The last time Will Franken appeared in this blog was on Christmas Day, when he and Lewis Schaffer were talking about being comedy failures.
This afternoon, I talked to Will about the 4-hour ‘satire workshop’ he is hosting at comedy critic Kate Copstick’s Mama Biashara emporium in London, on Sunday 17th January – promoted by the ever-entrepreneurial Arlene Greenhouse.
The workshop is titled: From The Classics To The Clubs: Bringing The Rebellion Of Satire Back To Comedy.
“There is a continuum,” Will told me. “There is a link between Jonathan Swift on up through to, let’s say, Chris Morris.”
“What do you know about satire?” I asked him.
“Well, I have my degree in Restoration and 18th Century British Literature. My thesis was on Juvenalian Satire Within Swift and Pope.”
“Where was this?” I asked.
“The University of Missouri. I had some good instructors.”
“So, in your satire course, you will include what?” I asked.
“One thing I will slip in will be Obvious versus not-so-obvious enemies. If you are going to be a satirist, you have to have an enemy of some sort. Horatian satire, for example, is very lighthearted – like You know, the people at Starbucks, who make the coffee – But Juvenilian satire is like Swift – Oh, you want to stop the starvation problem in Ireland? Here’s a recipe for eating babies – It’s got this viciousness.”
“What are the satire targets today?” I asked.
“Well,” said Will, “if people come to the workshop and say I want to do something about Donald Trump, I would caution them by saying: First you have to look at supply and demand. Do you think that the market will be saturated with Trump jokes? I presume it will be. However, are there any Jeremy Corbyn jokes? So how can you look at Corbyn and try not to be obvious? Is there anything in Corbyn that you can see is worthy of ridicule? If you can, you might be on your way as being able to stand out as a satiric voice,
“You don’t want to perform in an echo chamber. You need to be able to stand out. When I got started in San Francisco, everybody had George Bush jokes – It was Bush Bush Bush Bush. I realised the only way I could stand out was to add a layer to that and make fun of the people who were making fun of Bush. So I had to observe them, learn their mannerisms, learn their hyperbole and make it even more exaggerated.”
“Why did you choose Restoration satire for your university course?” I asked.
“Well, I had been a fan of Swift before that. I had read stuff like Directions to Servants and Modest Proposal, of course. I was just intrigued by the fact somebody could have that idea of biting against the Establishment that long ago – and even before that, with Juvenal and Horatio.
“What I’m really good at is satire and being able to make a point of moral indignation but couch it in humour to make it a bit more palatable.”
“That’s your definition of satire?” I asked.
“Yeah. When I originally put the posting about the workshop up on Facebook, a lot of people confused satire with sarcasm.”
“So how,” I asked, “is your workshop on satire going to change comedy for the better in Britain?”
“At the very least, it will add a bit of intellect,” will replied. “When I first sent Arlene Greenhouse my pitch, she said: I dunno if they’re gonna get it. And I said: Well, the thing with comedians is that they all want to be clever. So, even if they don’t get it, they will pretend that they get it.”
“If I print that,” I said, “it will sound like you are knocking your market.”
“Well, the thing about my comedy,” said Will, “is it works with intellectuals AND with pseudo-intellectuals. Even if they only pretend to get it, I win. And other people love it because it’s just weird and politically offensive.”
“That,” I warned him, “will read as if you have a superiority complex.”
“It’s because I’m a failure,” replied Will. “All I have is my ego.”
“You reckon you will be a good teacher?” I asked.
“Well, I did it before and quite enjoyed it. I taught World Literature and Creative Writing.”
“At North Carolina for a couple of years and at the University of Missouri for a year. I used to dress up as Jonathan Swift and get a powdered wig and an 18th century outfit in Springfield, Missouri. I memorised the entirety of Modest Proposal and had a PowerPoint presentation on the recipes for the children.”
“Are you going to wear a powdered wig in Shepherds Bush?”
“My wig days are over, man.”
“British alternative comedy’s great days,” I suggested, “were when Margaret Thatcher was in power in the 1980s.”
“Margaret Thatcher,” said Will, “had a debate with William F Buckley around 1980/1981. She said: There was a time when people had conviction. Now, you see, it’s all consensus. Who can argue with that? It’s a paraphrase, but…”
“I suppose yes,” I said, “if you want to rule by constant consensus, you must be against people who rule by conviction.”
“Yes,” said Will. “There is an assumption that, if a lot of people agree with something, it is therefore correct and good. How stupid can you get?
“There is a dearth of satire nowadays and I think that’s because people largely don’t know what it is – and I think that’s largely due to being inundated with political correctness. If you have a politically correct comedy establishment, there’s really not much you can do in the way of satire.
“When people come in and they say Sensitivity… sensitivity… they are basically saying Don’t do comedy. There is a hyperbolic feeling which people have that, if you come out and say Political Correctness is stupid. Of course you should make fun of whoever you want to make fun of… then there will be black people hanging from trees.
“A satirist is an artist, right? A comedian fills a function. That’s another thing I hope to bring across to people in the workshop: How to transform comedy from something that’s just a means to get a pay check from Jongleurs… Because it’s always the bookers, not the audience.
“It’s the bookers who are the gatekeepers, who say: I get it, but the audience will be too stupid.
“As pessimistic as I am, I always believe that people in this country will innately veer towards the intelligent. That, if you throw something out there and it’s good, they will grasp it.
“I say in the marketing stuff for my workshop: I can’t guarantee you a string of gigs at Jongleurs, but I will veer you towards being able to go after comedy as the art form it was originally intended to be.”