Politics is very serious business in the UK. No, really. Apart from The Thick Of It, through what medium do we have to satirise and engage with politics? The most exciting thing we have at the moment is hoping that one of these days David Dimbleby is going to snap on Question Time. Remember when he called Robin Cook “Robin Cock” by accident? That’s about as good as it gets, without Malcolm Tucker storming around.
In America, off the top of my head, they’re treated to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and Veep (the American equivalent of The Thick Of It). Then there are punditry shows. Like them or loathe them, shows like The O’Reilly Factor just don’t exist over here, and do very well over there. We have news bulletins, and a few BBC-based parliamentary channels. If you’re looking for a laugh, turn to the Daily Mail, but I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose.
Both Stewart and Colbert take a mock-punditry approach. Stewart has always considered himself a comedian, and that if people are turning to him for the news, then that says more of the state of the broadcasting media, not about how intelligent he is. There have been different statistics thrown around, but it’s been suggested at one time that 12% of Americans got their news from The Daily Show. Whatever the statistics are, it can’t be denied that people get their news from satirical shows in America. But The Daily Show has a history of not only informing, but also advocating.
When a bill failed to go through congress that would fund medical bills for 9/11 first responders, Stewart didn’t take it lying down. He instead went on a tirade about how backward and hypocritical blocking the bill was, and invited four first responders on to the show. Sure, it was comedic and funny, but he highlighted the flaws in the American government. Up until that point, the only news outlet to report the blocking of the bill was Al Jazeera. Not CNN, MSNBC, or Fox. Not news stations that Americans regularly engage with. After Stewart’s episode involving the first responders, the news was reported. The bill was passed.
Colbert takes a far more comedic route. Instead of acting like a funny journalist as Stewart does, Colbert acts like a crazed, all-American Republican. By doing so, he points out all of the flaws with that way of thinking. While both he and Stewart are left-leaning, no politician is safe from criticism. It just so happens in America that the right are typically in a much bigger need to be scolded than the left.
The UK doesn’t have anything even close to this, or its more serious relative of punditry; the idea of someone sitting behind a desk and preaching to us, with or without jokes, just has never been done quite like in America. There has been an attempt with Channel 4’s 10 O’Clock Live, involving an ensemble of British funnymen talking about the news. On paper, it sounds like the British equivalent of these shows, but it just doesn’t work quite as well.
Jon Stewart became a household name because of his performance on The Daily Show. When you invite the likes of David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker, two already established figures, to talk about politics, you already know what you’re going to get. Mitchell will approach the topic in an upper-class, out of touch way; Brooker will use as many adjectives as possible to portray just how angry he is about something. It’s funny, it’s cute, but it’s not the same.
It’s a shame, because there is a real need for it. No comedy show or pundit show encourages apathy. Quite the opposite, it encourages you to get angry and to vote. The UK is incredibly apathetic towards politics. In a democracy, change can’t happen if the people don’t demand it. Right now, people hardly even acknowledge elections with voter turnout decreasing rapidly.
Imagine a left-leaning pundit, or a Bill O’Reilly figure, hosting a show daily about the day’s goings on – not in a news broadcast way, but in a confrontational and entertaining way. The idea is to inform you not of what the news is saying, but rather of what it’s not saying. Engaging people is tough, but the comedic route that is available seems to work well. The Thick Of It is proof of that, but if that’s all we can do, that’s depressing considering how bleak that show really is. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill O’Reilly all fight for different things, but they want you to care. The UK could really do with some of that fighting spirit.
We’ll never have the American dream over here where anything can happen. It’s unlikely we’ll have a Barack Obama figure where we actually want to go out and vote for change and hope. But satire, if used properly, can change the debate, engage the electorate, inform the conversation, and give you a bloody good laugh while doing so.