David Quantick: The bad news: Everything is dire. The good news: Satire is back

After years in the doldrums, comedy with an edge returns to the screen. Our writer is laughing
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On Thursday night, Channel 4 broke with all the conventions of television comedy and broadcast a show which, although staffed by its reliable late-night comedy lieutenants, boldly went where hardly any comics have been before, lately, much. Instead of the usual Channel 4/BBC3 stream of genital gags, mild misogyny and hepcat stand-up irony, the new show – The 10'Clock Show Live – was billed as sharp comment on, of all things, the news, current affairs and politics. It was as if Jeremy Paxman had turned Newsnight into a comedy club and started doing observational gags about all-night garages and the munchies.

The 10'Clock Show Live – a title so unsnappily specific you wonder why they didn't go the whole hog and call it "The 10'Clock Show Live On Channel 4 On Thursdays" – isn't perfect (although it has 15 weeks to become so).

There's too much clanky rotation of its Jimmy Carr/David Mitchell/Charlie Brooker axis. The presenters have all been lumbered with too many pre-written shoehornable one-liners. Anchorwoman and co-host Lauren Laverne has been treated with about as much regard for her abilities and equal status as Carol Cleveland in Monty Python.

She's used so little and so weakly that, frankly, the cast might as well have dressed up as women themselves. But the show does work – it takes on politics and issues and it doesn't drop out into late-night comedy club humour. It even interviewed a politician, and a banker, as real journalists might. This is extraordinary, and, as such, is being called by some a sign that Satire Is Back.

Satire, of course, has been hovering around the edges of comedy for a while. In the USA, The Daily Show and its homunculus, The Colbert Report, have been bashing the government for many years, while in Britain, TV Times owners with magnifying glasses were well aware of the existence of John Bird, John Fortune and Rory Bremner in their various incarnations. Mark Thomas and Mark Steel, in print at least, have taken a similar path to iconoclastic fatboy Michael Moore, and frequently in a more convincing manner. And The Thick Of It satirises, if not actual politicians, then the rude mechanics of politics, not so much "Yes Minister as Go Fuck Yourself Minister".

But that, in a daily landslide of youth sitcoms, arch sketch shows and endless, endless, panel games, was it. For about 20 years. Only on radio have shows including The News Quiz and The Now Show effectively kept satire and political comedy alive for decades. The writers and comics on these programmes deserve more notice.

It wasn't always like this, of course. In the early 1960s, That Was The Week That Was took – some say, diluted – the cabaret and savagery tactics of Peter Cook's Establishment Club and made it into a TV show successful enough to anger both Labour and Conservatives into, ultimately, killing it off, despite the fact that Lance Percival's delightful weekly calypso was hardly Lenny Bruce with a gun. The highly charged political atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s meant that mainstream impressionists such as Mike Yarwood could impersonate trade unionists and get a knowing laugh from a knowledgeable audience. "The daffodils are out?" said Yarwood once, as union leader Vic Feather. "Is it official?" ("Out", as in "out on strike". Geddit? Those were the days).

The alternative comedy of the early 1980s, inspired by punk and a new Conservative prime minister, seemed duty bound to reference feminism, socialism and every other -ism not taken on board by the stars of ITV's The Comedians. And, of course, also in the 1980s, as we are reminded almost hourly by pundits and talking heads, there was Spitting Image.

It was the first show I wrote for (specifically, a sketch involving Ronald Reagan and some manila envelopes). It was nearly always good and often a brilliant show, but it's also a perfect example of what happened to satire.

It began at the peak of Thatcherism, and was often angry and always political. But, reliant on personalities rather than issues (issues don't make very good puppets), it found itself faltering when Thatcher, Tebbit and the hard-faced characters of the 1980s were replaced by John Major, Paddy Ashdown and the less extreme politicians of the early Nineties. The show began to be more about entertainment figures than politicians. And politics: I knew it was all over for satire when I pitched an idea about the ongoing civil war in the Balkans and was told, "Oh, no. We couldn't do something about that." That's old age – a farewell to teeth.

Then there was the new comedy of the period, itself a reaction to the staleness of alternative comedy. Vic Reeves, Harry Hill and a thousand others avoided any reference to reality, let alone current affairs, in their stage acts and TV shows. And in the insanely optimistic wake of the 1997 Blair landslide, comedy effectively joined New Labour and left politics entirely. To such an extent, ironically, that when the bloom faded and things were quite clearly not getting better, comedy was ill-placed to react.

So here we are in 2011, and satire is, if not everywhere, then certainly knocking about again and seeing what's for tea. The causes of its return, like a rare wading bird that suddenly reappears in the Fens, are by no means clear. There is not, after all, the climate of contentment in which satire often thrives. During the 1960s, when things really were getting better for most of those not actually taking part in the Vietnam war, satire thrived. Even in the 1970s, an era painted with a broadly ignorant brush as one of constant industrial disruption and corpses piled high in the streets, life was fairly pleasant. In the parallel world of pop, many people have noted how punk's venom was unleashed during the mild boredom of James Callaghan's tenure, while the apparent horror of Thatcherism gave us smiley-faced new romanticism.

The comedy club circuit has for many years been rooted in the Friday night tradition of getting drunk and having a good time. Jokes about politics don't fit into that world, because no one out with their mates wants to have to know who the Shadow Secretary for Overseas Trade is before they can laugh at a gag. Even the cast of The 10 O'Clock Show Live have other, more lucrative, non-political comedy careers.

The reason, I suspect, for the return of satirical comedy is a prosaic and somewhat selfish one. At the start of the 1960s, politics in the USA rarely crossed into the entertainment world and was certainly no part of the youth demographic. There was a war in Vietnam and civil unrest at home but neither of these things affected the affluent white middle-class population. Then as the draft began to bite, young white men died in battle. At this point the counter culture, the anti-war movement, and a distrust of authority rose up.

In 2011, not all our children and siblings are at war, but recession, credit crunches, home ownership crises and the punishment of many while the rich go free have become part of life. Politics, economics, and news have become more than something in the background that affects the poor and the foreign. We may not all be angry, but we're all annoyed, and if we can't get the bastards, at least we can be rude about them and laugh. It looks as though satire is back until, as Johnny Cash said, things are brighter. Whenever that is.

Broadcaster David Quantick has written for TV shows such as 'The Day Today', 'The Fast Show' and 'Brass Eye'