Comedy needs the serious stuff

Bill Bruce sings the praises of fearless journalists

Oh no, here she comes. Barely known by most, yet hated by surprisingly many, Orla Guerin is BBC News's very own Angel of Death. Is your country a bomb-cratered hellhole, resembling a skateboard park? Then sure enough, shimmering into view will come Orla - two parts Edvard Munch painting, two parts Dobby the House Elf.

Right-leaning bloggers rage at her particular brand of Oirish liberal-lefty, weepy-creepy, Palestinian-loving, anti-Zionist pinko commie journalism. She’s been called biased and untrustworthy. That makes her sounds like every comedian I know. She should try stand up. She’d make A L Kennedy look like Phyllis Diller.

Between major conflicts and submarine tragedies she has reported on more bomb attacks than you can count on Abu Hamza's bowling hand. If the BBC send her, then you know your country is pretty much fucked. She's on the link to Natasha Kaplinsky or Kate Silverton or whatever glassy-eyed bit of totty they've wheeled out like a Stepford Wife to read emails about speed cameras or school dinners, while Orla sullen faced and hollow cheeked reels off yet another ghastly Third World atrocity.

So why is it that I, as a comedian, love her so?

Maybe because real reportage seems to be moving into the hands of comedians. Political comedy is taking up the slack for campaigning hard-hitting investigative journalism. Why do I feel that Mark Thomas is the natural heir to John Pilger; or Robert Newman, has morphed into a boyish bohemian Paul Foot (the journalist Paul Foot, that is).

News has always been an important fuel for the comedy engine. News fulfils its side of the bargain when it is being accurate, sober and inquisitive. Comedians take this grimmest of subject matter and whip it into satire or outright mockery.

But recently news has become so smug; such a mockery of itself and yet so terrified of taking anyone down, that satire may as well pack up its trunk and say goodbye to the media circus.

While Mark Thomas is presenting a show about how Britain has become the arms dealer to the world, and a state sponsor of torture, TV news merely cavorts and flashes its merkin at the viewers. After the break, more on the new series of Strictly Come Disco on Ice.

Panorama, once a benchmark in television journalism, now tells us cocaine is bad via the bass player from Blur. It used to take footage of a mass grave and we got it. Now it seems we won't understand hard news unless it’s filtered through the celebrity retina. Massacre in Darfur? Get me Toyah’s agent on the phone.

Historically, our comedy icons have arguably been those with a political or satirical slant – Lenny Bruce, Peter Cook, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks. It wasn’t just about tackling taboos, it was also about understanding and reflecting back at society the big issues of the day. No wonder so many people hate modern political comedy. Comedians spend so long explaining to an increasingly news-shy public what is going on in the world that working in a punchline ten minutes later looks like an afterthought.

I once saw a struggling ‘topical’ comedian despairingly ask his audience if he was the only one who watched the news. It turned out he was. One woman in the audience even said she didn’t watch the news because it was boring and she’d rather watch reality telly. I was the only one who burst out laughing.

But then she might have had a point. I doubt even Peter Cook would succeed in satirising modern news output. The Day Today achieved its satirical effect by creating news reporting that was both banal and ridiculous at the same time. Nowadays it just feels eerily prescient.

Take BBC Breakfast; which appears to have morphed into a middle-aged Live & Kicking, with business presenter Declan Curry reduced to a Bunter-esque figure of fun. He was in Davos recently to report on the collapse of global capitalism. But they couldn’t finish the report without having him wobbling downhill on a snowboard as Prince Andrew looked on. Perhaps it was some higher form of symbolism that went right over my head?

If you’re finding BBC News infuriatingly lightweight then why not try ITN? A mixture of Shock and Awww so disconnected from reality that the presenters aren't even allowed to sit down, for fear they let the atmosphere of bug-eyed paranoia slip for a nanosecond. I now suspect that ITN news reports are being sent through a rift in the fabric of space/time, and they are in fact reporting from a parallel Britain, entirely populated by knife-wielding hoodies who are being savaged by their pit bulls or shot on an almost minute-to-minute basis. Yes, it’s serious but it’s also impossible to take seriously.

In December 2006, Walid Hassan, a popular Iraqi comedian was murdered in Baghdad. Despite the personal risk he had been regularly having a go at pretty much everyone involved in the post-invasions chaos - US forces, militias, insurgents and the interim government. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his killers have never been found.

Hassan operated at the sharp end of political comedy. The popular belief is that he was killed because people wanted him shut up. It’s a sobering thought for the aspiring political comic getting their first five minutes at the Comedy Store; where the worst that can happen is a hen party gets you gonged off.

I guess that’s why as a comedian I need people like Orla. Or ITN reporter Terry Lloyd, who was unlawfully killed by US forces in Iraq (the fact he was in an ambulance at the time is almost a grim punchline in itself). We are lucky to have the likes of Orla out there, risking life and limb to bring home some sense of the carnage, which we can weave into gags to be tried out in comparative safety of the King’s Head.

Is Orla biased, anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian, anti-George Bush etc? I can honestly say I don’t know. I’m pretty convinced she is anti-war though. I think when your job involves watching children and pregnant women being eviscerated on a regular basis then you’re probably going to develop a stance. Of course, if all the bloodshed ended tomorrow, she would be out of a job. As would the majority of the world’s stand up comedians. Something, Lenny Bruce himself was quick to point out. So for all I know she might actually be out there stirring things up.

But hey, Orla, wherever you are at the moment petal, taking tea with an Afghan warlord or out-running a mob with machetes, I’m thinking of you.

Meanwhile, back here in Britain, a TV comedy show attracted complaints for merely mentioning Madeline McCann, while at the same time TV cameramen were jumping on the bonnet of a car to get a shot of her parents.

As you well know Orla, it’s a funny old world, but not always intentionally.

Published: 1 Feb 2008

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.