It’s unlikely that anyone in British media had a tougher job last week than the creative team behind The Last Leg, Channel 4’s hit comedy chat show.
Originally created as part of the station’s Paralympic coverage, with a brief to crack jokes and make observations about disability issues and disabled athletics in particular, the programme was going live to air barely 36 hours after the world was rocked by horrific news from Pretoria.
In the end, The Last Leg got a lot right, but something badly wrong. Close to the beginning of the show, host Adam Hills made a sincere and dignified address in which he stressed the tragic nature of events, spoke of how he and co-presenters Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker had been personally touched, and explained that they would be making no jokes about it. This was, unequivocally, the right thing to do. Where they slipped up, I think, was that at no point did they mention the woman who died by her name, Reeva Steenkamp, nor explicitly state that this tragedy was her tragedy, and that of her family and friends. Instead one was left with the impression that this was a tragedy for Oscar Pistorius and for the Paralympic movement.
This was a mistake, albeit one shared by a large proportion of the world’s newspapers, TV reporters and other media. It is a measure of The Last Leg’s accomplishments that we have come to expect much, much better of them than of the rest of the media.
The Last leg has been rightly hailed for breaking new ground in the media’s approach to disability. Just as the daily sporting events had made the athletes’ talent, dedication and achievement vastly more interesting than their physical impairments, so the late night comedy show made the contributors’ wit, personality and intelligence vastly more interesting than any disability of their own.
Now midway through the run of a second series, the show has shown itself to be groundbreaking in a different way, and one that may be no less significant. Freed of the focus on the Paralympics, the show has slid effortlessly into the schedules as a genial chat show mostly consisting of topical banter between three straight, white, blokes.
That would hardly seem like a radical innovation, were it not for one small twist. Hills, Widdicombe and Brooker are down-to-earth, ordinary blokes, without a public school accent between them, who manage to be engaging, funny and sharp, even tasteless and crude, while rarely if ever being noticeably racist, homophobic or above all, sexist. They can joke about sex, dating and women without being derogatory, exploitative or demeaning. When women appear as guests they are greeted as human beings rather than as the butt of sexist jokes. In one recent show they had comedic cause to bring on a group of Rio carnival dancers, five beautiful women clad in the skimpiest of costumes. Not for a moment did the hosts lapse into laddish leers and phwoarrs, nor did they immediately regress to the awkward manners of 15 year-old schoolboys. It was actually funny.
In comparison, the staples of late night British comedy now look tedious, tired and anachronistic. The contrived edginess of 8 out of 10 Cats and Mock the Week, with their endless drip of child abuse, rape and gay sex jokes, suddenly feels redundant. You can only say the unsayable so many times before the unsayable has become the norm.
If other comedy shows have a lot to learn, so too do other chat shows. Daytime sofa shows tend to become frosty when difficult issues arise around sexuality, race or disability, with presenters and guests squeaking with panic over saying the wrong thing, The Last Leg jumps in with both feet, or as they would doubtless point out, four feet between them. Their humour never appears constrained by rigid, arbitrary rules of political correctness, but springs naturally and effortlessly from a compassionate and humane perspective. Their comedy is often tasteless, sometimes crass and often crude, but never malicious, cruel or divisive. It is a rather shocking indictment of the topical comedy medium that this looks revolutionary.
The original series of the Last Leg began with an implicit question, is it OK to laugh about disability? They answered it with aplomb. The question “is it OK?” has now become the emblem of the show, and is used cleverly to weave in discussions about discriminatory language and offensive humour with topical gags on horsemeat, the Pope’s resignation or whatever else is in the news. So is it OK that The Last Leg wrote Reeva Steenkamp out of her own death? No, it isn’t. Bearing in mind what they have accomplished over the past six months, is it OK to forgive them for it? I hope it is.