Where's our Daily Show?

Nelson David on the dearth of British satire

Showbiz loves to hand out awards and showbiz people love receiving them. No matter how poor a year’s crop of films is – there will always be an Oscar to give to someone. Personally I think Hollywood has seen better days (the 1970s spring to mind) and I also reckon a lot of American TV is over-hyped and overrated. But hand on heart – and though it saddens me to concede the victory - when it comes to nightly TV satire the Americans really do deserve all the gongs going. They beat us Brits hands down.

Any of us who followed the lead-up to the last year’s US election will probably have watched the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In America , this Comedy Central show is renowned as the number one most trusted place 18-35 year olds go for their news and current affairs. Stewart and his team are informed, incisive and laugh out loud funny. To make transatlantic matters worse one of the hot talents on the team is John Oliver – a Brit who’s been poached from us because there isn’t a gig on British telly where he could strut his satirical stuff in the same way. So - why haven’t we got a show like this in Britain?

Well, obviously we do have satire shows. Docudrama parody like The Thick of It is clearly sublime. Many other shows have been very funny - I even contributed to some myself in the olden days (Spitting Image and Rory Bremner to name but two). Mock the Week is great fun and Have I Got News is a national institution.

But regular, topical British satire has become hamstrung by two tendencies. The first is a celebrity culture obsession - broadcasters think viewers are morons and therefore to deal in ideas or serious geopolitical issues must be avoided at all costs. The second destructive British tendency is irony.

Over the years we’ve often boasted how the Americans don’t ‘get’ irony. To some extent we’re proud of our ironic detachment – I mean it’s not like we really actually care about any of this world affairs stuff is it? And that’s the problem. For satire to have real bite the satirist must ultimately pin his or her colours to the mast.

When Bill Hicks ranted against the delusions of democracy he didn’t end his set with a cheeky wink or by saying ‘still - never mind eh?’ Robert Newman summed it up years ago reflecting on his own experience of working in British TV and radio: ‘Pproducers just don’t seem to have enough fire in their bellies’.

Jon Stewart clearly DOES have fire in his belly. When he rants it isn’t some contrived TV shtick – it’s utterly clear he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. And being American means he doesn’t have to feel embarrassed about his passion. Similarly his show provides a sophisticated deconstruction of the moronic mass media – not another pointless addition to its useless output.

Brit TV executives seem besotted with everything that comes out of America so let’s hope they’ll soon sort out a ‘me too’ nightly satire vehicle to match the Daily Show. That way the British could be back in the Satire Oscar running – and those of us looking for an intelligent comedy take on the world around us can heave an un-ironic sigh of relief.

Nelson David is a comedy writer and founder of Worker’s Playtime improvisation workshops.

Published: 19 Feb 2009

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