In the first episode of I’m Alan Partridge (1997-2002), during a dinner meeting with the commissioning editor of the BBC, there is a scene where a creatively bereft Alan desperately clutches at straws to get back on TV by suggesting a string of bizarre, attention grabbing programme titles:
“Cooking In Prison. Youth Hosteling with Chris Eubank. Monkey Tennis… Look if you don’t do it, Sky will.”
(A Room With An Alan, 1997)
“Monkey Tennis” has since seeped its way into pop-cultural jargon to comically refer to the lowest common denominator of TV programming. It is a concept so ridiculous it achieves its level of satire perfectly because it always hovers just past the line of believability. But, whether the idea was arrived at independently of anyone on the development team having seen Alan Partridge or not, 2012 saw an actual cooking show set in prison reach the screens of Channel 4 – Gordon Ramsey’s Cooking Behind Bars. Fifteen years after the joke was made, it would appear Alan Partridge’s absurd joke managed to enter the straight-faced realms of reality. This is just one instance of what has become a growing phenomenon of satire from the past gaining a kind of prophetic quality with age, becoming unsettling foreshadowers of the future of modern culture. In their time they seemed absurd, but examining them retrospectively suggests that the trajectory of modern culture was fated for their fulfilment.
Alan Partridge first appeared on the radio news parody show On The Hour (1991-1992), the start of a long line of endeavours co-creator Chris Morris took into deriding the way news was presented. The concept eventually made its way onto television in the form of both The Day Today (1994) and Brass Eye (1997-2001). Visual gags about the news ensued, chiefly criticising the news’ use of, and over-dependency on, garish graphics by taking them to their comically ridiculous extreme. From the overly epic opening titles to the convoluted and illogical statistics graphics, Brass Eye in particular was focused at deriding news programming’s incessant pandering to audiences through their use of flashy visuals substituted for straightforward content and facts.
Although Brass Eye was cancelled in 2001, the level of absurdity of actual news graphics seemed to develop far beyond that of the satire itself. As Charlie Brooker points out in the Screenwipe (2006-2008) clip below, they are a bombastic art form that “actively distract you from the information they’re supposed to convey.” Looking at the CGI helicopter floating in front of Jeremy Thompson in 2008, it makes a graph composed out of foxes heads on sticks from 1997 seem less absurd than it should.
The mention of Charlie Brooker leads us to further examples of this phenomenon. Morris was joint scriptwriter with Brooker on the severely underappreciated comedy Nathan Barley (2005), which aimed to satirize the culture surrounding the media industry but now almost looks like a blueprint for the rise of hipster culture and social obsessiveness over the cutting edge. “It’s been out for three weeks in Japan. Where’s yours?” Barely says of his new phone, the Wasp T12, which has both a camera and primitive music ‘app’ function, a full two years before the iPhone revolution. The stupid fashion senses now seem closer to mirroring rather than exaggerating the ‘uniform individuality’ of styles typically found with inner city anti-conforming creative types.
left: a hipster, right: screenshot from Nathan Barley
Ten years on so much of Nathan Barley seems commonplace its difficult to distinguish the show’s inventions from the already existent without a timeline of technological advancements. Barely is a self obsessed “media node” who delivers a regular video blog to his website, trashbat.co.ck, predating YouTube and ultimately predicting an entire online culture of ‘Youtubers’ who gather enormous followings just through speaking to camera (Pewdiepie, Jenna Marbles etc). Brooker has gone on record explaining that it was Morris who was insistent to include this aspect of the show, which, along with his involvement in Brass Eye, suggests that he may inadvertently hold the ability to tap into a forecast of cultural change (source).
When faced with these examples it is difficult to put away the famous quote by Marx in reference to history repeating itself: “first as tragedy then as farce” (Karl Marx: Selected Works, vol. 2, 1942). But it would appear that these two states have the ability to reverse in their occurrence. Here we first have the farce, then the tragedy is in its fulfilment within reality.
An interesting comparison to draw on this phenomenon is with the genre of science fiction. Sci-fi has a long history of accurately predicting the future, be it the video calls from Metropolis (1927), earphones described in Fahrenheit 451 (1953), wireless earpieces from Star Trek (1966), the personalised adverts in Minority Report (2002) or the multitude of predictions made by Arthur C Clarke (source).
The differences between satire and science fiction are obvious, but boiled down to their elements they bare the same core intention: to use exaggerated forms of reality to comment upon the everyday. It is one of the many great virtues of fiction: to tell lies in order to tell the truth. But whereas science fiction often aims to project forward and thereby makes estimations on technological and social advancements, satire seeks to ridicule the present with a ludicrous version of it. Brass Eye (1997-2001), The Thick Of It (2005-2012), Not The Nine O Clock News (1979-1982), Yes Minister (1980-1988), all of them are grounded in the (then) present day, amplifying elements to ludicrous extremes in order to expose and mock them.
This is where the depression lies. Seeing as the act of satire is to raise elements of reality to comical levels, the act of it coming true bares so many more distressing implications than that of science fiction. When the bizarreness of reality surpasses that of its own satire, it not only suggests a further demise of those elements originally mocked but it also suggests a demise in the quality of satire itself. Charlie Brooker’s very first project, the website TV Go Home, which listed a fake TV programme schedule, came to an end when Brooker saw the legitimate show Touch The Truck (2001), a game show where a group of contestants sought to win a truck by attempting to keep their hand on it the longest. Brooker has stated that television at that point had become far more bizarre than anything he could imagine to ridicule it, and so felt it was time to stop (source). Indeed, when the most ludicrous form of something already exists, what reason is there to mock it? Its mere existence is the mockery, one need only to point at it and the goals of satire have been hollowly achieved.
Perhaps a ‘futureproof’ approach to satirise the present day is to blend both comedy and science fiction together. By looking back from a contrived futuristic standpoint it is possible to comment on the modern day through a ludicrous writing of human history. Futurama (1999-2013) was one of the best at handling this, the episode with a robotic reincarnation of Richard Nixon running as president being one of the most prominent examples. But Armando Iannucci’s short lived show Time Trumpet (2006) is another great example of the direction more comedy could take.
The show is set in the year 2031 and is formatted as an in-depth look back at early 21st century, with testimonial interviews from celebrities recalling some of the bizarre events which took place. The tone carries an influence of Brass Eye in that the jokes are in the extreme absurdity of the situations described, but holds the added asset of fake hindsight to summarise the (actual) present day era.
Just as we now are able to use hindsight to collect a group of events and social changes into a decade with a distinct ‘feel’ to it (60’s – sexual liberation and the summer of love, 80’s – baby boom and poodle rock etc.), Iannucci was able to summarise the first decade of the twenty first century while it was still playing out. And the contrived testimonies relayed to the camera in the clip below paint the decade very much for what it was – a turbulent, paranoid and confused time where extremes of terrorism and political correctness clashed into a massive an ridiculous mess.
But even this extreme is not a failsafe. These coincidences of fiction and reality are merely that – unknowable in their true origin and only quantifiable after the fact. Who could predict the next ‘Cooking In Prison’? To us these concepts remain amusingly implausible until the moment they exist. If parody can be embedded with prophecy then it is certainly written in an elusive and unrecognisable print.
Daniel Noall (2015)