Why do politicians rarely make jokes, except in their party conference speeches? Because they are professional builders of consensus, and can take so little for granted when addressing a wider audience. When talking to their followers, the case is rather different, though even there the humour is often of the weakest kind. Indeed, the frequency and strength of jokes in such preaching to the converted is probably an index of a political party’s internal strength. If the consensus is weak, and needs rebuilding, the jokes will also be weak or entirely absent.
Comedians, on the other hand, exploit an existing consensus which they can confidently take as their common ground. Typically, in the strict sense, this is a majority consensus, and the laugh that emerges from consciousness of that majority and its power is the bark of secure triumph. Thus, humour rarely travels well across time or space.
Satirists, as distinct from humourists, defend a minority consensus, and one that is typically under attack or weakening. Like politicians they laugh very little, and for the same reason. Wracked by anxiety, nothing can be assumed, and everything must be established. Humour is lazy and complacent, but satire, like politics, is paranoid and fearful and holds out its hands to you. Thus the satire of another age, another place, seems to speak to us as if it anticipated our presence. It may not persuade us, but there is no mistaking the urgency with which it tries to include us. This makes for winning literature, whereas the humour of the past and even slightly distant contemporaries repels us with its self-sufficiency.