Satire Paradox with Malcolm Gladwell S1/E10: Revisionist History Podcast (Transcript)

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Satire Paradox with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 10| Season 1| Revisionist History
Length: 37 min

Harry Enfield: It was the middle of the 80s and Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister here and she was very popular with the sort of working classes and things are not with the lefty middle-classes like me.

Malcolm Gladwell: Harry Enfield, one of England's best known comedians. He's talking about where he got the inspiration for his most famous character, a response to the imperious Margaret Thatcher, with her bob and pearls, who unleashed American style capitalism on the UK.

HE: And we, the student hippies, we used to lived on this council estate in Hackney and we used to go to the local pub and all the local tradesmen and things always had huge wads of money and they'd take it out because they thought we were squatters. We weren't actually squatters, but we looked like squatters cause we worked in television. So they get their big wads of money out and sort of, you know, flash it at the bar and everything.

MG: Enfield hated Thatcher, hated what she represented.

MT: But the power I took was the power to reduce the power of government.

MG: Enfield and his partner, Paul Whitehouse, dreamt up a character to embody Thatcher's England.

HE: And it sort of just became this sort of thing really, where we'd just go,  "Loadsamoney," about everything. You know,  "Well, that Loadsamoney, Loadsamoney, that. Loadsamoney, that." And then, it became a sort of phenomenon.

MG: His name was  "Loadsamoney." He was a construction worker catapulted to sudden, delirious wealth by the 80s building boom.

I got piles!

[Audience laughter]

Piles of money!

MG: He chews gum with his mouth open, wears acid washed jeans, white trainers, a yellow and green nylon jacket with white sleeves, keys on his belt, drives a white convertible in the countryside. All performed with a kind of cheerful, unstoppable tastelessness.

HE: I mean, at the time everything was, you know, everyone was going Mrs. Thatcher this, Mrs. Thatcher that and, you know, sort of, very obviously preaching to the converted. So we sort of did it the other way, which is just to go,  "Look at me, aren't I great? Isn't money great? Everything else is rubbish, only money is good."

MG: My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You're listing to Revisionist History, where every week I revisit the forgotten and the misunderstood.

In this week's episode, the final episode of our first season, I want to talk about satire, political satire.

We live in the golden age of satire. It's almost to the point where we seem to conduct as much of our political conversation through humor as through the normal media. Remember Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondent's Dinner? In character, as the conservative talk show host he was then playing on television, he stands up and gives a satirical toast to his  "hero," President George W. Bush.

SC: I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that, no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.

MG: All the while, President Bush sits unhappily on the dais, a few feet from Colbert, squirming and grimacing and looking like he'd rather be 100 feet underground. It was a moment of comic genius. Then there was Tina Fey's devastating impression of Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign, when the Alaskan governor ran on the Republican presidential ticket with John McCain.

Tina Fey: Well, Alaska and Russia are only separated by a narrow maritime border. You've got Alaska here and this right here is water and then that's, up there, is Russia. So we keep an eye on them.

MG: Who do you remember now? Sarah Palin herself or Tina Fey's Palin? I've written opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines and there, you have to write in somber, reasonable tones; you're limited. Satire allows you to say almost anything. That's where truth is spoken to power in our society. When you sugar-coat a bitter truth with humor, it makes the medicine go down. Your audience lets its guard down. Just look at the way Saturday Night Live has covered Hillary Clinton. They've ruthlessly zeroed in on her ambition, her humorlessness, her severity, her opportunism, all the things that have always given people pause about her.

You're finally going to announce that you're running for president.

Oh my gosh, I don't know if I have it in me. I'm scared. I'm kidding, let's do this!

MG: Comedians have become our truth tellers. That's what Loadsamoney was trying to do.

Enfield wanted to tell the truth about what was happening in England after Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. She was the British Ronald Reagan. During her 11 year reign, she took on British socialism with a vengeance, called it a nanny state. Her aggression angered and scared a lot of people who felt that something fundamental about the country's character was being upended, that something dark and crude had been unearthed, something like Loadsamoney.

HE: All he did was have money, shag birds, drink, going to the opera, that was it kind of thing.

MG: Wait, I didn't realize he went to the opera.

HE: Well, he, he didn't really like the opera, but he liked it because it was expensive, so he liked to be seen there, you know. So he'd go up to the bar and flash his wad, you know, and order champagne top, which is basically like, lager top is a very big drink over here, which is lager with a bit of lime in the top. It's something you might get your girlfriend in the pub. So he'd to the opera and order, you know, a pint of champagne top.

MG: Loadsamoney ran in the mid-1980s on a popular, Friday night sketch comedy show on British television. It struck a nerve.

The first couple of times you do this sketch, is the, is the reaction immediate or is it kind of built?

HE: No, it's absolutely immediate. I mean, it was a sort of live show, and so it needed sort of big, brash, loud characters and this was one and people absolutely got it straight away.

MG: It's really hard to find someone over the age of 30 in England who doesn't remember the Loadsamoney theme song.

[Loadsamoney theme song playing]

MG: Enfield released it as a lark in 1988 and it was huge, rose to number 2 on the British pop charts. The video is a series of shots of Loadsamoney marching around with scantily dressed women, driving fancy cars and sneering at the rest the world, all the while waving huge piles of pound notes. It has 3.3 million views on YouTube.

There is no op-ed, no letter to the editor, no impassioned essay that gets 3.3 million views on YouTube. That's the power of satire. It can go places that serious discourse cannot.

But here's the strange thing. If you ask Harry Enfield about Loadsamoney's legacy, about what he thinks he accomplished by speaking truth so boldly to power, you know he says? He says it made no difference. That's what I want to talk about. Let's call it  "the Loadsamoney Problem."

HE: You know, I mean, it's great fun to do but generally, you know, it's just about questioning what's there because we're allowed to question what's there so we do, but it doesn't ever change anyone's mind.

More in a moment after this break.

Now back to our story.

MG: When Harry Enfield told me he didn't think Loadsamoney made any difference, the first person I thought of was Stephen Colbert. Not the straight Stephen Colbert of the current late show, but his breakout character, the parody of a right wing journalist that Colbert played on Comedy Central, first on The Daily Show and then, from 2005 to 2014, on the Colbert Report. Colbert was trying to do a version of what Loadsamoney was doing, shine a light on something crude in American popular culture. But you know, I was a guest on the Colbert Report a few times when I was promoting my books and I have to say that there was always something a bit, maybe ambiguous is the right word, about Colbert's satire.

You go to the studios; they're in Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan, far West Side. You sit in the green room beforehand and Colbert comes in to say hello. He's not in character. He's this warm, charming, nice guy and I can't stress the nice part enough. Everyone who meets Stephen Colbert thinks he's nice. He chats with you and he warns you that when you go out on set, he's going to be someone else but you don't quite believe him because you see this really nice guy in front of you. Then you get on stage and he really is someone else. He's now this aggressive, right wing talk show host.

Stephen Colbert: Okay I'll get straight to my problem with this. Okay? You know I got problem with this, right?

MG: Sure you do.

SC: That can't come as a surprise to you.

MG: Yeah.

SC: Okay. The New Yorker, okay, you, think pieces, that's you, right? You write think pieces. Why do you want to make me think about my dog? I feel about my dog and my dog loves me back unconditionally. Why ruin that with thinking about it?

MG: Now you know, intellectually, that it's satire. He's doing a parody of a brain dead talk show host, but it doesn't feel like a parody when you're sitting there. He's jabbing his finger and raising his one acrobatic eyebrow and there I am, like a deer in the headlights of satire, blinking. It's terrifying. I think I went on three times and every time I swore I'd never go on again.

SC: You say  "our dogs." Do you have a dog?

MG: I, I, I don't have a dog.

SC: You don't have a dog.

MG: I, um… my building doesn't allow dogs. I, I'm an aspirational dog owner but I, I…

SC: Really?

MG: Yeah. I, someday…

SC: So had you the ability, you would own a dog?

MG: I would, someday I hope to own a dog, yeah. I, I grew up with dogs and I've…

SC: Were you raised by wolves? What do you mean? Where… grew up with dogs?

MG: That's what I mean by ambiguous. Am I in on the joke or the butt of it? I don't know. The Colbert Report has actually been studied by communications scholar named Heather LaMarre, an assistant professor at Temple University, in Philadelphia. She's part of a group of social scientists who've made a specialty out of studying how humor operates in popular culture and she was drawn to the Colbert Report for the very reason that I'm talking about. That gap between what you, as the audience, know intellectually that he's trying to do and the way his performance feels.

Heather LaMarre: I have a lot of liberal friends, especially in, you know, academia, but I also have a lot of friends and family members that are conservative and I started noticing that they would talk about the show as if it was equally funny but in completely opposite ways.

MG: It struck her as something worth examining in more detail.

HL: Why are my Republican friends and family members watching him every single night and finding him hilarious but they see him making fun of liberals and my liberal friends love him to death and just the biggest fans ever, and think it's hilarious that he's making fun of people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly?

MG: As an example, LaMarre picks a clip of an interview Colbert did with a left wing journalist, Amy Goodman. This is from 2009.

SC: Thank you so much for coming to the show.

Amy Goodman: It's good to be with you Stephen, I think.

SC: Now, you're a communist, right? You're super liberal lefty. They don't get any more liberal lefty like, uh, outside agitator than you, do they?

AG: I don't know. I think that conservative and liberal lines are breaking down right now.

SC: Yeah, to right and wrong.

AG: Let me talk about the Red Estate and the…

SC: I'm not going to let you do anything; you're gonna have to earn every inch of this interview, young lady.

AG: I was just…

SC: You don't come in my house and get me to let you do anything.

MG: During that outburst, Goodman nervously swivels back and forth in her chair. She starts to smile, but only gets half way so there's a kind of grimace left on her face. She raises her arm and points it at Colbert but then, just as quickly, takes it down. I know exactly how she feels.

SC: I heard you're a firebrand. Well, bring it baby!

MG: What does LaMarre finds when she studies audience reactions to a clip like this? She finds that the more liberal you are, the more you see Stephen Colbert as a liberal skewering conservatives; but the more conservative you are, the more you see Stephen Colbert as a conservative skewering liberals.

HL: So, essentially, they saw what they wanted to see. So the big takeaway here of this study was that this is what we would call motivated cognition or biased perception.

MG: Colbert says to Goodman,  "You're a communist." That's funny if you think the joke is on Colbert. It's also funny if you think Goodman actually is a kind of communist and someone is finally calling her out on it.

HL: Yeah, and he's sticking it to a communist. And we asked those kinds of questions in several different ways and every single time the conservatives, and especially the strong conservatives, would say,  "Yeah, it's a joke but he really kind of means it." So he really does, sort of, think she's a communist, and he really does, sort of, think  "There is a right and a wrong and I agree with that." Whereas the liberal would be, like,  "Oh, yeah, he's clearly making fun of Bill O'Reilly."

MG: There's no difference in how funny conservatives and liberals find Colbert?

HL: Right. And that's part of the magic, right? So that's why I would say he was a comedic genius.

MG: LaMarre loves Colbert and she thinks that what he accomplished with the Colbert Report was extraordinary. He created a character who managed to appeal to all sides of the political spectrum simultaneously. Do you know how hard that is? Really, really hard. But if you think he's somehow winning an ideological battle, you're wrong.

[All in the Family theme song]

This isn't the first time this has happened with politically motivated comedy, by the way. Almost 50 years ago, when Norman Lear's All in the Family was the most popular show in American television, there was a huge debate over the show's star character, the bigoted, reactionary Archie Bunker.

Isn't anybody else interested in upholding standards? Our world is comin' crumbling down! The coons are comin'!

MG: Bunker was created to satirize conservative attitudes on race and sexuality. But in the end, the consensus among social scientists seemed to be that he didn't do that at all. Here is the conclusion of the best known study on the show.  "We found that many persons did not see the program as a satire on bigotry. All such findings seem to suggest that the program is more likely reinforcing prejudice and racism then combating it." It didn't change any minds. And the same thing happens with Loadsamoney. At one point, Enfield does a benefit for British nurses who are all on strike. Nurses in the UK are public sector employees and they want a modest raise and Thatcher, who's intent on shrinking the size of the public sector, won't give it to them. So what this benefit, Enfield comes out on stage as Loadsamoney in his white trainers and acid washed jeans and nylon shell and screams at them all,  "Get back to work you scum!" Then he burns a 10 pound note on stage and the room of nurses goes wild, they love it. He's perfectly captured what they're up against. But the other side, the side they're up against, they love it, too.

HE: And it got, sort of, taken on by The Sun, which was a very right wing paper, and the kind of left wing papers. Basically, everyone took it on. Everyone decided it was theirs, you know, they made him their property.

MG: So The Sun looked on Loadsamoney quite affectionately?

HE: Yeah, yeah. They thought it was great and it was a sign of Thatcher's Britain, that all working class people were getting richer. That's what they, that was their propaganda, that was how they interpreted it I guess, yeah. Which, obviously, wasn't really the case, but it was quite funny.

MG: Were you taken by surprise, by the reception that Loadsamoney got?

HE: I was.

MG: Why?

HE: Well, just because, you know, I'd done other characters and they've been all right but this seemed to go very big and it got, sort of, mentioned in parliament and then Mrs. Thatcher suddenly said,  "We've got a Loadsamoney economy," or something. And then, the leader of the opposition says,  "You know, you've created this Loadsamoney." They, and they were both using; one of them was using it with praise and the other one with, you know, contempt. It was, it was odd, very odd. I, I didn't expect at all, Malcolm.

MG: It really is odd. There are cultural histories written of the Thatcher years and invariably they talk about Loadsamoney and how the character was this great symbol of the era. And it's clear that enthusiasm for this grotesque mockery was even greater on the right then it was on the left. Finally, Enfield just kinda gives up.

MG: Tell me how you killed him off.

HE: Oh, I think he got… well, I think I just stopped doing him and then we were doing Comic Relief over here and I think we did a sketch where he got run over. He was run over by a van on live telly for charity.

MG: The Loadsamoney problem happens because satire is complicated. It's not like straightforward speech that's easy to decode; it requires interpretation. That's what draws you in, that's where the humor lies. But that active interpretation has a cost; Heather LaMarre calls this the paradox of satire.

HL: So the tradeoff with satire becomes all of the thinking, or a lot of the thinking, becomes devoted to what the comic means, who the target of the joke is. And as they interpret that, then they spend less time thinking about whether that warrants any kind of real consideration or counter arguing, sort of, the merits of that message.

MG: This doesn't happen when you listen to a straightforward discussion of politics; you just think about the arguments. But with satire…

HL: Here, you're spending all of your time thinking about the nature of the comedy, which leaves very little mental resources available to think about whether the comedy has truth.

MG: There's a brilliant essay written on this very subject in the July 2013 London review of books. It's called Sinking, Giggling into the Sea and it's by the writer Jonathan Coe. You should read it. Coe takes the argument against satire one step further. He says the effectiveness of satire is not just undermined by its complicated nature, by its ambiguity, Coe says it's undermined by something else — the laughter it creates.

Jonathan Coe: Laughter, in a way, is a kind of last resort. if, if you, if you're up against a problem which is completely intractable, if you're up against a situation for which there is no human solution and never will be, then okay, let's, let's laugh about it.

MG: In, say, the humor of Laurel and Hardy, Coe says that kind of laughing is perfectly appropriate.

JC: Because when you see them taking on some ridiculous, Sisyphean task like pushing a piano up an an endless flight of stairs, failing time and time again, then you know what, what they're asking you to laugh at there is, is the human condition and the, and the, the intractability of, of, of the forces of nature and the forces of physics which we can do nothing about. So of course, we have to laugh. But political problems, it's slightly different. I mean, some, some political problems are intractable, but some political problems can be solved and perhaps, instead of laughing about them, we should try to do something about them.

Tina Fey: I just hope that tonight the lame stream media won't twist my words by repeating them verbatim.

MG: Back at the beginning, I mentioned Tina Fey's brilliant impersonation of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. I love those sketches. I think Tina Fey is a comic genius. But after listening to Heather LaMarre and Jonathan Coe, I can't help but think that her comic genius is actually a problem.

SNL brought Tina Fey in to skewer Palin out of a sense of outrage that someone this unqualified was running for higher office. In 2008, lots of people felt this way. Palin was the running mate of John McCain, an elderly senator of uncertain health; she could easily have been president. SNL was trying to hold Sarah Palin to some kind of scrutiny to say,  "This is who she is." But looking back now, I don't think it worked because Tina Fey is too busy being funny.

David Letterman: Now, please welcome the lovely Tina Fey, ladies and gentleman.

MG: In October 2008, just before the election, Tina Fey does an interview with the talk show host David Letterman. Now, you would think, with the vote looming, Fey and Letterman would wanna talk about the subject of her satire or the intention of her satire, the fact that someone this unqualified might be less than a month away from the vice presidency, but they don't. They talk entirely about the mechanics of Fey's satire.

TF: She's got that crazy accent, it's a little bit Fargo, it's a little bit, uh, Reese Witherspoon in election and it also, uh, I tried to base it on my friend Paula's Grandma, uh, who she, her Grandma was this sweet little old lady from Joliet, Illinois and she would always say, like,  "Oh, this and that and stuff like that." And I think, and I think that might be our next vice president.

[Audience laughter]

David Letterman: But it's, it sounded to me like a little, I don't know what the connection would be, it sounds a little like upper Midwest, kinda Great Lakes region.

TF: Yeah. She's dropping the G's it's like, you know, her R's, she really loves the, you know, like,  "these terrorists and William errors and‚Äö√Ѭ∂" She digs the whole Rs. I think she thinks there's oil in those R's. She is digging deep.

MG: They want the laugh, so they make fun of the way Sarah Palin talks. And the way she talks is not the problem.

TF: There's certainly been a strange reaction to it and I've seen people who say,  "Oh no, you're helping them, you're helping them because people, people‚Äö√Ѭ∂ it seems, makes her seem nice" or, you know, the Republicans say it's sexist. That's, you know, crazy because you have to be able to goof on female politicians just as much otherwise you really are treating them, like, they're, like, they're weaker or something and this, Sarah Palin is a tough lady. She kills things, she kills animals that're bigger than me and you together.

MG: Did you catch that?  "Because you have to be able to goof on female politicians." Goof! Like the role of the satirist is to sit on the front porch and crack wise. What doesn't Tina Fey just come out and admit that her satire is completely toothless? And then what happens? The very next day, the day after Tina Fey goes on Letterman, Sarah Palin appears as a guest on Saturday Night Live, right beside Tina Fey.

Sarah Palin: Now, I'm not going to take any of your questions, but I do want to take this opportunity to say,  "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!"

MG: They let Sarah Palin in on the joke and Palin and Tina Fey dress up in identical red outfits with little things in their hair and put on identical glasses because that's even funnier. And what are you left with? You're left with one of the most charming and winning and hilarious comics of her generation letting her charisma wash over her extensible target, disarming us, disarming Sarah Palin.

SP: And now, I'd like to entertain everybody with some fancy pageant walking.

MG: Sure, we laughed, but it's kind of heartbreaking, isn't it? At least Harry Enfield was trying to take a bite out of the establishment with Loadsamoney. Saturday Night Live has taken out its dentures and is sipping the political situation through a straw. Lord help us if some other, even less qualified and more frightening political figure comes along.

JC: I think that the pleasure that laughter generates can be deceptive.

MG: That's writer Jonathan Coe again.

JC: To make an audience laugh is very, it's a very solid, a very tangible thing. I think it's, it's only after the event, maybe years after the event, that you pull back and ask yourself,  "Well, was that effect that I wanted?"

MG: Jonathan Coe brings up Peter Cook, the legendary English comedian of the 1960s. Cook was the driving force behind Beyond the Fringe, the British satirical review that's really the spiritual ancestor of shows like Saturday Night Live.

MG: Cook later started a comedy club in SoHo, in London called The Establishment.

JC: Peter Cook, kind of his genius and also his curse was that he, he saw all these contradictions as soon as he started, really, and he wasn't, he was under no illusions that he was going to change the world through satire. And, uh, yes, the parallel he used with The Establishment was that he was, he was modeling it all on all those wonderful, uh, Berlin cabarets from the 1920s, which have done so much to prevent the rise of Hitler and the, and the beginnings of Nazism.

MG: There's a television show in Israel called A Wonderful Country, Eretz Nehederet. It's been on the air since 2003. It's satire, very political. The show's writers belong to the beleaguered Israeli political left. They want a separate state for Palestinians; they want an end to the endless wars, they worry about the increasing conservative religious influence on the country's politics. They're ideologically motivated in their humor in the same way that Harry Enfield and Tina Fey were, but there's a difference.

Muli Segev: It's more political and it's a, a little more rugged and hardcore because life in Israel is, is much more rugged and hardcore.

MG: That's Muli Segev, the show's executive producer. A Wonderful Country airs Friday night at 9, after the news. Practically the whole country watches it.

MS: The stomach of Israeli viewers is much more adjustable. You know, they can adjust to much tougher material, firstly, because the news broadcast that is on the air before us, uh, shows so many gruesome stuff and horrible things that, naturally, the comedy after that will be the same.

MG: A Wonderful Country goes further than the kind of TV satire that we have in the US or the UK, maybe because the stakes are so much higher in Israel. Maybe in a country with a tortured history, suffering under constant threat, the boundaries that satire needs to push up against are more real.

MS: And we have very, very bad reactions sometimes.

MG: Can you give me an example of a sketch that brought about a bad reaction?

MS: Let's say, like, a couple of years ago, we made a sketch that was a parody on a, on a game show called 1 Vs. 100, you know that, that show?

MG: 1 Vs. 100 was a quiz show where one supposedly brilliant contestant, known as the one, squares off against 100 people sitting in little cubicles in the audience. The one and the audience are asked a question and whenever someone in the audience gets it wrong, they're eliminated. The light in their cubicle goes off and we can't see them anymore. In A Wonderful Countr

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