Steven Heller | Essays

The Return of Spitting Image’s Savage Puppet Satire

Twenty-three years ago, Roger Law and Peter Fluck, the founders of the Cambridge, England studio Luck and Flaw, conceived and produced Spitting Image, the satiric TV puppet show for UK’s ITV network. From 1984 to 1996 it was one of the most acerbic and witty topical comedy series in England (The Guardian says 15 million viewers per week). The targets for ridicule were politics, royalty, celebrity and religion, through absurdly funny puppet skits and scenarios as only the Brits know how to do as masters of civilized savagery. Airing ten years after the finale of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, this latest in revolutionary UK comedy spawned a slew comic souvenirs, rubber toys, books, film and TV specials. However, as with any project rooted in topicality, it started losing steam as its founders, writers and artists burned out and peeled away. But these are challenging times with demigods spreading like oozing carbuncles, so in 2017 HBO reportedly considered rebooting the show. Just last week I received a surprising email from Roger Law (now 78), who after leaving Spitting Image happily retreated from the front lines of satire to living in China, learning the art of making gigantic ceramics, he was recently pulled back. Here’s the story:
Well, Steven baby I was having a nice life as a fine artist as you have noticed. When I was rudely interrupted by Trump, Congress, Brexit, and our Parliament — plus the swings in Europe to right-wing populism reminiscent of Weimar.

A couple of years back I was approached by one of the American networks and asked if I would revive Spitting Image, I hadn't had the slightest inclination to fuck about with puppets for decades.

A big man, with the look and voice of a Barbary pirate, Law was never one to turn away from a brawl with the mighty, corrupt and narcissistic, so “with the rise of Trump and the divisive Brexit I thought why not? It's better than shouting at the TV set plus the time seemed right,” he said.
Some satirists out there say you cannot satirize Trump as he satirizes himself.,” he continued. “The Spitting Image puppets can go places actors refuse to go. In short, we can out gross Trump..... believe me.
For instance, he adds. “The Trump puppet has an extended colon & arsehole that can tweet and his wig is an alter-ego creature that will keep fucking the cat and Melania's leg. We don't intend for the show to be ‘I hate Trump!...I hate Trump!' a la The New Yorker. It will dish it out to all and sundry and be very funny... and let's face it we can all use a laugh these days — it will be fun.”

In 1986 Comedy Central produced a disappointing U.S. version of the show for NBC, featuring a segment called “The Ronnie & Nancy Show” (satirizing the Reagans) but Spitting Image’s signature acerbity was halved by network suits and the humor was a bit too British for American dullards to appreciate. (Instead, a bland “D.C. Follies” where comedian Fred Willard, playing a bartender, spoke to puppet caricatures of American politicians, ran from 1987-89). Spitting Image’s new incarnation Law insists “will be written by Americans for Americans.” Jeff Westbrook of The Simpsons and Futurama wrote the pilot yet the production studio and creative workshop will be in London. For the pilot Law used some original Spitting Image talent and got a great crew of new people on board too. The pilot was recently previewed to execs in Hollywood. “We had a week of startling meetings in LA with networks and pay-per-view channels, it's very funny and uncompromising and has stirred up a lot of enthusiasm and offers.” The show, incidentally, is not simply focused on Trump and Law’s intention is to run the show for several years. “The mess we are all in is not going away any time soon.”

Law is sadly spot on. Even if Trump is defeated, the Democrat vs. Republican vulgarity will continue to polarize the nation, and comedy plays an integral role as filter these days. But as Law readily admits, “Now you and I know very well satire only scratches the surface. I think this approach may well raise a laugh from Trump's core voters. That may not be much ... but it is something. And I really enjoy making the puppets for this. It beats the hell out of swearing at the TV set.” 

The reception Avalon—the British production company—received in Hollywood bodes very well! The time is right.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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