Jonathan Shapiro is a lovely man, soft-spoken, his cartoons are delightful, but is he all we get? During the audio commentary on The Times' Special Assignment website — concerning the repeated axing of the documentary on political satire — he sounds weary. He dutifully explains his position for an umpteenth time on Zuma’s showerhead — portrayed brilliantly in his cartoons — but his tone is as if he’s carrying the country’s demand for sanity on his shoulders. A man on the brink of packing it in and letting the country run amok.
There’s a reason Shapiro is a celebrity: he represents what we’d like the whole of South African media to be. He wins international awards, his cartoons are held up in university lectures, he’s constantly being sued and above all: he evokes a laugh.
But the recent meddling from the SABC will mean an increased seriousness being attached to satire, strangling what is necessary in order to write a decent gag. Boundaries and a tight brief help creativity, but when the attitude of making a difference — that South African humorists are so found of — comes first, you end up with tired heavy-handed soap-boxing. Political points can be made with humour, but you can’t have an agenda of political change and gloss it up as a joke. John Cleese has defended most of his offensive satire as “people laughed … that’s all we wanted”.
I think we’re dangerously close to judging satire not on its humour or ability to make us laugh — but on its flexing of freedom. When the defence is “I didn’t get into this business to tell jokes, I got it to save lives” and your entertainers believe that they are more influential than your political opposition then your humour industry is sadly defunct.
The Z- News show — involving politicians as puppets — is ropey at best. A poor imitation of the UK’s Spitting Image, it was canned by the SABC not for quality reasons, but absurd controversy. The problem with having to fight for your satirical forums is it doesn’t give writers the chance to become any good.
If we have to fight the SABC for scraps of “political incorrectness” will anyone have the courage to criticise a satirical show if one were to get through the censors? Will we sit back stone-faced, mirthless and thankful with what we’re given? Or will we leave it to the responsibility of Nando’s to produce our political commentary?
This sensibility, as a nation, takes time to form. Finding comedic boundaries of talent (from writers) and tolerance (from an audience) is a lengthy process. If anything we’re sliding backwards, with the SABC adding considerable weight. If we have to fight relentlessly for a piece of comedy to exist will we forget that it has to make us laugh?
McNally is a freelance writer and Pica Public Interest Writer of the Year (2008) award winner