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Ed Riche on satire and our capacity for self-delusion

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Ed Riche is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, novelist, and more. However, he’s perhaps best known for his humour, and especially his satire.

But according to Riche, we are now living in a “post-satiric” age. It’s one in which the seemingly satirical often turns out to be true; and in which there is a feeling in some quarters that speech which hurts should be shut down.

How does a satirist ply their trade in a post-satiric age?

“You just get ready to absorb more blows,” he says. “We’ve got the unthinkable – Donald Trump in the White House. That’s a punch line. It’s beyond all comprehension. Every day we look at that same reality and go ‘How could this have ever happened?’ He’s a horror clown, he’s a con man, he’s a grifter, he’s an idiot, he’s a crook, and yet he’s the most powerful man in the world.

“And on the other side we’ve got real concerns now from what used to be the progressive left—what’s become of it—this restriction on speech and the view that speech that hurts should be limited. Without speech that hurts, we’re going to limit inquiry in a big way. Sometimes if what you think is wrong, you have to be apprised of it. And that’s going to be a painful experience. On campuses now you have a lot of people saying that speech that hurts is hate speech, and should be proscribed. I think that’s very, very dangerous. I am of the view, and maybe it’s a generational one, that there’s never been a more urgent time to truth-speak, even if it does hurt feelings.”

Humour and offense in a post-satiric age

Riche’s latest published work is a collection of short pieces from over the years, many of them humorous and satirical. He titled the collection Bag of Hammers, and like much of his writing, it is at once whimsical yet also laden with meaning.

“It just meant something that was preposterous, unwieldy, lumpen, unsightly, silly—the whole proposition of a bag of hammers is kind of comical,” he laughs. “Also some of them are satirical so…a hammer is a cudgel too, a blunt instrument for wielding damage. And while satire is sometimes referred to as a knife or a needle it can also be considered a hammer.”

In a province with a jobless rate that’s soaring above the national average, a nearly bankrupt government and an economy that’s tanking, you might think a hammer-wielding satirist to be highly in demand. Yet we also live in the Age of Offense, in which legitimate efforts to curb hate speech and broaden society’s outlook and sensitivities increasingly runs into a blurry boundary with the need to speak truth—often hurtful truths—to power. We return to the problem: how is a satirist to ply their trade in a post-satiric age?

Ed Riche’s newest collection, Bag of Hammers, is available from Breakwater Books.

“I don’t set out wanting to offend anyone,” Riche reflects. “But I don’t think you can be a practising satirist if you worry about that. You have to say—‘I’m going to do this.’ It’s the one genre that says, ‘let’s invite you to consider that what you know is wrong.’ So it immediately challenges. Nothing more challenges the reader perhaps, no type of writing. And mores change all the time.

“I always say, what are the limits? Well, there are none. You know—childhood cancer. The Holocaust. Are these off-limits? No. Nothing’s off-limits. Once you start setting limits then you’ll start broadening the limits, and then suddenly you’ll say it’s not right to criticize the priests in the temple or the leaders in the state house. Or the mullahs or the committee on public virtue. And then you get into terrible trouble. And then, since we can never give someone the right to make the call about what can’t be said, we just have to accept the pain that comes with saying anything we want. I know that sort of puts me outside of current thinking but that’s the way I feel.”

The problem with being an acknowledged humorist, though, is that it can be hard to get yourself taken seriously. And Riche is a writer who, despite his reputation for fun, excels at serious form. Some of the best pieces in Bag of Hammers—the deeply felt and powerfully reflexive ‘Afterword,’ for instance, or the shorter ‘Chatterboxes,’ reflecting on the alienation provoked by modern technology—are the serious ones.

“I don’t want to be trapped in a genre,” Riche admits. “I like to write in all media in all forms. I am perhaps best known for the comedic stuff, for sure. That’s not a problem. My wife always says comic writing is in great deficit and other writing is in surfeit so she encourages me to go with the comic stuff, but I write some very very serious pieces, and I think both of them come from the same place. Our existence is absurd, and we are ridiculous, so there are two different approaches to that. One is a critical serious view, and one is a comic critical view. It’s all about the human condition… I’m not disappointed to be known as a comic writer.”

Bureaucratic funnies

Another challenge to aspiring satirists working in the post-satiric age, is that governments rarely find satire funny. And the arts continue to rely heavily on government patronage. Even where governments have devolved responsibility for arts funding to ostensibly independent funding boards and agencies, many of these have been overrun by ambitious and small-minded bureaucrats who are more interested in technical formalities, accounting budgets and saving money than in honestly supporting the inherently disobedient tendencies of good artists. Arts technocrats, raised in the bureaucratic paradigms of neoliberal governments, also tend not to find satire funny.

Riche, however, feels the greater problem is not so much the power of government agencies over the arts, but the diminishing presence of viable independent alternatives to support those artists who have the creative skill and courage to speak truth to power.

“Government agencies wield a particular amount of power, particularly in arts and cultural agencies, because so much of the funding comes from them. So people are cautious about challenging the ruling party at any time, but in the past you got certain institutional protection. You could have a journal, a newspaper or magazine or whatever, that would protect you. You could take on those in power and still be assured that you’d still get a paycheque in the coming months. Well now the internet is destroying the newspapers and magazines because it’s stealing all their advertising revenue, so now if you’re practising satire, if you’re going to challenge the government, you’re on your own. You’ve got no institutional protection.

“There is a chilling effect there, there’s no doubt about it. It’s harder to challenge institutions and ruling parties than it used to be. The risks are greater. You risk more personally if you’re one of the people that does that.

“Now that said…the blame ultimately is with us. It can’t be forgotten that we’re ultimately responsible for the governments we have. We live in a pretty open democratic society and while there are influences from corporate power and so on, in the main we are responsible for our own government. So anytime we’re using political satire to criticize the ruling party, we’re criticizing our own choices.”

Earlier this year, The Rooms (the province’s museum and arts centre) came under fire for publishing a document warning that contracts would not be awarded to groups that were critical of the provincial government. The corporation quickly recanted and apologized, but the incident sent a shiver down the spines of many who rely on government-sponsored arts funding.

But the incident reflects the complexity of navigating an increasingly bureaucratic arts infrastructure while also adhering to fundamental principles of creativity and free expression. For Riche, herein lies a distinction between the types of art produced by the province’s creative community.

“I think art is only meaningful if the people making it are totally free. And any good art is going to challenge the status quo. That’s just it… good art, real art, what art is, is always at some level going to challenge assumptions,” he says.

“There’s a difference between decoration, ornament, and entertainment, and art. These are different things altogether. Newfoundland has a really, really vital entertainment sector, and people can manage to make a living and we export a lot of entertainers to Canada. Art—that which really challenges current assumptions—it’s in shorter supply, that’s for sure.”

The times, they are a-changin’

Riche has been a doyen of the cultural scene for decades. It’s given him a unique perspective on the sort of art that this place produces. Fresh from a test-read of a new script, he gushes over the young actors that were brought in to try out his script. They were new, they were unknowns to him…but they “blew my mind,” he says.

“I don’t know how this continues—we constantly seem to produce generation after generation of young, interesting, exciting artists.”

He cites in particular the work of Craig Francis Power, of whom he’s a fan; another writer who’s not bound by traditional writing and is willing to think outside the conventional mould in his work.

Yet there remain other tendencies in Newfoundland literature that he feels hold back the province’s creatives in some ways.

“We do have a sentimental attachment to our past, which can be kind of retarding,” he reflects. “I think we talk too much about a Newfoundland that’s gone. The foundation of the culture is the inshore fishery, and therefore the outport life of Newfoundland. And we’re all very, very profoundly attached to that. I wouldn’t so much call it nostalgia because what we’re attached to is a cozy comfortable world that never existed. That was always a very mean and hard existence. But it’s the foundation of our culture so we have a sentimental attachment to all kinds of mythologies, cultural mythologies coming out of that. And not enough of our work is looking forward, has contemporary settings, is imagining a future. I think that would be the overriding problem in the work now…Nostalgia is like a wound, and what we have is not even really that profound. We have a sentimental attachment to a mythological past and that’s not helping us.”

He may be a humorist, but his serious reflections unerringly hit the target.

Saving the CBC

A versatile man of letters, Riche has worked in theatre, film, television, and of course the world of literature. Yet the medium toward which he feels most fondly is radio.

“The medium I worked in that I had the most fun was in radio, when CBC still did scripted material. We did a show called The Great Eastern for five years on CBC and that was very demanding—sixty hour weeks, seventy hour weeks, very demanding—but certainly the most creatively rewarding experience of my life. Radio is a really intimate medium. You’re alone in a car with your audience.

“That show—The Great Eastern—we ended up producing a show that really remains one of the most innovative and interesting in the history of the entire medium. And we did that out of a studio in St. John’s, Newfoundland! So that was exciting. I loved working in radio, but I don’t know how one does it anymore. The CBC used to produce that stuff, you’d think they would now, even more—because podcasting means that radio has a second life—but I have no idea why CBC radio has abandoned scripted material for disc spins and chats.”

Well, he’s opened the door now. The CBC is the institution Canadians either love to love, love to hate, or hate to love (often all three in equal measure). I can’t help but ask Riche—does he have the solutions to fix the CBC?

“Oh yeah! I’m not sure we have the time,” he erupts, laughing. “I think it was better when it was more regional. Return strength to the regions so we have a greater variety of voices. I think more scripted material right away would be good. They are making positive changes, I think they’re having some positive success in dabbling in podcasts that are being downloaded mightily. That’s the future, I think the CBC should be simply a digital portal to content. I think that’s its natural future, people seem to be ignoring that. I think over on the TV side, they’re still persisting as though there’s a point in [appointment] viewing television, which basically ceased about five years ago. I would decentralize it, it doesn’t need to be centralized any more, I would regionalize it more to give it a variety of voices, more scripted content. Yeah, I’ve got the solutions figured out right there.”

The chronicler of our post-satiric age has no shortage of other gigs to turn to, if society’s appetite for satire should finally dry up (god forbid). He’s presently working on two plays, as well as a new novel with a Labrador connection (he currently lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay). In addition, he’s working on a thriller. And just to round things out, he’s also idly composing a book about puppy training.

A wide range of projects, indeed. But despite it all, satire remains near and dear to his heart.

“I have one subject which I still haven’t exhausted, which is our capacity for self-delusion,” he quips.

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