“UK government officially scared of clowns” read Charlie Brooker’s tweet. The Newswipe host was referring to continued government support for a ban on parliamentary footage being used in “light entertainment” or “a programme of political satire”.
Brooker’s sister-in-law, Labour MP Rupa Huq, had requested that the 1989 rule be revisited. Unfortunately, the leader of the House Of Commons is Chris Grayling, a man who always seems to me like someone who only laughs at severe incidences of schadenfreude. Grayling said: “It’s very important we make sure that the coverage of this House is used in an appropriate way. I am not in favour of it being made available for satire programmes.”
I’m not sure exactly what makes comedy inappropriate considering the poor quality of jokes often used in the Commons. This odd rule has hindered satirical shows since its induction, with Brooker saying he recently had to cut gags about both Corbyn and Cameron because of it. Insisting on keeping the 27-year-old rule suggests Grayling and the government are very thin skinned and possibly unsure of their own policies. Why be so afraid of mockery otherwise? Or is there a secret understanding that political humour, when done well, can be a powerful tool in helping people understand exactly how politics works?
‘Why haven’t we got a Last Week Tonight or Daily Show here?’ is a question I’ve seen asked many times on social media, as well as amongst comedians on the circuit. In the lead up to the US’s presidential primary Super Tuesday, the video that kept popping up on all my social media timelines was John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight take down of Donald Trump. Rightly so too, as it was 20 minutes of very funny comedy, expertly balancing the entertainment of the Republican candidate with the vast evidence of his incompetence. We got all that – and a hashtag which people could use as a suitable and accessible way to laugh instead of cry about a terrifying future possibility. Since Oliver’s show started in 2014, it has gradually become the go-to place for a sane and emotionally rewarding political response.
His piece after the 2015 November Paris attacks managed to express how everyone felt about the tragedy, while making us laugh at “croquembouche”. His interview with Edward Snowden in Moscow saw Oliver realises that people will only understand the issue of surveillance if it comes down to a question of which internet sites can see his dick pics. If you haven’t seen it, you may scoff at how childish that sounds, but it was the perfect banal example to convey just how NSA surveillance operates. Humour is a powerful tool for helping audiences digest information.
It’s not just the high joke rate. It’s the investigative quality of a program that researches stories and highlights issues many may be otherwise unaware of. There’s no proof for anyone to say the show has made a difference on its own, but there are several areas of policy which have changed since its mention on the show. These include federal agencies cracking down on for-profit colleges, or more stringent restrictions on US police power to sieze personal property.
This is something that the precursor to Last Week Tonight has managed to do too. The Daily Show, especially during the Jon Stewart years, became as powerful a news source as any news channel. Its strong teams of writers and researchers informed an audience of, at its peak, 2.5 million a night, and actively changed politics with humour. Politicians were put to task in interviews. Jokes were used to present the news in a palatable but efficient way.
In 2010 Jon Stewart attacked Republican lawmakers who were blocking a bill to pay for healthcare for first responders in 9/11. A week after the show, the Senate made a compromise on it. Then there’s the time the show demanded it be made easier for veterans in rural areas to receive healthcare, or the ‘Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear‘, or Stewart’s emotional speech on the Charleston shooting. Calm, clear and almost more powerful for being a moment on a comedy show that was so very deadly serious.
We’ve come close to that on British television. You could argue that the Daily Show style was pioneered by David Frost in 1962. That Was The Week That Was was probably one of the first shows to openly lampoon politicians within comedy sketches and monologues. The programme’s John F Kennedy tribute after his death was notable for avoiding all satire, proving that while it was very much a comedy show, it was at heart a political one, with creators and contributors as human as its audience.
There have been similarly direct political comedy shows since. Mark Thomas‘ Comedy Product, from 1996 to 2002, had the well known raconteur comic pull amazing stunts, including staging a ‘cannabis surgery‘ with Jack Straw and conning an Indonesian major general to admit to massacring innocent civilians. In recent years the show’s closest successor was the BAFTA winning The Revolution Will Be Televised on BBC3.
The show used on-location pranks to satirise, as hosts Heydon Prowse and Joylon Rubenstein put it, “a world full of hypocrisy, corruption and greed”. Channel 4’s The Last Leg saw Adam Hills let lose with rants which were full of passion and humour. The moment when he confronted Nick Clegg with a ‘bullshit buzzer’ felt like it delivered the most honest election interview of last year. But it still didn’t quite take the time to tackle a subject to its fullest, often choosing instead to undercut issues in order to opt for a quicker gag or a chat with a celebrity guest.
This isn’t to say there haven’t been other successful UK political comedies. Writers and producers such as Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris and Rory Bremner, among others, have provided years of incredible satire.
The portrayal of politics in The Thick Of It permeated not only the public image of parliament, but politicians themselves. Terms from the script were even used at Prime Minister’s Questions. Looking back at The Day Today it feels as though many of today’s news outlets mistook the satire as a template for how to broadcast all stories. Drop The Dead Donkey, The New Statesman, Yes Minister, Ballot Monkeys: the list of top British satirical sitcoms, commentaries and sketch shows is very long indeed.
The live comedy circuit too is thriving with political humour. Nights like Chris Coltrane’s Lolitics in Camden and John Scott’s Sod The Tories have regularly full audiences. Acts like Josie Long, Andy Zaltzman, Bridget Christie, Graine McGuire and Joe Wells all fill their sets with political viewpoints and sharp satirical jokes. Frankie Boyle’s latest stand-up show is, much like his Guardian columns, full of his ire at hypocrisy in Westminster and Western society in general.
If shows aren’t allowed to feature footage from our very centre of politics, the House Of Commons, then how can we expect British television comedy to do satirical commentary properly? Here is the very reason why the UK is trailing behind the US right now for political comedy shows. You can’t properly mock what you can’t show.
Thankfully, as it currently stands, the ban doesn’t appear to apply to the internet. There are a few guidelines on embedding Parliamentlive.tv footage, including only using it on not-for-profit websites, and not on any sites containing illegal or offensive material. The latter of which, depending on your taste, could be quite a lot of comedy sites. I’ve recently started a satirical podcast called the Partly Political Broadcast where I comment on the week’s politics news and interview people who can clearly explain the effects of recent events and policies. It will never have the reach a televised show would, but it’s definitely not for profit and – as far as I’ve checked – I’m OK to comment on Commons debates.
What’s needed though is for parliament – a place where it’s fine to insult each other during a serious debate – to toughen up and allow itself to be scrutinised by our strong tradition of satire. Donald Trump recently announced that if he becomes US president – a notion terrifying enough in itself – he’d expand libel laws to sue anyone who writes a negative piece on him. Luckily we’re not there yet in the UK, but our government should be able to stand up to well-written jibes. As Brooker said on his twitter feed: “The ban makes it easier to unfairly misrepresent MPs – cos you’re prevented from depicting the reality of what they actually said”. And we wouldn’t want any MP’s misrepresented now would we? Especially as they seem to do a very good job of that themselves. So removing the ban would be much better for comedians, politicians and probably democracy. If you like that sort of thing.
In 2011 an episode of the Daily Show featured a Commons exchange and as a result was censured on television here. Jon Stewart pointed out that the Daily Show isn’t censored in Somalia, Syria or Yemen. “The House of Commons is the most basic expression of British democracy. Is that too fragile to withstand a gentle parody? A good natured kick to the clotted creams?” Yep, Jon. It seems that, for now, it is.