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Kings and jokers

Can political humour change anything?

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

Last year I was having a thoughtful glass of champagne with the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell at the Spectator party during the Tory conference. We were suddenly interrupted by the Prime Minister, who greeted us warmly — ‘Hello Simon, hello Steve’ — because he’s a first-name kind of guy. Or possibly an aide had reminded him of our names. It very soon became clear that what he wanted to talk about was the way that Steve always draws him with a condom over his head. Steve explained courteously that this was because he seemed to have incredibly smooth skin. At first he had thought of clingfilm, but a condom seemed the natural extension.

I said that the Guardian had wanted to drop the condom, but readers demanded its reinstatement. Cameron seemed unsatisfied. ‘You can push the condom too far,’ he said, advice which struck me as good for life as well as political cartooning.

On my way back to the hotel I thought how incredibly lucky we are in this country. A condom isn’t just funny; it’s exceedingly rude. We know what a condom usually covers, and what the many slang terms for it are. It is freighted with a further meaning: a condom prevents fertility and at some deep, atavistic level, we may respond to that. It’s a damning way of portraying any leader. Yet Bell is still alive and well, earning a healthy screw, and garlanded with honours — as well as an exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, of which one of the founders is Lord Baker, whose party is led by Mr Cameron.

I suspect that, outside the US, even now there are only a small minority of countries where you could get away with that. Many years ago I wrote a sketch about Ted Heath touring Northern Ireland. It was meant to be humorous, though not especially savage. My father then worked for Unesco in Paris. With paternal pride he showed the piece to his boss, a grand énarque called Rene Maheu, who read it without cracking a smile, then handed it back remarking, ‘In France your son would not be permitted to write such a thing.’

There’s a book just out by Rudolph Herzog (son of the film director Werner Herzog) called Dead Funny: Humour in Hitler’s Germany. It’s a reminder of just how appalling life can sometimes be for satirists and gagsters of any kind. Not that many of the jokes told against Hitler were especially funny. ‘Hitler is in a hot air balloon, and as he looks out he asks, “What can I do to help the German people?” “Jump out of the balloon?” ’ comes the reply.

A Nazi minister tours a factory and asks about the political views of the workforce. He is told that 80 per cent are Social Democrats, and 20 per cent centrists. ‘But what about National Socialists?’ asks the minister. ‘Oh, they are all Nazis now.’

See? Not exactly rib-splitting. It’s a cliché these days that the golden age of satire was in Berlin during the Thirties, and did nothing to stop the rise of Hitler. But frankly the jokes recounted here — often rather old, many based on thin puns, frequently gentle rather than savage — would have had trouble bringing down any tyranny. There may be regimes that have been laughed out of office, but I can’t think of any.

Herzog makes an interesting point: most people caught telling an anti-Nazi joke in a bierkeller or at work would be fined or sometimes just reprimanded, even by judges who had been put in office by the Nazis. The ones who wound up in concentration camps were those with a long record of defying the regime in public — some of them very brave men and women, many of whom died in Dachau or even worse places. The execution rate spiralled rapidly as total defeat grew near.

Political humour is rarely very funny. Ronald Reagan loved jokes, all predictable, few funny. Woman goes into a pet shop to buy a kitten. The shopkeeper offers Democrat kittens or Republican kittens. She asks what the difference is. ‘The Democrat kittens haven’t opened their eyes yet.’

Or an American meets a Russian and they discuss political freedom. ‘I can stand in front of the White House and shout “Ronald Reagan is a lunatic!” ’ ‘But so can I’, says the Russian. ‘I can stand in front of the Kremlin and shout “Ronald Reagan is a lunatic…” .’

In Britain we rely less on gags, more on sketches that depict character. Peter Cook’s celebrated Macmillan impersonation, for example, which seemed extraordinary lèse-majesté in the Fifties. Mrs Wilson’s Diary and Dear Bill in Private Eye. Former Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews on Gordon Brown: ‘He has the judgment of King Lear, the decisiveness of Hamlet and the loyalty of Brutus. But at least we’ve got rid of Lady Macbeth!’ There were a few one-liners, often rather affectionate. ‘Did you hear that Ted Heath was awarded a peace prize in Jerusalem? It was a rare ancient copy of the Old Testament. So he signed it and handed it back.’

Or Thatcher as a psycho and Major as the grey man on Spitting Image. But even that programme helped its victims. Norman Tebbitt loved the way it cemented his image as a hard man. Many politicians complained that their children thought less of them because they had no puppet.

Many of the best jokes of the Nazi era were Jewish. Two Jews are about to be executed by firing squad. One asks for a blindfold. The other says, ‘Shush, don’t make trouble!’ Others were told by otherwise loyal German soldiers who just needed to keep their spirits up, especially towards the end of the war. As Egon Larsen recounts in his classic book Wit as a Weapon, soldiers at the front would say ‘If only we had food like the English, weapons like the Americans, generals like the Russians and enemies such as the Italians!’

Those things are what brought Hitler down, not the jokes. John Major lost by a landslide not because he seemed dreary, but because people were fed up with the Tories — watching them trying to govern was like seeing Edward Scissorhands trying to make balloon animals. It was economics that brought down the Berlin Wall, not the myriad jokes about communism. (‘It’s a very equitable system. We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.’)

We humourists — if that’s what we are — toil away trying to find jokes, chinks in the politicians’ armour, rejoicing if we get a bat-squeak of anger from a so-called victim. But we are no more likely to change a government than the jokes in Christmas crackers will.

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