The Rabbit: Private Eye celebrates 50 years

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This article was originally published in the 2010-2011 academic year.

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Welcome to Broken Britain, population: us. It’s a pretty bleak and depressing place run by an arguably incompetent government where, day after day, we are subjected to disheartening news stories about the budget cuts, MP tax expenses, or other things equally worthy of repeatedly smacking your head on a desk about. Just what on earth are we to do in these dark times to cheer ourselves up? Have a good old laugh at the people who are responsible, that’s what – but how?

Comedy comes in a variety of forms, and surprisingly enough it isn’t all just about vulgar jokes or slapstick. Humour can also be subtle and clever. I speak specifically of satire, a form of comedy that highlights something foolish and pokes fun at it through the use of wit. It’s by no means anything new either – satire has in fact been an acceptable form of social commentary since 5 BC. These days, satire can be found in just about every form of media from television to political cartoons in newspapers – you can even watch back-to-back episodes of satirical panel shows like Mock The Week every night on Dave. However, despite this seemingly being a golden age for satire, it is a form of humour that often goes unnoticed and consequently underappreciated, whereas it should be embraced – it is a weapon of the powerless against the powerful.

2011 is an important year in the history of satire as it marks the 50th anniversary of the fortnightly current affairs magazine Private Eye, as well as its 25th year under the editorial reign of Ian Hislop (of Have I Got News For You fame). First published in 1961, Private Eye was originally just a vehicle for silly jokes but, according to initial editor Christopher Booker, it simply got “caught up in the rage for satire” and now regularly lampoons famous people and institutions. The success of the magazine is a testament to the relevance of satire in today’s society – it is the UK’s best selling current affairs magazine with many of its jokes now a part of popular culture, which is quite an achievement for a small budget publication in a world of glossy glamour mags.

So, just what is it that makes Private Eye such a beloved piece of British culture? It can be said that, typically, its humour arises from two key factors – parody and incongruity. For instance, an article will be presented in the style of an existing format (tabloid newspapers seeming to be one of Private Eye’s more recurring targets) but the actual textual content will not be what a reader would usually expect from that style. Sometimes, the typical conventions of the style being parodied are exaggerated to the extreme (such as overly obvious or to-the-point headlines) as well. It all seems to be about context – placing something out of its normal situation so as to highlight its imperfections.

Additionally, satire can be described as “destructive”, and there is most definitely a destructive side to Private Eye in the implied shared attitudes between the writer and reader. The thing with satire is that it isn’t a form of humour that has us laughing out loud. It is instead a subtle humour, bringing a smile to our faces and a feeling of protest and revenge to our hearts. It is this subtlety that really differentiates comedy from satire. To use an existing example, if I were to describe someone as a “one-legged fantasist posing as a charity worker” in an advert parodying The Beatles (as Private Eye has done in the past), you’ll either understand who I am referring to and find it agreeably humorous; you’ll understand who I am referring to and find it distasteful; or you won’t understand who the description refers to at all and ignore its significance entirely, perhaps laughing at the ridiculous concept of it along the way if you’re that way inclined (it refers to Heather Mills, in case you happen to fall into the latter category). As such, reader cultural capital also plays its part in the workings of satire – you’ll either get it or you won’t, and it’s when people don’t know what is being lampooned that satire sadly goes unnoticed.

So, here’s to another 50 years of Private Eye, and may this golden age of satire finally get the recognition it deserves. The opportunities for it to flourish in the future are more than plentiful enough, I’m sure… the 2012 Olympics, anyone?

Consider this one subscription not cancelled.

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