Funny Voice Videos
A certain style of comedy video has become prominent on social media over the past year. A young actor plays a generic, bumbling or morally compromised (although usually affable-seeming) posh person with a connection to a topical event. The videos are described by the actors and their fans as ‘satirical’, although the target of the satire is often unclear, and the performers appear to punch down (or at least sideways) as often as up. The acting is deliberately hammy, derivative and reliant on stereotypes, and the humour seems to come primarily from the theatrical emphasis placed on the fact that a person is making a joke. I’ve come to think of them as ‘funny voice videos’.
There is a long established tradition in the British press of writing pieces in ‘funny voice’. Funny voice writing is characterised by hamminess, the sense that the writer has adopted a caricature persona for the purpose of the piece (for reasons that are often hard to discern), a series of Christmas cracker style jokes and puns, and an ambiguity as to what exactly is being argued. The topic being addressed is always clear enough, but it is usually difficult to say what point is being made.
In the same way, with the funny voice videos, it is clear who (or what type of person) you are supposed to be laughing at, and when you are supposed to be laughing, but the satirical target is less straightforward. Take the popular example of ‘your aunt’. Will Hislop pretends to be a posh middle-aged woman, standing on her doorstep for the weekly NHS clap, taking note of which of her neighbours aren’t joining in. The twist is that one neighbour has seen ‘your aunt’ out and about, breaking the lockdown rules in a minor way, and so her judgmental tendencies are shown to be hypocritical.
‘The lockdown has shown us that British satire is UNDEFEATED ???’ was a typical reaction on Twitter. But what is being satirised here? The nosy, curtain-twitching neighbour is a familiar stereotype, and tying it to the double standards often at play in pandemic shaming is a topical twist, but this is not exactly a systemic societal ill. Notice, too, that her pious moral superiority alone is not enough to damn ‘your aunt’: the audience is encouraged to laugh at her patchy adherence to lockdown rules, too, and so to bask in their own sense of moral superiority. But this is no different from what ‘your aunt’ was doing herself. It also echoes the strategy adopted by the government in the early stages of the pandemic, when the emphasis was placed on members of the public being vigilant or reckless.
More than half a century ago, Michael Frayn argued that British satire ‘has more and more meant making the audience laugh not at themselves at all, but at a standard target which is rapidly becoming as well established as mothers-in-law’. In an essay on ‘The Strange Death of British Satire’ in 2015, Mark Fisher described shows like Have I Got News for You or This Week, with their ‘mirthless levity’ and ‘supercilious snigger’, as examples of the way ‘satire is a weapon used by the establishment to protect itself.’
If the funny voice videos provoke recognition, it is only of someone else’s flaws. In another of Hislop’s skits, ‘feminist fuckboy on a date’, a performatively feminist but really misogynist man (a recurring butt of internet jokes) unravels over the course of a date. But the character is such a pantomime villain that, by the end of the sketch, he has been called a misogynist and started shouting. It is hard to imagine that a real feminist fuckboy would watch it and feel ‘seen’, rather than laughing along too.
As the ‘woman in marketing who doesn’t know how to tweet’, Flora Anderson plays a stereotypical politically disengaged white woman responding cluelessly to the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer. She brandishes a copy of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People which she says she has not read, speaks of getting fucked up on a Friday, and discovers anti-capitalist thinking in real time, in a sketch which flatters white viewers to think of themselves as ‘one of the good ones’. Racism in the workplace is addressed without mentioning the role of senior staff or management. Another of Anderson’s videos, ‘desperate potential housemate’, manages to address the housing crisis without reference to landlords.
Some of these sketches arguably punch sideways, but one funny voice video that clearly punches down is Josh Berry’s take on the recent protests in Bristol. While actual footage of the demonstrations showed the police mashing protesters with riot shields and, in one clip, punching a woman in the face, Berry’s ‘Bristol “Kill the Bill” protester’ depicts a hipster (a type that has enjoyed mother-in-law status in comedy for at least a decade) boasting about attending the protests, moaning about a minor injury and a singed jacket, and heading off to get stoned in his mum’s conservatory.
The message here, that protesters are spoiled, drug-taking, leftie students who just want to look cool, is deeply reactionary. The choice of stock character obscures this; maybe the target isn’t all protesters, only the hipster ones – fans defended Berry’s skit in these terms. But even if hipsters do sometimes go on protests for unworthy reasons, so what? What is the wider issue here? Why is it worth satirising?
Berry himself lamented the trend for satire that punches down in a recent interview about his most well known character, Rafe Hubris. Hubris is a classic nasty Tory, an Oxbridge-educated special adviser who takes guffawing calls with various cabinet members to discuss the week’s news. This is the only funny voice video I’ve seen that takes aim at institutional corruption, but since Hubris is an unelected SPAD, it lets government ministers (and the people who vote for them) off the hook.
In the interview Berry addressed his proximity to the character he is sending up (they have a similar educational and class background) and argued it could be seen as a strength: ‘It seems authentic for someone who looks and sounds like me to communicate that,’ he said, ‘because it is a real reality.’ He isn’t the only funny voice video performer close to the establishment, and some are the children of satirical TV comedy stars (Will Hislop is Ian Hislop’s son; Flora Anderson is Clive Anderson’s daughter). Fisher deplored this tendency, and, as Jonathan Coe has noted, satire in the 1960s was criticised for it too. It may make the comedy ‘authentic’, but it probably also explains some of the reluctance to address politics explicitly or frame problems in institutional terms.
Satire is supposed to ridicule the shortcomings of a powerful individual or organisation, ideally with the intent of enacting change. The funny voice videos are not satirical. Not everything has to be subversive. But when an audience projects radicalism, or an anti-establishment agenda, onto a fundamentally conservative mode of discourse, it is worth asking why. We are still far too good at laughing at, and assigning blame to, easy targets.