Have You Heard the one about the Unfunny Satirist?

Posted: September 25, 2012 in Culture and TV Reviews
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Is This Really the Best We Can Do?!

Obese Health Ministers, a Taoiseach who explains his wealth on ‘a good day at the gg’s’, a Government who impoverishes it’s own citizens in order to repay foreign bond holders – there can be few countries in the world who’s perpetual dysfunction provides as many glorious opportunities for even the most moderately talented satirist to sink his teeth into as Ireland. Yet watching the last episode of Rte’s dire comedy, The Savage Eye, is to be reminded that we Irish just don’t do satire.

Whilst honourable mentions should go to Scratch Saturday and Fr Ted, the history of top quality satire in this country could be written on the back of a box of matches, the relatively harmless contents of which would still be more explosive than anything contained in Rte’s latest lamentable attempt at lampoonery.

In one particularly woeful sketch, David McSavage imagines how car pioneer Henry Ford’s career may have panned out had his Irish born father decided against emigration to the US. Cue much visual hilarity involving Ford Jr ‘wearing’ a Flintstones-esque cardboard shell of a car. Seemingly the punch line here is that Ireland was not as industrially advanced as the US at the turn of the last century – a ‘joke’ that makes The Savage Eye about as edgy as a classroom history book. Zing! indeed.

But it was another sketch that got me thinking, one in which a ‘trainee Garda’ was chastised by his senior colleague for failing to act in a cartoonishly obnoxious manner when dealing with a routine checkpoint situation. Even allowing for the degree of exaggeration most comics inject into their characters, it’s difficult to see how this so-called send-up could be identifiable to anyone bar the most hammy of ham actors.

Perhaps I had just caught The Savage Eye on a bad week? Unfortunately not. Having scoured Youtube for more examples, a consistent picture emerged. All of the sketches are centered around the same unrelatable sergeant/instructor, as he implores his ‘Templemore’ charges to behave in ever more cartoonish ways. When he demands two male trainees practice their hugging skills (because the Gardai are famous for hugging?!) it leads to one becoming sexually aroused – ironic given the impotency of the joke.

But if jokes about obnoxious, homosexual Gardai aren’t your bag, never mind, perhaps sexism is your thing? In another sketch our drill sergeant hero demands a Ban Garda pile on the make-up because “three and a half inches of make-up is a potent weapon.” Even allowing for the implied irony, it was a sketch so sexist it reminded me of the type of spoof 1940’s ads Harry Enfield lampooned so brilliantly in his 1990’s heyday.

But this isn’t to say it’s impossible for Irish writers to mine great comedy from the force, as John Michael McDonagh proved in his 2010 movie The Guard. Unlike McSavage, he observed the first rule of comedy – be funny. The Guard was full of hilarious one-liners, brilliantly delivered via a wonderful Brendan Gleeson performance. But whilst it was undoubtedly funny, the Guard centered around the life of a solitary, renegade Guard out posted to the middle of nowhere and could hardly have been construed as a satirical swipe at the force in general. For Garda-related satire unfortunately all we have is Mr McSavage.

McSavages’ laughably inept attempt to take a swipe at the force did raise a few questions though; why are An Garda Síochána targeted for ridicule, and, if the force must be ridiculed, why is it so seldom done well? The desire to lampoon a countries police force can probably be attributed to a childlike resentment of authority. In much the same way school kids will unflatteringly mimic their no-doubt clever and normal teacher, we, as adults, similarly feel the need to mock our own authority figures – in our case, the police.

So why level the ‘corrupt, stupid, abusers of power’ charge at the gate of An Garda Síochána when there are surely more worthy recipients like, say, our politicians? Perhaps McSavage, or David Andrews Jr to give him his only slightly less hilarious real name, feels less comfortable lampooning the political elite, which is understandable when one considers that his family is knee deep in Irish politics, his brother even serving in the same calamitous Fianna Fail cabinet that dreamed up the ruinous bank guarantee scheme in 2008. As idiotic simpletons go, it’s hard to look past a Government that agreed to repay unsecured bondholders in full.

Before a charge of preciousness can be leveled, it should be pointed out that the average Guard is no different from anyone else insofar as they are more than capable of laughing at themselves. The problem occurs when the joke isn’t funny. Compare and contrast McSavage’s one-dimensional, unidentifiable buffoons with such a wonderfully rounded character as Frank Drebbin.

Not so much a satire as a laugh-a-minute slapstick comedy, Police Squad! may have stuck to all the bumbling cop clichés but it still seemed fresh thanks to Leslie Nielson’s star turn as the hapless, po-faced lieutenant Drebbin. More a send up of the slew of awful ‘70’s cop shows, Police Squad! still managed to land several hilarious haymakers to the boys in blue with such wonderful lines as ‘we would have got here earlier but your husband wasn’t dead yet’ and the immortal ‘just think, the next time I shoot someone I could be arrested.’ Proof positive that the police can be the subject for great comedy – provided the comedians in question are funny enough.

And if straight-faced idiocy isn’t your thing, how about Springfield’s, ahem, finest, Police Chief Wiggum? A more direct send-up of police everywhere, The Simpsons chief Clancy Wiggum is the waddling embodiment of every cop cliché. On the take? Check! Police brutality? Check! Obese dougnout-muncher? Check! Wiggum’s character is so predictable he shouldn’t be funny, but he is. And then some. A wheezing lardass, friend to the local mafia, father to the remedial Ralf, on paper Wiggum should be the most repugnant resident of Springfield, but instead he is one of the most loved thanks to such legendary lines as ‘where on my badge does it say anything about protecting people?’ and ‘Fat Tony is a cancer in this fair city. He is the cancer, and I am the, um… what cures cancer?’ An over-the-top caricature (in every sense), Wiggum proves that you can use all the old clichés but in skilled satirical hands they don’t have to be an obstacle to hilarity.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare these great comedy creations with the output of McSavage, a lightweight, would-be satirist of dubious comedy value. But in an era when airtime is more precious than ever, allocating primetime broadcasting space to a show as poor as The Savage Eye is akin to hanging a Rolf Harris doodle on the walls of the Louvre. If Rte must insist on using our license fee to fund The Savage Eye, is it really too much to ask that they demand a comedic level beyond primary school yard? Or failing that, perhaps The Savage Eye could be given a mid-afternoon slot on the Den, where its juvenile jokes would more likely be appreciated, and in the process freeing up valuable evening airtime for more worthy shows. Like what? Well, re-runs of Police Squad! would be a start……. 


Article first published in Garda Review magazine, June, 2012





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