Steve Braunias' Secret Diary of 2016

Matt Heath (left) and Jeremy Wells got on like a house on fire with John Key. Photo / Supplied
Matt Heath (left) and Jeremy Wells got on like a house on fire with John Key. Photo / Supplied

Once more unto the breach, dear diary, once more. My weekly Secret Diary satire, now entering its seventh year, cracks into it again as of next week, and resumes its central activity of mockery. Seven years of lampooning the usual suspects - Key, Hosking, Henry, Weldon, Lady Judith of Collins - and whoever else comes along. Seven years of mischief, travesty, ridicule and assorted childish hee-haw brayings for an adult audience.

Seven years of - what, exactly?

Some readers seem to regard the diaries as a kind of public service, and say kind things. Satire is a reminder that the good and the great are laughable. But I prefer the response of one correspondent, who angrily and memorably expressed her dislike of "your fantasy of rubbish".

I make stuff up. I put words in people's mouths. I take the craziest newsmaker of the week, and make them look even crazier. It takes time. I usually choose the week's victim on Thursday night and start work on it till about midnight or later, and get up early and work for another three or four hours.

But that's just the thinking. I'm a slow thinker, and a fast writer. Most diaries are actually written in maybe two hours.

I should cut out the middle man, the thinking, and do the writing. And much of the thinking is actually just worrying. I worry about the point of the exercise, about the purpose and function of satire. Does it have a point? Aren't the diaries just supposed to be an entertainment, an amusement? Well, yes, but then I think about a comment Alan Bennett made in his annual diary in the London Review of Books in 2014.

Bennett described watching an episode of the great satirical TV show Have I Got News For You, starring Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, and wrote, "I never quite understand why they are happy to sit on a panel with the likes of [Nigel] Farage, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Clarkson et al ... The impression an audience comes away with is that actually nothing much matters and that these seemingly jokey demagogues are human and harmless and that their opinions are not really as pernicious as their opponents pretend."

I love that: "nothing much matters". It seems to be at the vacuous heart of so much comedy, and I can't stand it.

A similar chumminess was at play last year when Radio Hauraki hosts Jeremy Wells and Matt Heath asked silly questions of their guest John Key, and the three of them got on like a house on fire. But satire ought to operate on some level of loathing, disgust, hate. It has a pure adolescent rage to it, like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, forever issuing his famous accusation: "Phony!"

But I worry about that, too. Doesn't it suggest that the satirist occupies some lofty position where they think they know better? That way lies madness, and worse. Holden Caulfield has always inspired maniacs, such as John Lennon's executioner Mark Chapman.

I keep a copy of Professor Matthew Hodgart's brief but valuable study Satire (World University Library, 1969) close to my desk and fish it out every now and then to remember some of satire's founding principles. It's not a comforting read.

"The satirist's anger," writes Hodgart, "is modified by his sense of superiority and contempt for his victim; his aim is to make the victim lose 'face', and the most effective way of humiliating him is by contemptuous laughter."

I hate that: "his sense of superiority". God almighty. Is that the bedrock of satire? What a drag. Again, it's the idea of occupying some exalted position.

But Hodgart's book isn't a funny read, either. There isn't a single LOL to be had, and it kind of really undermines the thesis. You can't take a study of satire seriously if it doesn't make you laugh.

I suppose you could say the same thing about Secret Diary. In any case I'm more conscious of other, local traditions. There were numerous tributes paid to the great satirist Jon Gadsby after his sad death in December, and among the warmest was from his A Week of It co-star Peter Rowley, who said, "Jon was a pioneer of satire ... They really did make a huge difference to the general psyche of this country. Satire was dead in New Zealand and they put life into it. That was very healthy."

He was part of a team, and his role in it was outstanding; he got the balance pretty much exactly right between scorn and comedy. I dedicate the 2016 Secret Diaries to Jon, a very nice man, and a very, very funny satirist.

- NZ Herald

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