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Taking the Mickey out of the campaign

Wednesday 27th August 2014

As an awkward nerd in high school, you learn that making fun of a bully is the best way to take away their power. Sometimes you can make them laugh as well and they may not even know why they’re laughing, or that you’re laughing at them. Comedy beats intimidation, that’s the natural law.

Laughter not only beats power, it dissolves it and reveals what’s underneath. As performers and writers, it’s often the only weapon we have – we don’t have money, or power, we don’t control business or industry, but we have the ability to make people listen to us, and to make them laugh. Laughter strips away power – it’s as simple as that. I think it’s important to remind people that politicians in this country work for us, they are accountable to us, and they are paid by us.

Public Service Announcements, a political satire, is on showing less than a month out from the election. Can satire trump reality? Is there even anything funny about a campaign filled with Dirty Politics and Kim Dotcom? 

National’s three ‘witches’: Judith Collins, Hekia Parata and Paula Bennett, as played by Public Service Announcements: Election Special

Megan Whelan / The Wireless

We have been making political satire for four years and some of our characterizations are more beloved than the real politicians themselves. Allan Henry’s impersonation of Winston Peters has become legendary in Wellington; the audience applauds when he comes on and triumphs when he saves the day. The same audience with the man himself would have a different result, I am pretty sure.

There are characters that people love to hate, and these are the best ones to put onstage. They can get away with saying some outrageous things, or sometimes the outrageous things they have been saying real life are enough. Sometimes giving a politician their comeuppance onstage is like releasing a gas valve, the audience get to see something they know won’t happen in real life but is deserved.

In a snippet from the show, Nikki Kaye and her Auckland Central opponent Jacinda Adern bond over being young women in Parliament. 

When we started making these shows in 2011, we made the mistake of having a politician’s face on the poster. During our first season, we had a number of elderly audience members turning up to the box office very early, to make sure they got a good seat to hear Mr Peters talk.

We realised too late that they were to see a real politician. We were very aware of them during the show, but despite seeming a bit confused, they were generally having a good time. When the actor playing their politician came onstage they completely engaged, and even though it wasn’t the real deal, and we were taking the mickey, they loved it.

Read Elle Hunt’s interview with Ben Uffindell, the man behind the satirical Civilian Party. 

We were confused. What had we made? Things got worse when real politicians started coming to the shows – we were playing them as rude, power hungry, arrogant freaks, and they didn’t seem to mind at all. I was so nervous to meet the politician I play and she wasn’t bothered by the show at all, she loved it, she said she wished she could say those things in real life.

“Allan Henry’s impersonation of Winston Peters has become legendary in Wellington.”

Megan Whelan / The Wireless

We realised also that politicians are so very mean to each all the time, they call each other terrible names, they write mean emails that get published, they signal rude things to each other in the debating chamber when the speaker isn’t looking. Anything we say is lightweight in comparison and it’s clear that we are doing it in jest. But again, not what we expected.

I grew up watching satire on TV, Skitz, McPhail and Gadsby, Billy T, Facelift, the Contender. And in Wellington, political satire theatre shows used to be commonplace. But it seemed that in the 2000s political satire disappeared from our stages and screens.

So why have we stopped making fun of those more powerful than us? Why have we stopped vocalising and rabble rousing in our entertainment? What does it mean if we stop calling out those in power? Does it mean we are afraid of them? Is it connected to low voter turn out?

“I’m Winston Peters. I don't door knock. I show up at halls and summon the elderly.” PSA’s Winston Peters takes ACT’s David Seymour under his political wing. 

It feels like it is. Being meek and mild and not stirring the pot or rocking the boat or even voting at all seem like they would be connected. When I was 19 I saw Jo Randerson perform her solo show “Banging Cymbol, Clanging Gong” at Otago University. It was the most political and powerful thing I had ever seen and it was hilarious. It was about anger and activism and social injustice and I didn’t even notice I was having such a good time.

The Green Party: “Hashtag love New Zealand”

Megan Whelan / The Wireless

Our shows have been called “bawdy” or “rowdy” as if that were a failing – as if political satire must be clever and elitist, and probably not very funny. We absolutely have politi-geek jokes in there, but there are also rude and silly ones that have nothing to do with politics. So who is it for? It’s easy to say it for everyone but that’s usually not true. Lots of people aren’t into political comedy and I get that. We try and appeal to everyone, no matter what their political leaning, no matter what their knowledge of politics.

We have people in the audience who support all kinds of parties, and they cheer and shout and boo during the show, sometimes they cheer the most when we are making fun of the people they actually support – then it feels like a discussion, a public dialogue, totally alive and important. Sometimes there are nights with an audience that has very little political knowledge and these are great too. Because ultimately what we’re trying to say is ‘don’t worry about the rhetoric and all the other big stupid words, these are people just like us and we can make fun of them too’.

We don’t ask permission, we don’t have to. If you take a job in public office, people get to make fun of you. And we make fun of everyone. It still feels a bit naughty – like making fun of the teacher when they’re not looking. But the best bit is – sometimes they are looking – sometimes they come to the show, they talk to us afterwards, they come to see themselves reflected, and how we might see them. 

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