Skin-teeth and humorous politics



“Hello, how marvellous to talk down to you.”

– Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Image puppet greeting a member of the public.

HOW FAR should humour go?

Is there a limit to what can and should be said about topics like politics, religion or race? Who decides where to draw the lines of decency?

From the 1930s, the colonial government made countless efforts to control apparently smutty or political calypsoes by banning imports of records and curtailing what could be sung in tents.

Atilla echoed the disgust of other calypsonians when he sang, “You’re singing calypsoes and you’re in dread/For I’m asking openly and would like to know/What those Englishmen know about calypso...”

Satire or sarcastic comedy was another form of resistance used by calypsonians. From Dan is the Man in the Van, Mighty Sparrow’s critique of colonial education, to Mighty Chalkdust’s Ah Fraid Karl, a commentary on a Public Order Act drafted by then attorney general Karl Hudson-Phillips, satirical calypsoes are important vehicles for communicating social discontent.

Eventually, comedians began to use their talents to question the disconnect that often exists between the people and those in authority.

Comedian John Agitation, himself a politician, created a brilliant monologue in which a father tries to give his son a definition of politics. The father describes himself as a capitalist because he has to go to work to feed the family, his wife is the government, as she is in control of the money, the babysitter is the working class and the baby represents the future.

After the family goes to bed, the son hears his baby brother crying. On checking, he realises that the baby’s diaper is very dirty. His mother is sound asleep, so he decides not to wake her. He sees his father being intimate with the babysitter, so he flees back to bed.

In the morning, the boy announces that he understands politics. In his view, “While government is asleep, the capitalists screw the working class and the future is in s--t.”

Roger Law, one of the creators of Spitting Image, a satirical puppet show on British television in the 1980s-90s, maintains that “good satire comes out of conflict.”

Every Sunday for several years, millions tuned in to see sketches portraying politicians, entertainers, sports personalities and even the royal family, often in very unflattering ways. From nudity to violence and harsh caricature, the Spitting Image puppets provoked national debate on society and politics and in some ways, provided a voice to a disgruntled public.

As John Lloyd, one of the producers said, “We’d set out essentially to make people laugh and make them think and to say what we felt people were feeling.”

Spitting Image could not have survived in our culture of submissive behaviour towards authority figures. What local politician would have tolerated a sketch similar to one where Margaret Thatcher, a sitting British Prime Minister, says to her stylist, “Just cut it in a style that would be universally popular.”

The stylist replies, “Certainly, madam,” and then uses a blade to cut off her head,

In an era of great difficulty in Britain, the government was disliked. Worse, as Thatcher and Ronald Regan entered their second terms in office, displeasure with their policies and ideology saw their Spitting Image puppets being depicted in a passionate kiss.

So how far should humour go?

Each society will determine what is acceptable based on general notions of freedom of speech, who controls traditional media, and, of course, the law.

As calypsonians, carnival practitioners and religious devotees have often been reminded, the voice of the people may be the voice of God, but the law can be used to muzzle even divine words of protest.

Still, leaders must be questioned, all the time.

They must be reminded that they are in their positions through the will of the people. In these challenging times, it is they who should be deferential to the people.

Further, social media has taken political commentary to a place unimagined by commentators like John Agitation and the Spitting Image writers. As seen in recent times, anyone can comment on "off-key" behaviour or statements within minutes. And their audience is no longer just TT, but the world.

So I say, bring on the comedy; the more irreverent, the better. If people in authority stay true to their commitment to the people, they will have nothing to fear.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN.


"Skin-teeth and humorous politics"

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