Throughout history, comedy has proven to be one of the most effective forms of resistance, especially for those under tyrannical rule; comedians can claim they were just kidding, after all, or subtly mock a leader without naming him or her. It’s such an important release valve for any society that even some medieval monarchies made room for the masses to laugh at their leaders during the annual Feast of Fools, in which masters served slaves and peasants played at leadership positions, led by an appointed Lord of Misrule as king.
The right to laugh at leaders has been taken for granted in longstanding democracies such as the US and the UK, but the election of Donald Trump as the United States’ new president appears to have renewed interest not just in speaking truth to power but poking fun at it too.
Menaced by deadlines, journalists live from day to day: the tempo of the trade is existentially doomy. Even so, AA Gill surely shocked the readers of the Sunday Times last November when, at the start of his restaurant column, he abruptly and unpalatably announced: “I’ve got cancer.”
The disease was eating him alive, which prompted Gill to describe it in gustatory terms. “I’ve got the full English,” he explained, treating his “meaty malignancy” as a fat boy’s fry-up; not for him the surreal aestheticism of Christopher Hitchens, who marvelled at the “deformed beauty” of the tumours that were killing him. Then, with a humorous stoicism that seemed entirely unaffected, Gill reported on an “absurdly happy” meal of fish’n’chips he had just enjoyed in Whitby. Three weeks later, after a final essay that forgave the NHS for its inability to cure him, he was dead.
Pachinko is an unfair game — a gambler’s pinball with strong house odds — one that lends itself rather easily to metaphors about life. “There could only be a few winners and a lot of losers,” one character reflects. “And yet, we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones.”