On the surface, political humour in Irish media appears to be quite irreverent and anti-establishment. As audience members we often take pleasure in the notion that political humour is a form of cultural resistance.
In January 2009, for example, 2FM’s Nob Nation was the subject of rumblings of dissatisfaction from Fianna Fáil over its representations of the cabinet. That March, RTÉ asked mimic Oliver Callan, the satirist behind Nob Nation to ‘go easy’ on the Taoiseach, ‘stating that his increasingly controversial portrayal of Brian Cowen as a drunken buffoon “might be perceived as a bit personal… ”’ (The Irish Independent 15 March 2009). In the same month, RTÉ issued a public apology for reporting on comic caricatures of a naked Mr Cowen placed illegally in the National Gallery. RTÉ apologised for ‘any personal offence caused to Mr Cowen or his family for any disrespect shown to the office of the Taoiseach’. On foot of the incident, Fianna Fáil Dublin-North TD Michael Kennedy called, without effect, for RTÉ Director General, Cathal Goan, to ‘consider his position’ (The Irish Independent 25 March 2009). While interesting, these are two rare examples of humour raising political hackles. The truth is that behind every prominent politician there’s an Irish comic softening up his public image. Bertie Ahern for instance displayed a great appreciation of the positive use of political humour. When Taoiseach, Ahern managed to construct ‘Bertie’ as a light-hearted political brand. If ‘Bertie’ were a TV soap the tagline would read, “a well meaning but harmless guy who likes to help his friends, bet on horses and have a few pints in his local”. Over time, like other celebrities, such simplified personalities become characters that we recognise and identify with. Ironically, satirical attacks on politicians like ‘Bertie’ may just amplify this political branding. Notably, Gift Grub set out to lampoon ‘Bertie’ but ended up reinforcing the impression of a bumbling, shrewd but ultimately harmless character. ‘Bertie’ became someone that the public could laugh at, and laugh with, while policy, and its effects, became invisible.
Humour can defuse and deflect anger and opposition. It is difficult, after all, to feel angry towards someone that you cannot take seriously. When ‘Bertie’ recently won €10,000 in a pub draw, a spokesperson announced that Mr Ahern would be keeping the money to ‘pay a few bills and buy a few pints’. Coming from a man with a Dáil salary, a ministerial pension and a number of other income sources this is, most likely, a case of ‘smoke and daggers’. Many of us, fancying ourselves as having the political sense to be able to identify what ‘Bertie’ is up to, may laugh because we can see the joke. The irony, of course, is that ‘Bertie’ is a comic device to amuse, flatter and distract potential opponents. The joke is on the audience.
While it might be seen as resistance, humour aimed at politicians is often harnessed as a means of consolidating power. Rather than attacking institutional politics, political humour is really a heavily disguised part of it. In the medieval court a King’s appreciation of a court jester’s jibes and pranks was a measure of his power. This use of humour, as Anton Zijderveld wrote was a ‘charade and travesty of power’ where even the most ‘irreverent and blasphemous tricks’ of the court jester were ‘in the final analysis contributions to the existing power structure’. It is interesting that Oliver Callan, the perceived scourge of the current cabinet, performed at the Fianna Fáil Cairde Dinner in 2007, impersonating, among others, his host, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.
In recent times, political humour has taken a back seat with less and less to laugh at. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that political humour often promotes and flatters the politicians it ostensibly criticises. For Irish audiences political humour acts also as a type of self-flattery where the pleasure often lies in the chance to display one’s knowledge of the political game. By getting to ridicule those in power privately, audiences also vent emotional energy that could be expressed publicly and more constructively. In short, humour offers a safe and generally inconsequential form of rebellion.
Understandably, politicians rarely complain about political satire. It may occasionally appear to challenge their authority but satire, as it currently exists in Ireland, supports the political establishment. Without offering critique or new perspectives, it simply repackages political reality as something that we are permitted to laugh at. As the sociologist Tom Burns pointed out ‘the joke is the short cut to consensus’. We only laugh at situations that we ultimately find to be acceptable. This begs a question. If we can laugh at Ireland’s political reality are we tacitly saying that it is OK?