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Laughing at the madness as we all go down in flames

In the past, The Edinburgh Fringe has often been a hotbed of some of the most satirical and illuminating political comedy. So what does 2018 have to offer? The writer and novelist JOHN NICHOLSON is our man in the Athens of the North

When many of our most important politicians are such ridiculous, ludicrous, grotesque parodies, not just of politicians but of actual human beings, when they’re such unbelievable, pernicious, vile, mendacious fools, puking out idiocy, but dressing it up as cleverness, where does that leave political satire and comedy? If the Fringe is anything to go by this year, the answer is, struggling

It’s tricky. How do you satirise politics and politicians when you have an orange American president? The answer is, you can’t satirise him because to satirise him you’d have to take him seriously, and in so many ways, it isn’t possible to take Donald Trump seriously. It’d be like Top Gear reviewing a clown’s car as though it was genuinely a mid-range hatchback. And you can say the same for anything involving the cast of staggeringly slack-jawed heed-the-balls and blank-eyed roasters that call themselves Brexiteers. And yet, obviously, these are all deadly serious matters. However, attacking them just seems to validate their supporter’s world view and thus makes them stronger, but ignoring them means they get to run amok. This is a very 2018 conundrum and it would seem contemporary comedy is struggling to come to terms with how to deal with it all. Right now, it appears that the evil is Teflon-coated and the satire industry can’t lay a glove on it.

Trumpageddon (Gilded Balloon – Teviot Wine Bar 16.00 **) claims to have created an ‘absurdist satire [which] is as demented, hysterical and disturbed as the man himself.’ It hasn’t. Yes the audience can help him form policy, no matter how crazy, but all it really succeeds in doing is celebrating his actual insanity and he emerges as a kind of anti-hero. Result? It just feeds the beast.

When all around are fools playing at being wise, we need someone wise enough to play the fool: we need comedians to shine light in on the darkness. But what ground can they stand on to have any impact at all? It’s not easy.

Trump – The Musical (C Venues 20:55 **) brings the audience what they call ‘an evening of raucous satire.’ Except it doesn’t. You may find it silly and entertaining, but there’s not a gram of satire here. Putting a mad man with mad hair on the stage simply doesn’t make it a satire worth the name. Again, it wilts in the shadow of the real thing.

Some are pretending the world is as it was and just taking the ‘Isn’t stupid?’ route, but such perception is already self-evident and thus old news. There’s a lot of well-meaning work at the Fringe but a lot is so much preaching to the converted about stuff they already know about. Not only will that not change the world, it won’t change a single mind, when the best, most cutting satire, should.

Trump Lear (Pleasance Courtyard – Bunker One 11:40 **) has been reviewed as ‘biting political satire,’ and while it is well-performed it is all confirmation rather than revelation.

Brexit (Pleasance Beyond 13:30 ****) is an excellent comic excursion featuring comedians Jo Caulfield, Hal Cruttenden, Pippa Evans and Mike McShane amongst others. ‘A new Tory PM must unite his party’s warring factions with his masterful plan for a final Brexit idea,’ is the sales pitch for the plot. The List called it ‘sharply satirical.’ There’s a lot of humour, silliness and some farce, but again not a scintilla of satire. How could there be when reality is far more bizarre and ridiculous than what is on the stage? This is a play which is funny and has energy but don’t look to it for anything else more profound.

The problem with all of these shows, no matter how well performed, is their material is no more freaky, weird or outrageous than the actuality. If the definition of satire is the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity, so many shows fail this test because the politicians’ stupidity is already exposed; it is laid bare every hour of every day. They are already ridiculous and exaggerated. There is no curtain for the comedian to pull back any more.

NewsRevue (Underbelly George Square – Udderbelly 17.45 **) says ‘no-one is safe’ from its songs and sketches. It’s enthusiastic but falls at the first hurdle of originality and is out-performed by the very material they’re supposed to be satirizing.

You don’t need to tell us that Boris Johnson is a ludicrous bloviating cartoon twat, full of wind and piss; that is already clear. So just creating someone on stage who is also a ludicrous bloviating cartoon twat full of wind and piss is not in any way satirical. If anything it just pumps up the man’s reputation for being a ludicrous bloviating cartoon twat, full of wind and piss to those who rather like a ludicrous bloviating cartoon twat, full of wind and piss. And we don’t want that now, do we?

A more workable approach is simply to express utter amazement at the ineptitude of the politicians and stupidity of the people. Andrew Maxwell (Assembly George Square Theatre 21.00 ****) is an expert at this. He lays into the Brexit nonsense with exasperation and bewilderment, focusing not just on those in parliament making such a mess of the whole thing, but on the sheer bloody idiocy and weird ideas of some who supported Brexit. His astonished, wild, jabbing finger riff to those who assert nonsense as truth, ‘who told you this?!’ is one for the ages and gets to the core of a very modern problem: people now believe anything they want to believe. As ever, he is both funny and incisive in a way few comedians can be.

Matt Forde’s show (Brexit Through The Gift Shop, Pleasance Forth 20.30 ****) is an 100% political show which crafts its comedy partly out of mimicking the protagonists – his Trump is perfect – and posits that the most important question today is ‘are you fucking mad or not?’ There are plenty of laughs not by exaggerating the stupidity, but by merely reflecting it. It’s an understandable approach and an enjoyable one, but ultimately lacks any real bite because the stupidities are broadcast to us every day and have become normalised. Also, while it’s fine to say ‘look at these wankers’ if you don’t have any sort of alternative philosophy to counter them, your work will lack a bit of grit and heft, solutions being harder than criticism.

Marcus Brigstocke (Devil May Care 18.30 Pleasance Beyond ****), in a clever, very effective conceit, dresses up as the devil to address the problems of the day and succeeds in skewering many, many different issues. There are not enough equivocal, divisive or downright awkward moments to push it into more challenging territory, but you won’t see many funnier performances.

There is no shortage of comedy and entertainment at the Fringe but as of yet, with the politics on both sides of the Atlantic speeding towards a cliff edge into what will perhaps be literal oblivion, few are doing much beyond laughing at the madness, as we all go down in flames. And maybe that’s the best any of us can do, but it’d be nice to see someone take on the insanity and make a real difference. We need someone to do it, because so far, despite all the appreciative audiences and tremendous effort from so many shows, it all feels very marginalised by the extreme nature of the times we live in.

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