“Why is there no socialism in the United States?” was the question that occupied lofty European intellectuals in the early 20th century. As they gazed across the Atlantic they wondered where their American brethren had gone wrong. This week that grand tradition has been turned on its head, by the news that Britain’s very own John Oliver has stepped in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. This poses a question that’s long bugged many of us who share a love for US TV, namely, why is there no Daily Show in the UK? Why have we never even come close to producing one?
If it’s worrying that a comedian as sharp as Oliver couldn’t find a home on these shores, it’s more obvious that he would fit right in on The Daily Show. As the recent fall out to Stewart’s brilliant send up of Mohammed Morsi – which sparked a diplomatic incident - highlights, the great thing about the show is that it does not only observe the news astutely, it very often helps shape it; such is its influence. For instance, it played a subtle but important role in discrediting the Romney campaign during its formative stages last summer.
The state of satire in the UK, by comparison, is painfully weak. The lamentable, self-serving narcissism of Mock The Week and the vacuity of the innumerable and interchangeable weekly panel shows of 8 out of 10 Cats’ ilk just do not compare. Then there’s 10 O’Clock Live, which returned for a second run recently. Styled as an answer toThe Daily Show, it has just never felt anywhere near as clever, usually coming off instead like every dickish common room clown you ever hated. Even the more grown up Have I Got News For You doesn’t have the bite of old.
Can anyone imagine any of these making it into the news broadcasts, or being feared by the powerful? Could they threaten to make or break a politician’s career?
In seeking an explanation for all this, it’s hard not to reach a rather obvious conclusion: how many mainstream comedians in the UK actually care about politics? I mean really care?
For them, the political class and politics exist mainly as something to have a dig at, to wring cheap points from. Few of our comedians understand politics, few want to understand it. They are divorced from the process they joke about. For them it is something easy to point at, a sitting target for a few more lithe one liners.
Looking back, this is probably best embodied by Jimmy Carr on 10 O’Clock Live as he cracked lame jokes about tax avoidance while practicing it himself. Or the airy uncertainty of Lauren Laverne, trying to look interested in the slightly stilted studio ‘debate’ she’s introducing off the autocue, before the show dissolves into another bout of pointing out how funny Ed Miliband looks. Or the silly stunts of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. It is political satire made by people who couldn’t care less, made for those who feel roughly the same.
Ironically it’s the 10 O’Clock Show‘s other presenter, Charlie Brooker, who shows us where this style of comedy leads us, in an episode of his mini-series Black Mirror, ‘The Waldo Moment‘.
True, outside of weekly shows of this sort, we have The Thick Of It, which though cynical has generally been well researched and three dimensional, but even this in its final series tended to play to the gallery. It felt a little too easy as it went looking for the next cult one-liner, or sweary portmanteau, and proved less interested in exploring the bigger picture.
The difference with The Daily Show is it does actually care. It is so funny and effective because it has politics – and often the rightness of its broader point is what makes it so potent. Stewart pokes fun at the stuffiness and absurdity of the system, but he evidently believes passionately in the possibility of politics itself. Much of The Daily Show’s comedy comes from a frustration and exasperation for a better world that you just don’t get from its British counterparts.
Much of this could be put down to Anglo-American cultural differences, but that doesn’t seem wholly satisfactory (the French, for instance, have the similarly fearsome Les Guignols). Maybe there is a simple lesson at the heart of The Daily Show’s endurance, while so many of our British pretenders have fallen by the wayside. To effectively laugh at politics, you have to learn to love it first.