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Political Theaters

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The Thick of It

Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) testifying in a parliamentary inquiry in The Thick of It
(Des Willie, © BBC 2012)

Cameras never did sit easily in Parliament. Only recently, almost twenty-five years after electricians wired the House of Commons for television, a proposal to shoot House members from more flattering angles was struck down. The eight cameras that Margaret Thatcher fought to keep out of Parliament—and whose introduction converged with her final months in power—will remain fixed from a great, feature-distorting height. Still intact as well is a provision from a 1989 broadcasting agreement stipulating that “no extracts from parliamentary proceedings may be used in comedy shows or other light entertainment such as political satire.” In setting down their terms, the Select Committee on Broadcasting determined that wack angles and bad lighting are one thing, feeding Britain’s raging satire complex quite another.

The global edition of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a compilation of the week’s best material, airs in the United Kingdom (and elsewhere, including Yemen) prefaced with a disclaimer: “The show you are about to watch is a news parody. Its stories are not fact checked. Its reporters are not journalists. And its opinions are not fully thought through.” In the summer of 2011, one episode of the global edition didn’t air in Britain, it was later revealed, because it featured Question Time footage of Prime Minister David Cameron engaging members of Parliament in the kind of rude, rugby-style display that is familiar to Brits (and Canadians) but, as Jon Stewart’s spellbound response confirmed, astonishing to Americans. “England is awesome!” he exclaimed, after showing a clip of Cameron laying quick-tongued waste to his inflamed, less witty opponents. England, where politicians speak plainly to one another and the country’s leader is not only willing to exchange barbs with the opposition—in person, in public and in real time—but also cuts short a trip to Africa for the privilege. Stewart ended the bit by suggesting that Washington, constipated by imperial guile, abject posturing and a rarefied presidential office, might take note.

When he discovered that his new political heroes had censored the very episode in which he’d extolled them, Stewart thought again. Two weeks after airing the offending clip, he spent a segment of The Daily Show chiding British broadcasters, a ritual shaming that included an old Spitting Image clip of Maggie Thatcher and her merry House of puppets. For British censors, it would appear, a news parody is a news parody every day of the week. “Broadcasters are allowed to include parliamentary items in magazine programmes containing musical or humourous features,” the Select Committee’s guidelines state, “provided the reports are kept separate.”

In the summer of 2013, John Oliver, The Daily Show’s senior British correspondent, appeared on Charlie Rose to discuss performing as the show’s guest host while Stewart took six weeks off to direct his first feature film. In the interview, Oliver described life in London performing stand-up, taking the odd writing gig and watching The Daily Show with a complicated envy. Oliver felt Stewart had attained “a high standard of satire and political comedy on television”—too high, perhaps, to flourish in postmillennial London, where the age of Monty Python, Yes Minister and Spitting Image had passed.

In an essay last year for the London Review of Books, novelist Jonathan Coe elaborated on this predicament. Britain’s closest Daily Show counterparts include Mock the Week (where Oliver has appeared regularly; his new HBO series, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, debuts in April) and the longer-running Have I Got News for You. On the latter show, comics and public figures engage in a loosely moderated panel, a format whose subversive potential, Coe suggests, has been neutralized by decades of overuse. Where satiric revues like The Last Laugh and Beyond the Fringe and the BBC news parody That Was the Week That Was triggered a highly exportable “satire boom” in the early 1960s, the descendants of “anti-establishment comedy” now produce laughter, wrote Coe, that is “a substitute for thought rather than its conduit.” Over time, what was urgent and radical became chummy and safe, a way for politicians and audiences to get comfortable with their prejudices, with how bad things can get. This is a charge increasingly leveled at The Daily Show and its offspring, The Colbert Report, though one heard few complaints above the giggles in 2006, when it was with some regret that Oliver put his London belongings in storage, where they remain, and lit out across the Atlantic.

Oliver’s defection is in line with a long and fluid tradition of cultural exchange. Since their expulsion in 1783, again and again the British have returned to America. Despite a Constitution conceived and written against the example of Mother England—no monarchy, no aristocracy, just a set of blazing ideals—the United States ripples with British DNA. The countries’ respective relationships to satire offer a case in point: the origins of political journalism in Britain are intimately bound up with satire; freedom of the press is essential to American identity. Before they were novelists, Defoe and Dickens were political journalists, the former when political journalism and particularly political satire carried a prison term or worse. Mark Twain too was a journalist, as well as a riverboat captain and a prospector. A journalist was just one more thing an American could be. An American like Twain might also be a satirist, but there were fewer of them; the calling seemed less urgent. At some point, though, by some witchy inversion, some cross-cultural pollination, if we are to believe John Oliver, Britain lost the patent on effective political satire, and currently it is America—specifically Jon Stewart, Oliver says—who “has the baton.”

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