of Mary were tours de force in Ireland.

With Frank Hall, Frank Kelly and Eamon Morrissey behind it, the show was always destined to be great, and it was — so much so that it was believed by many to have played a central role in sinking the National Coalition government in 1977. This view was understandable, given the relentless parodying of Cosgrave before an audience that had no alternative television channel to watch. That said, Jack Lynch’s innate charisma played a role and after the pipe smoking ‘real Taoiseach’ returned to power, Hall’s critics concluded that the programme had lost its edge.

With the exception of Father Ted, Scrap Saturday and most of Callen’s offerings, few Irish satire shows on radio and television are as bitingly acerbic as they should be. And it’s not as though there isn’t enough material to work on.

Irish Pictorial Weekly offered some fine moments of social and cultural commentary, but little that was unforgettable. One notable exception was Paul Howard’s furiously scathing sketch depicting a supremely smug and touchy-feely David and Mrs Drumm, sipping wine, while revelling in the light bulb moment that was the opening of a bank account in the wife’s name, and the subsequent transfer of massive amounts of money to her. The sketch finishes with the former banker bragging that ‘by transferring all of your money and property into a wife’s name you can tell your creditors to pick their money out of your ----.’ Now that’s satire, as it should be.

Another skit that worked was the refreshingly brazen depiction by Alan Shortt and Michael Sheridan of two clerics engaged in a damage limitation discussion about the unpriestly behaviour of one of them. With an expression just short of something Benny Hill might muster, the blond, curly haired priest fondly recollects a birthmark ‘in the shape of the Virgin Mary’ on the inner left thigh of a young boy of his acquaintance. While this is the sort of fearlessness we need in Irish satire, we often get bland, inoffensive tosh.

What about the deadly accuracy with which the late great Dermot Morgan so astutely portrayed Mike Murphy as a less than art savvy Arts Show presenter? His pitch-perfect plummy voiced rendition of Murphy at his most smarmy, remarking that in his opinion a red, wall hung object was “very striking though a tad abstract. Perhaps. Would you say?” is a comment that will long be remembered, precisely because of the cutting “That’s a fire extinguisher Mike,“ response it generated.

And remember the sweet savagery that was the lampooning of Padraig Flynn on Scrap Saturday, in the Flynnstones sketch. Bertie Rubble, in the Flynn household for a meeting with Fred [Pee Flynn] when Wilma [Flynn’s wife] enquires whether they’re plotting something against their boss. She’s reprimanded by her hang sangwich-loving husband and told to ‘Go and breastfeed some of the children.’ When she responds by asking her husband whether she can have another baby with him, Flynn’s rejoinder was a savage: “Of course you can Wilma, but you’ll have to wait. I’ll have to screw the boss first.”

Few know more about what makes good satire than Arthur Mathews, half of the writing team behind Fr Ted. He names The Savage Eye as “an extremely daring show,” he says.”

“It also happened to be very funny - one of the best I’ve seen anywhere in the last few years — a sketch about the hunger strikes was breath-taking in its audacity.”

And he concludes with the famous Tom Lehrer quote: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.”

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