What happened to British satire?

Toby Martin mourns

In the UK we regularly lay claim to the creation of a multitude of sins.  Football, cricket, the telephone, electricity, irony… most Englishmen would even have you believe that God himself lives and Clapham and drew up the first blueprint of The World on the back of The Times while riding a No 10 bus.

One thing that we certainly can lay claim to in this country is satirising the news.  From That Was The Week That Was and Private Eye, right the way through to Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week, topical satire was born, bred and brought up in this country.  But is British satire still in rude health, or have we been usurped by other countries?

Every weekday, around 1.5million Americans tune in to Comedy Central to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a 25-minute satirical show that not only provides amusing commentary on current affairs, but also delivers a huge quantity of genuine news.  It is fair to say that the majority of its audience treat it as their main news source, not just an entertainment programme.  This could be because the show is actually very well informed, and takes a fairly liberal stance on the news, often mocking many of the other, more conservative American news channels.

On The Daily Show, the image of right-wing commentator Glenn Beck weeping is a frequently used one.

During the 2004 US presidential election, a university study found that fans of The Daily Show had a more accurate idea of the facts behind the election than those who gained their information from the usual news channels, with Jon Stewart becoming an revered and influential figure.  This is certainly a programme in which news and comedy vie for top spot, while still managing to attract a fairly young viewership.

Simply put, this is not a programme that is matched in the UK.  These days, British satirical output in the media is about as cutting as a Gillette razor with only one blade.  It is widely thought that Have I Got News For You has lost its edge, while recent efforts such as Mock The Week and Russell Howard’s Good News condescendingly avoid confronting any serious political issues for fear of alienating its hip young audience and instead look for easy laughs in more ridiculous news stories.  In these programmes, it is visibly noticeable that whenever contributors find themselves on the verge of genuine political satire, they either reel back from it or ironically point out how satirical they were about to be, thus bringing them back from that dangerously ‘uncool’ precipice.

So why are we not able to replicate the effortlessly-cool, acerbic satirical approach of Jon Stewart, who regularly mock-punches the air and shouts, ‘Boom!’ after landing a particularly good satirical punch?  Shows such as Marcus Brigstocke’s The Late Edition have tried, but just didn’t secure a big enough audience on BBC4.  Nor could it attract the high profile, cabinet-level political guests that The Daily Show regularly has.  Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe was a welcoming addition to the schedules, but instead of focussing on the news it targets the media itself.

Too many of today’s programmes seem to offer an ‘alternative’ or ‘a sideways’ look at the news.  I don’t know when we started glancing at the news out of the corners of our eyes, but we need to stop.  With public political interest at a higher ebb than at any other time in recent history, and with a governmental system that is in danger of becoming more ‘mental’ than ‘govern’ing (BOOM!), we owe it to the general public and also to our politicians to start looking at the news square in the eyes and giving it the proper comedic analysis that it deserves.

One major stumbling block is that in the UK, we do not have a large crop of popular, ‘cool’ satirical comedians capturing the public’s imagination, who would be able to front such a show.  Perhaps it is time that someone such as Andy Zaltzman or John Oliver, masters of perhaps Britain’s only genuinely satirical news show The Bugle, was given the opportunity to front the UK’s answer to The Daily Show.

One thing is for certain: currently, we lack an insightful, informative satirical news programme which holds the news, and the way the news is broadcast, to account.  When you take into consideration our current political climate, that is something of a crime.

Published: 19 May 2010

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