Why is Nick Clegg going on The Last Leg?

Politicians and comedy shows are traditionally a risky mix

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David Cameron was on the Today programme earlier this week, and he signed off on his lightly tetchy interview with Justin Webb with a joke. Or what passes for a joke in Westminster – he did an impression of Tony Benn saying the word “ishoos.”

There are not a lot of laughs in politics – not intentional ones. However hard politicians try with their tortured wordplay and rehearsed barbs at PMQs, nothing makes Britain’s hard-working peopleTM laugh more than a photograph of an MP holding a banana, or obscuring words on a sign so that it spells a rude word or, as happened to George Osborne at a cider factory this week, holding a finger quite near their crotch.

Planned comedy appearances are as rare as a gaffe-free UKIPper these days. There’s the odd Comic Relief skit – Tony Blair meeting Catherine Tate’s Lauren was the last high point - but you’re more likely to see a comedian on Question Time than a senior politician braving Have I Got News For You these days.

All of which makes Nick Clegg’s turn on The Last Leg tonight quite unusual. The Liberal Democrat leader has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the presenters of the topical comedy show two weeks ago. When host, Adam Hills and his fellow stand-up and sidekick Josh Widdicombe discovered that their co-presenter Alex Brooker had never voted, they appealed to party leaders to come and show him of the error of his ways.

Tonight Clegg will be the star guest on the sofa, chewing the fat over the stories of the week and answering questions sent in by the public on Twitter. So far the #cleggleg hashtag has thrown up questions about the disability allowance and what Clegg intends to do with “all that spare time” after he loses the election. He will also go into a head-to-head with Brooker, the Karl Pilkington everyman to accomplished stand-ups Widdicombe and Hills. “We’re hoping that Clegg will totally let his guard down, not take Alex seriously, and then slip up,” says Hills.

It’s clear what Clegg hopes to get out of this – an opportunity to reach a swathe of young liberal voters who feel disengaged and disillusioned by his politics. For their part, Hills and his co-hosts simply want to “spark a conversation”, he says. “I never want to think of comedy being so lofty. To borrow a quote from M*A*S*H, we might not change the world but will at least change our little corner of it.”

The Last Leg has been slowly gaining traction as the kind of topical comedy hour that has been absent on UK television in recent years. It started out as a Paralympics highlights show in 2012 but Widdicombe’s wit, Hills’ charm and Brooker’s everyman shtick proved a popular combination and it has transferred to a weekly news review with relative ease. A further eight episodes are planned for the summer, with more in the pipeline. And while it’s no Daily Show yet, Hills’ recent rants – on Page 3 girls and Rupert Murdoch, notably – have gone viral, which is a start.

“None of us ever set out to be overtly political comedians, “ says Hills. “We’re not consciously trying to become The Daily Show but we’ve realised that we are slowly becoming that. We’re not so much a satirical news show as three guys who get together every Friday night on a couch and have a chat. It’s The Daily Show in a country that loves going to the pub.”

While American politicians are well aware of the value of a good comedy appearance – Barack Obama has appeared on the spoof internet interview show Between Two Ferns and slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon and Sarah Palin has rapped with Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live – British politicians have been more wary.

As well they might be. The Last Leg is broadcast live, with plenty of room for gaffes. “The fact that there’s no safety net gives the show a bit of energy for me and Josh, as stand-ups”, says Hills. “There’s a chance Nick Clegg might come out of this looking really good.” There’s also a chance he won’t.

The Last Leg is on Channel 4 tonight, at 10pm