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Fear of upsetting black celebs & censorship of BoJo’s puppet penis show Spitting Image will struggle to regain comedy relevance

Michael McCaffrey
Michael McCaffrey

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Fear of upsetting black celebs & censorship of BoJo’s puppet penis show Spitting Image will struggle to regain comedy relevance
Spitting Image, the savagely satirical puppet show of the ‘80s and ‘90s, is making a comeback in autumn. But already it’s on the defensive due to a hyper-sensitive climate where there’s always someone offended about something.

Spitting Image, the satirical television puppet show which made a name for itself on ITV from 1984 to 1996 for its brutal caricatures of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, John Major and the royal family among many others, is attempting a comeback on BritBox UK this Autumn. 

Now would seem a perfect time for the show to reappear, as there is an abundance of prime comedy targets among the world’s politicians and celebrities.

In an era that boasts the buffoonery of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the dead-eyed rambling of Joe Biden, as well as the relentless narcissism of the entertainment industry elite, one would think that satire should thrive.

But navigating the minefield of comedy in today’s hyper-sensitive age of suffocating political correctness is a perilous venture bordering on a suicide mission, and if early reports are any indication, Spitting Image is doomed to wind up legless in the graveyard of comedy failure. 

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Just this week it was revealed that Spitting Image produced a short trailer for its overlords at ITV that featured a scene where Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin wrestle naked in a sauna.

In the scene, BoJo and Trump are revealed to have tiny puppet peckers while Putin has the python-esque appendage of a Russian Dirk Diggler, which sounds both hysterically funny and most likely phallically accurate.

That scene of presidential and prime ministerial penises, or penii, or gaggle of penis whatever the proper term may be horrified the stuffed shirts at ITV who quickly gave it a hard no, demanding reshoots sans genitalia.

The censoriousness of the corporate clowns at ITV is not the least bit surprising, and is actually something that the creatives at Spitting Image can use to their advantage, but the real comedy calamity for the show will be its own self-censorship. 

An example of which came earlier this month when reports surfaced that the show’s producers had a ‘curious meeting’ with their ITV bosses to talk about how to properly depict black celebrities in order avoid a “racism row.”

Spitting Image’s raison d’etre has always been fearlessly cutting comedy combined with grotesquely distorted puppets caricaturing to humorous heights. But now the show is preemptively acting to make sure that its depictions of black celebrities like Kanye West, Beyoncé and Meghan Markle are delicate enough to be palatably unoffensive? Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

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This sort of self-censoring is and always will be the death of comedy. How can you effectively be funny if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder afraid of offending someone, somewhere over something?

If comedy were a fistfight and it often is Spitting Image is heading into the brawl having tied one hand behind its own back out of racial deference, with the other hand tied by ITV out of corporate cowardice.

It is ironic that Spitting Image has run afoul of ITV with its depiction of Boris’s tiny Johnson, because with the show’s self-censorship it is definitely proving it no longer has balls.

There is no shame in being censored by ITV; hell, it should be a badge of honor for any comedian or comedy show. But Spitting Image should be ashamed of neutering its own comedy instincts to the point of impotence with its paternalistic double standard when it comes to the black celebrities it means to caricature. 

If the show can’t eviscerate famous people of different races and ethnicities with its caricatures with equal aplomb, then what is the purpose of it? 

The satire of Spitting Image does serve a purpose: it helps to humble public figures who think they are God’s gift to the populace, and assists the hoi polloi in blowing off steam by laughing at the foibles and frailty of their supposed betters. 

But when the show attempts to appease the delicate sensibilities of certain people or groups of people, then it just becomes a flaccid exercise in safely controlled, establishment-friendly, pseudo-comedy.

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Yes, there will be jokes, but the comedy no longer reveals any greater truths or higher purpose. It simply maintains the status quo and reinforces the protective barriers around whatever the culture considers a sacred cow.

Spitting Image, like all comedy, should be in the business of slaughtering sacred cows and transforming them into delicious meals of highbrow filet mignon or lowbrow burgers, both of which satiate certain audiences’ hunger for humor. 

Without its signature devil may care attitude when it comes to offending its political and celebrity targets, Spitting Image might as well be The Muppets discussing how gentrification has ruined Sesame Street a self-indulgent, toothless and useless comedy exercise. 

Testicular fortitude has always been a necessity for comedy greatness. Monty Python, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Billy Connolly, Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr and Frankie Boyle all had or have it in abundance.

Spitting Image used to have it, but between the quick trigger finger of the censors at ITV and the show’s own Orwellian self-censoring, it may have castrated its own comedy bollocks. 

Hopefully it hasn’t, because without these comedy bollocks, Spitting Image doesn’t stand a chance of regaining its relevance, which would be tragic since the world could sure use a good laugh.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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