The Moral Comedy: why comedies are so keen to teach, and we’re so willing to learn

‘PoopFare. You…reckless….CHILD.’


Thus spake Jared (ne Donald) Dunn, in tech startup satire Silicon Valley.

I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as I can, but the show’s sweaty, dweeby protagonist Richard has just jeopardised a Zany Scheme – and the always-precarious future of his company – because of a prank, born of petty jealousy. And Jared – hitherto Richard’s most psychotically loyal acolyte – snaps. He repeats, with mounting hysteria, Richard’s puerile witticism, which somehow becomes sadder with every heartbroken, incredulous repetition. And he ends with a withering, succinct summary of his former hero’s moral failings.

I am dying to unleash a panegyric to Jared, one of television’s sweetest, funniest, most intensely troubling characters. But that’s a story for another day. Instead, let’s focus on that searing ‘You….reckless….CHILD‘, which is as close as we’ll get to unlocking Silicon Valley‘s particular moral code.

Because Silicon Valley has a moral code, and it is positively Puritanical about it. You’d expect a show satirising capitalist excess to be withering about greed, but not so. Silicon Valley smiles benignly on the covetousness, or ambition, of its hapless protagonists – and indeed of their enemies. But the show is Old Testament about hubris, or meanness. Steal and lie all you want, but snub a member of the serving staff, and the great axe will fall. And leave you toppling face-first into a compost heap.

The show has this in common with The Thick of It, Armando Ianucci’s bristling Westminster satire. You can lie, you can bully, and you can coerce – and Malcolm Tucker, the attack dog of spin, will cheerfully do all three to get what he wants – but you do not get to snap absent-mindedly at a member of the cleaning staff. And you also do not get to think that you matter more than you do. Tucker, the hero of a show without heroes, survives right until he thinks he is indispensable – not just to the smooth-faced New Labourites he has sold his soul to preserve, but to government itself.

Of course, self-importance is perhaps the prime target of satire. Look at Shakespeare’s great comic parts. Malvolio, Bottom, Polonius, Dogbery: what do they have in common? What Hamlet scornfully describes as ‘the insolence of office’: an unearned sense of entitlement, of an importance entirely out of proportion to any merits we can actually observe. But because Shakespeare is essentially sympathetic to his nitwits, we can also rejoice at their earthly rewards (good for you, Bottom and Dogbery!), or shiver at their terrible, unfair punishments. Hamlet‘s crime spree begins with Polonius, after all, and he shows less than no remorse. And whatever you think of Malvolio, surely you admit that being falsely institutionalised is…….disproportionate.

And proportion is all in comedy, isn’t it? In fact, Khalil Gibran believes that a sense of humour is nothing but a sense of proportion. You are a figure of fun the instant you lose your sense of proportion – of yourself, of your function, of your place in the great scheme of things. It’s also why you can fuck up, again and again, and still ‘escape whipping’. Papageno obdurately fails every single test he’s given in Die Zauberflote, but is given everything he wanted anyway. Let the heroes waffle on about enlightenment and poorly-defined Mystical Life Lessons and Freemason propaganda. All Papageno wants is a glass of wine and a girlfriend. What more enlightenment do you want? Give him his reward already.

And maybe a sense of proportion is also a good working characterisation of a moral code. Comedies have to have a sense of proportion, otherwise how could they tell us that a thing is ridiculous? Comedies have to have an underlying code, otherwise how could they violate it?

And when the code is violated, retribution has to be terrible, surely? I go back and forth about how valuable anger is in comedy, but certainly some of my favourite political comedies have been born out of a white flame of anger. Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Thick of It and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron are great howls of rage. You laugh because otherwise you would burn this mother down.

And perhaps, while you laugh and weep with them, you’re readier to listen. George Bernard Shaw claimed that all art is didactic – that art’s entire point is to convince its audience of a point of view. And I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that. But I will say that I think comedy can get away with a hell of a lot more lecturing than, say, the actual news.

I’m not the only one to think this. Chin-stroking think-pieces have cropped up in the wake of Trump’s candidacy and then presidency, claiming that for journalism, we need to look to late night television shows, to a man and (in one case) woman, fronted by comedians. Admit it: if you live in an Anglo-Saxon economy and you’re not mortally terrified of the Internet, there’s a good chance you get your news from BBC Radio 4, John Oliver or – maybe? – the Spectator.

Which means – well, it means that comedies aren’t didactic in the way that Shaw or Dario Fo intended, so much as a sophisticated engine of confirmation bias. If you share a sense of proportion with someone, then chances are the same things outrage you. You share a tribe with the people who laugh with you and who make you laugh, and we’re far likelier to listen to a member of the same tribe, than we are to listen to facts.

Of course, all this feeds into hand-wringing about polarisation and The Bubble and whatnot, but eh. Bubbles can protect you. So long as you remember that the bubble is not all there is, bubbles aren’t so bad.

No, I don’t think we’re in any greater danger of polarisation from comedy than we ever were. And comedies won’t be funnier if they have a point of view. Perspective isn’t the issue. Though I guess lack of proportion is.

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