Between 1984 and 1996, the BAFTA and Emmy-winning satire show Spitting Image spoke truth to power on British television. If you were one of the 15 million people who tuned into ITV on Sunday primetime, you’d find caricature puppet versions of smarmy politicians, shameless celebrities and vapid sports stars being hysterically impersonated and ridiculed. The show revolved around and revelled in its political incorrectness, and now 24 years later – at what many are calling a more necessary time than ever – it’s back.
Just three episodes of the first season have been released so far, but by all accounts it’s just as irreverent and fearless as it was all those years ago. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at their YouTube channel. “Spitting Image: Vicious, Grotesque, Brilliant”, boasts the title of one promotional trailer viewed almost half a million times in three days. And that’s not to mention the reception of the audience: “Finally a blow of fresh air. Your politically incorrect humour is very much needed nowadays,” sighs one commenter with a Union Jack as their display picture. You can see where they’re coming from: if ever there was a year where some satire would serve as a well-received distraction, 2020’s the one – and don’t you worry, for Trump, Brexit, Boris and COVID are all firmly in Spitting Image’s crosshairs.
But among the satirical subjects targeted in the reboot of the show, one name particularly stands out to me: Greta Thunberg. A 17-year-old with Asperger’s whose sole misdemeanour was to dare to take the ruling class of Europe to task regarding their lack of sufficient policy to prevent an environmental crisis. The decision to make Thunberg a recurring character seems short-sighted at best, and outright hateful at worst. If they had to include a mock puppet of her, they could’ve at least made it funny. In the pilot episode, the severe-looking caricature of Greta appears just once, presenting the weather forecast and declaring that the weather will be “HOT”. Haha! Get it? She’s the weirdo climate change girl! The second episode features a longer sketch wherein Greta goes to a West Ham match with a stereotypical cockney bloke and ends up becoming so incensed over the football that she insists on protesting and coming back every week to fix the injustices she sees on the pitch. Here it is, if you’re interested:
Sure, I don’t think it’s particularly funny, but of course, humour is subjective. People might laugh at certain parts, and that’s completely fine – we don’t all have the same taste. What, to me, is the more concerning aspect of all of this is the ‘If It’s Getting The Snowflakes Offended Then It Must Be Good’ brigade coming out in their droves to champion scenes like these, and the reboot of Spitting Image on the whole, as a necessary and effective satire show in 2020. The problem is twofold: firstly, that the show offers critique of people like Greta who don’t really deserve ridicule; and secondly, that all of the critique is completely toothless. Compared to the cutting-edge and culture-shaping Spitting Image of the 80s and 90s, this reboot seems to have taken out its dentures and started sipping the political and environmental crises through a straw.
Even if you happen to think scenes depicting Greta going to the football or Boris having sex with coronavirus itself (yes, seriously) make for great television, the satire still doesn’t break through and offer any effective and long-lasting criticism of the increasingly worrying developments around the world. Satirical novelist Jonathan Coe has reflected on the purpose of humour, saying: “laughter is a kind of last resort – if you’re up against a problem that’s completely (unsolvable), a situation for which there is no human solution and never will be, then OK – let’s laugh about it”. And in genres of comedy which don’t have any other stated purpose, like slapstick or sitcoms, that’s brilliant. When Laurel and Hardy can’t push a piano up the stairs, we’re laughing at them struggling because they’re reflecting a failure of the human condition, showing their exaggerated inability to fight against the forces of physics. But when the subject is political problems, and the genre is satire shows which at least purportedly attempt to make us think about those problems, the effect seems to get lost somewhat. Unlike in slapstick, you can’t only go for the joke or only present the absurdity of what’s on screen if you want to actually make people see Trump, Boris or indeed Greta Thunberg as people worthy of critique. Plenty of folks love the ‘black comedy’ and political incorrectness of the reboot of Spitting Image, but what am I meant to actually be thinking when I’m watching the Prime Minister seducing a strain of a deadly virus in bed? When the weirdly widely faced Greta puppet laments that “the referee has stolen my childhood with his erratic decision making,” what’s actually being said about her effectiveness as a leader in the fight against climate change? Britbox director Reemah Sakaan has responded to criticism of Thunberg’s inclusion, saying that: It’s a very straightforward joke and is nothing to do with her as an individual,” but that’s exactly the problem: if the jokes are straightforward and there isn’t any criticism of individuals being offered, then it seems fairly clear to me that the modern reboot of Spitting Image is no satire at all.
A lot of people like to say that the new wave of political correctness has marked the death of inappropriate humour. I think quite the opposite. Satire in the 21st century has the potential to be both amazingly funny and a priceless tool in holding celebrities accountable and speaking truth to power, but the true intention of the comedy needs to be crystal clear, equal parts court jester and town crier. In the past fifteen years, the overwhelming majority of popular satire has been weak enough to warrant a pat on the head and even an endorsement from the ruling class, rendering it utterly redundant. Of course, it can still be funny. 2008 US Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is almost as famous for being perfectly and hilariously impersonated by Tina Fay on Saturday Night Live as she is for her political career. But when Fay chose to discuss the mechanics and humour of her own impression rather than the intention of the satire on popular US talk shows, and when Saturday Night Live chose to air an episode with a collaboration(!) between Tina Fey and the real politician she was impersonating just weeks before the 2008 Presidential election, the utter pointlessness of the show’s attempt at satire became evident. Viewers weren’t switching off their screens more aware of Sarah Palin’s tendency to avoid questions, nor her views on same-sex marriage or Second Amendment rights. If anything, SNL’s depiction of Palin only served to make her more likeable.
Spitting Image’s return has the potential to bring back effective political satire at a time when it’s most needed and after, but their choice of characters and ad hominem-oriented sketches have missed the mark. If they can stop being so busy concerning themselves with trying so hard to be funny and deliberately and clumsily overstepping the boundaries, they might just end up creating satire with a real purpose.