In Praise of Silliness

Thank you, satire. In our increasingly “you-couldn’t-make-it-up” world, we need your wicked wit to cut through the noise of news. It’s no wonder so many of us are turning away from traditional news outlets and towards satirical ones like The Daily Show, Charlie Brooker, and Private Eye to get information on what’s happening. As we saw last autumn at the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear in Washington DC, the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert not only make us laugh but make us think, question, and act. This is nothing to be sneezed at when so much of the media seems intent on screaming and shouting until we’re driven to the corners of our closets, whimpering.

Alas, even the best of the political satirists cannot stop me from occasionally weeping at the state of the world. They say you gotta laugh to keep from crying, but the cliché doesn’t always prove true. As good as Colbert’s #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement Twitter trend was, I caught myself thinking, am I really laughing about a politician blatantly telling a lie on the Senate floor and then having it erased from the Congressional Record? Is that funny? The Borowitz Report is some of the tightest, most clever current events writing available, but even it can’t stop me from wanting to sob when I see the words (let alone the woman) Sarah Palin. Sometimes even Private Eye‘s cartoons make me angry.

At times like those, there’s only one thing we can turn to: silliness. Yes, meaningless, absurd, nonsensical silliness. It can be our haven in a world of ignorance, ignominy, and inhumanity. Simple silliness.

Fortunately, some of our best satirists have no problem being silly. In addition to his rants on 10 O’Clock Live and his insightful Observer columns, comedian David Mitchell has produced excellent silly sketches with Robert Webb for their radio and television series. While Graham Linehan’s use of the web to call to task the media and political spin is important and admirable, there are times when the complete worldly innocence of his character, Moss from The IT Crowd, and the utter idiocy of Dougal from Father Ted, are really what we need.

Armando Iannucci is another funnyman who gets the balance right. Although his television series The Thick of It and his film In The Loop are considered some of the most scathing political analysis in recent years, his silliness is just as crucial. His BBC 4 radio series Armando Iannucci’s Charm Offensive, which ran from 2005-2008, interspersed his and his guests’ intelligent analysis of news events with fine dining (they ordered “a glass of Chardonnay that’s been left to settle in the mouth of a lay-about” and the “duck but only if it’s been startled by its own reflection”) and fun facts about animals (“dogs have a moral compass–it’s the bit pointing up when they roll over” and “crocodiles can be used as a bridge for a nimble-footed Roger Moore”). This is hardly surprising, considering Iannucci created On the Hour, the radio news parody in the early ’90s, which fused satire with preposterous characters like Alan Partridge and surreal breaking news headlines like “Kleenex-Fingered Man Too Flappy for Yacht, Says Skipper” and “Angry Sparrow Pecks Roof For Ten Minutes.”

But silliness doesn’t have to be a side project to more serious work. Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding are almost exclusively ridiculous. As The Mighty Boosh comedy troupe, they are masters of the absurd, and their stage, radio, and television shows have earned them a cult following.

They also prove that it takes skill to be screwball: the intricacies of their storylines reveal a sophistication that testifies to a method behind their madness (though that method appears pretty mad itself). The Mighty Boosh television series, which ran from 2004-2007, saw Howard Moon (Barratt) and Vince Noir (Fielding) through various adventures–working as zookeepers, living with a shaman and a gorilla, proving their manhood in the Arctic, being threatened by a green-skinned hitchhiker wearing a large Polo mint like an eye patch. It’s chaotic and sometimes dangerous, but they’ll stop at nothing to protect each other (we see Vince rescue Howard from an obsessed hermaphrodite merman, and Howard is miniaturized and injected into Vince’s body to kill a jazz virus forcing Vince to sing scat). None of it makes sense, but unlike in our world, it doesn’t need to and that’s comforting.

Uncomplicated silliness, though, is sometimes the best antidote to a mind grown heavy with world-weary. Robin Cooper Esq. is a mild-mannered and soft-spoken man, who spends his time looking after his wife, politely suggesting projects to the Natural Sausage Casing Association, and trying to get his head round the complexity of the Internet. He reaches out to others in an attempt to understand himself and his relationship to the world.

He tried first via post: his two books of Timewaster Letters collect some of his written correspondence, such as his request of sponsorship from the National Society for Quality Through Teamwork for his planned Lizard Tug-of-War Roadshow and his submission of ladder-inspired poetry to the British Ladder Manufacturers Association. A few years later, Cooper published The Timewaster Diaries, giving us fascinating insight into the minutiae of his day-to-day life–from his wife’s falls and subsequent trips to the hospital (she and her ankle have never gotten on) to his diet (toffee-heavy) to his attempts at becoming a world-renowned inventor (inventions thus far include a razor for raspberries, wasp mustard, and the never-seen-before colour greem).

It wasn’t long until Robin decided to branch out online and set up his own website, Twitter account, and podcasts. He’s even uploaded some of his telephone communications (he requested and received prayers from a TV evangelist for his eagle-attacked buttocks and rang the Bruges Tourist Board to find out how much the city weighs).

Robin Cooper is silly. He is nothing but silly, and we need his silliness. He is the creation of Robert Popper, the comedy producer (Peep Show) and writer (Friday Night Dinner). Popper also co-created Look Around You, a science education spoof, and has worked on The Inbetweeners and South Park. His Robin Cooper is a classic comic character–created for nothing but pure and simple enjoyment.

Even when he collides with the worlds of politics and media (in February 2010 when a book came out alleging Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a bully with a violent temper, Cooper told a London radio station he had seen Brown throw a tangerine in a fit of rage, and this was reported as fact by two mainstream newspapers), it’s clear that Cooper’s shenanigans are not designed to be mean spirited. All Cooper wants to provoke is a smile, and this he surely does–not be being hard-hitting or clever but simply by being silly.

We can’t ignore the global turmoil that surrounds us, and we must attempt to understand the different political and cultural perspectives, whether we plan to accept them or work to change them. We can do this through traditional news media or through the clever clogs behind satirical news outlets, but we need to stay knowledgeable about our reality. But when reality itself drifts into the unbelievable, sometimes it’s hard to see it as funny. When it gets to that point, well, to truly help us understand the state that we’re in, we really, really need something silly.