HBO’s latest sensation has hit our screens in the form of comedian and satirist John Oliver. Last Week Tonight is the Englishman’s first solo gig, and although cable is choking with more chat shows than anyone knows what to do with, it’s doing really well. In fact, it regularly attracts an audience of one million people. More views accrue when lengthy clips from the show get put up on YouTube; almost seven million people have seen his rant against corruption within FIFA, the international soccer association. He is praised for humorously addressing topics serious people would rather avoid; capital punishment, international LGBT discrimination, and net neutrality have all fell under his gaze. It’s a bold comedian who makes light of the death penalty.
In many ways though, John Oliver’s chat show is but contributing to a healthy history of political satire which has been featured as a staple of television programming for a number of years. The Daily Show, where John Oliver got his big break, started in 1996. In the ‘60s David Frost came to prominence as host of satire show That Was the Week That Was some fifteen years before securing his place in history as President Nixon’s persecutor. But even beyond that, politics, comedy, and performance have come together in the genre of satire for thousands of years. We can trace the art back through the acerbic parodies of the great Victorian operettists Gilbert and Sullivan, who commented on such modern issues as feminism and bureaucracy (hiding their plays’ true meanings beneath a thin veil of pirates and love potions); into the Renaissance era, flourishing in the hands of dramatists such as Jonson and Dekker; and through into the Roman period, where it reigned high for hundreds of years. Seneca wrote a particularly enjoyable satire on the deification of Emperor Claudius, called the Apocolocyntosis, or Pumpkinification; it’s as ridiculous as the name suggests. The word “satire” in fact comes from Latin, where it meant something like a “mixed bag.”
But the genre finds its true birthplace, as with so many things, in ancient Greece – specifically in the plays of Old Comedy. The best known practitioner of Old Comedy is of course Aristophanes.
Despite being a household name, Aristophanes’ plays rarely get performed these days (although a heavily adapted Frogs was turned into a musical by Stephen Sondheim with a book by Nathan Lane – despite such noble lineage, it was not well received). It’s not hard to see the problem: to a contemporary Athenian audience, joking about a particular politician’s cowardliness would be hilarious, but today even most classicists don’t know who Cleonymus is any more. So performances either have to modify, cut, or keep in such jokes, knowing the audience won’t find them funny. But the man’s genius is still clear to anyone who cares to look, and the striking ferocity of his political attacks easily matches anything dished out by comedians today.
He is arguably most on form when rallying against the Peloponnesian War, a devastating and in his mind foolhardy conflict between his native Athens and that other great superpower in ancient Greece: Sparta. This war lasted almost thirty years and for most of his literary career. It rang the knell for Athens as an undisputed champion of Greek politics, art, and culture. Aristophanes’ plays mock everything from ineffectual political leadership, to military defeats, to the ineptitudes of the male gender as a whole. In Wasps, a character convenes a mock trial attended by household utensils, in which a dog called Laches must defend himself against the charge of gobbling up a Sicilian cheese – a reference to the general Laches who suffered defeat in Sicily himself.In Lysistrata, the country’s women band together to stop the conflict – by refusing to sleep with their men until they make peace. Their plan swiftly succeeds.
The truly remarkable thing about Aristophanes’ anti-war satire is that his subject was so personal to his audience of Athenian citizens and their allies that it seems very probable every person watching would have known someone who had died in the conflict. Imagine a satirist today gathering up the families of the victims of 9/11 and presenting a sketch mocking the War on Terror; unthinkable, but analogous.
It is clear that Old Comedy flourished because of Athens’ democratic system, for when the demagogue Cleon tried to curtail Aristophanes’ excesses through political action, he only succeeded in providing the playwright with additional material. The political classes have always tried, and failed, to control satire. It was outlawed in Elizabethan England under the “Bishops’ Ban,” but the legislation was widely ignored. Today, the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner shows that if you can’t beat ‘em, you just have to join ‘em.
Let’s not confuse Aristophanes’ fall from relevance as a shortcoming of the playwright; rather, it is a natural effect of the genre he was writing. Political satire is by its very nature constantly hungry for new material, but by that same virtue constantly rendering itself irrelevant five minutes after it is performed, in constant need of regeneration like Doctor Who put into overdrive. The same will prove true of John Oliver’s material. In a short time its punchiness will fade and the jokes won’t be funny anymore. If he dreams of a legacy, he might want to switch careers. But the satiric genre will live on forever, itself constantly fresh and exciting; after all, it’s been delighting audiences and criticising stupidity for 2,500 years already.