You would have to think that 2020 was the unfunniest year ever, that nothing about it was the best of times and everything about it was the worst of times, that it threatened a plague on all our houses, that it chased us indoors and cost the livelihoods of many and the actual lives of 25 New Zealanders, that the financial worst is yet to come – but as a weekly satirist operating in a kind of banana republic where nothing much ever happens, I look back on the virus with some fondness. New Zealand exists as a place of laughter in the light. Here, finally, was an opportunity for laughter in the dark.
Covid gave an edge to the practice of satire. I've been writing the Secret Diary for 11 years and 2020 was probably the year I've most enjoyed doing it. True, when lockdown approached and Dr Ashley Bloomfield first loomed large, I was really scared. The virus was a tyranny. I felt it like a hand around my throat. I took it very seriously indeed and yet I couldn't wait to write the Secret Diary every Friday.
Things went so crazy, so fast; amid fears that food supplies would run out, I wrote a Secret Diary of the Kiwi householder, "At the end of the day it's a time to show national pride and right now we've got to show that no one in the world panics as quickly and strips supermarket shelves bare of toilet paper as swiftly as we do."
A satirist's duty is to mock sacred cows. The most sacred of all cows in public life in New Zealand in 2020 was lockdown level 4, and so I wrote its Secret Diary: "Go home. Stay home. Barricade yourself in. Lock the door. Close the curtains. Stay away from the window. Stay away from the back door too. Disconnect the telephone line. Relax baby and draw that blind – no, wait, that's the lyrics from the Rod Stewart song Tonight's the Night.
Tonight is not the night. Sex is permitted but police have the authority to make random stops and can and will pull you over, so to speak."
Then there was the priceless comedy of the National Party MP who put it about that someone had actually broken into a quarantine facility. My Secret Diary of Michael Woodhouse: "Down these mean streets a mystery homeless man must go like a character made up by someone who heard a rumour who passed it on to someone else in a whisper who didn't hear properly and got a few details wrong before giving a mangled version of things to someone else of dubious merit who arranged to meet National Party health spokesman Michael Woodhouse in an underground car park."
But even without Covid, 2020 was a satirist's paradise. National was the gift that just kept on giving. It got rid of Bridges and then it got rid of Muller and then it got stuck with Collins. There was something so lawless and melodramatic about it that I started writing Secret Diaries in the shape of a genre that no one seems to publish anymore but still has so much going for it: the cowboy Western. One of my editors wrote saying that he'd be happy if all my Secret Diaries were written as cowboy Westerns. I came close. I wrote several Secret Diaries of the Muller Gang as a bunch of hapless cowboys standing in the shadows of the Last Chance Saloon. When he fell off his horse, so to speak, I wrote several Secret Diaries of the wild and crazy Collins Gang.
Why is it that National is easier than Labour to lampoon? For years, my Secret Diaries of John Key returned to the central motif of Key unscrewing his head and letting it float around the room, exactly like a weightless balloon. This year, the motif of every Secret Diary about Collins was to sit her on a rocking chair in an attic where she'd talk and sing to a doll that looked exactly like her. The vacuous Key, the vain Collins – but what to do with Ardern? What's so funny about her? A satirist is obliged to ridicule; no one is more worthy of ridicule than the Prime Minister.
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Perhaps I'll stick with the cowboy Westerns when I write about Ardern in 2021. Put her in a white hat – a shining white hat, a hat of infinite kindness. A white suit, too, with white boots and white spurs. Why, it's Reverend Ardern! Come to ride the New Zealand prairies and spread the Labour gospel! Only one problem: she ain't got no horse. The damned horse is lame … See you around the campfires of satire in 2021.