Donald Trump has at least made American satire great again – but why didn’t Brexit do the same for Britain?

Saturday Night Live and the evening talk shows are having a field day with the new US administration but the UK has somehow struggled to see the funny side of Article 50

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 09 February 2017 09:16
Sean Spicer gets the Saturday Night Live treatment in impression roasting

Melissa McCarthy’s uncanny impersonation of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live (SNL) last weekend once more drew the ire of the Trump administration.

Reports quickly emerged that the new President was unhappy that his staff were again being made the butt of jokes at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, following on from Alec Baldwin’s relentless campaign of mockery against Trump himself and the previous episode’s Chicago-inspired musical number, in which Kate McKinnon lampooned the secret careerist ambitions of his chief adviser and spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway.

“.@NBCNews is bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC. Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!” reads just one of Trump’s many unmistakeable tweets criticising the comedy show since his election victory in November.

The Donald is of course no stranger to SNL, having guested on it during the campaign - memorably “dad dancing” dressed up as a tax accountant in a parody of Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ video - at which point he presumably considered it, “Terrific! The greatest show in the history of American broadcasting folks!”

SNL and the weeknight talk shows fronted by Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and Seth Myers have been in rare form in recent months, together forming a more coherent, united and pointed left-wing opposition to the administration’s chaotic outpouring of divisive executive orders and Orwellian newspeak than anything the Democrats or the disbelieving mainstream media have so far been able to come up with.

The tone may vary from darkly amused to quietly aghast (by way of open-mouthed mock incomprehension), but these besuited comics are making a droll and important contribution to the national debate. Collectively, they provide a public service, exposing the hypocrises and self-interest of a billionaire businessman with no political experience and his supporting cast of variously ill-qualified cronies and Big Oil henchmen. What’s more, these shows are free to nimbly sidestep Trump’s usual buzzword battle cry of “FAKE NEWS!” because they are self-proclaimed works of satire and have never pretended to be anything but.

The rise of Donald Trump can and has been superficially compared to Brexit. Both phenomena have been interpreted as surprise populist protest votes against the Establishment, whose seismic consequences have yet to be fully realised. So why aren’t we in the UK benefiting from a timely satire boom like our friends in the New World? There’s certainly plenty to ridicule.

For one thing, although we have our own chat shows aping the tried-and-tested US model, there are a number of significant differences in format that serve to muzzle their fangs.

None of our equivalent programmes go out nightly, none allow the host the soap-box of an eight-minute opening monologue to let rip on topical themes and none are as well equipped to fire out viral clips across social media or YouTube. The Daily Show and Late Night are slickly efficient machines in this regard, which helps spread their influence to a far wider audience across the globe. The likes of Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross and Alan Carr meanwhile seem content to be cuddly or flavourlessly risqué and provide a conveyor belt for celebrity guests to hawk their latest wares rather than tear into the day’s fresh outrages from Westminster or, say, the vampiric draining of resources from the NHS.

Our panel shows too adopt an attitude of laissez-fare cynicism without betraying much by way of sincere passion or disgust. Some, like Have I Got News for You or Radio 4’s The New Quiz, are such institutions that we barely even remember they’re still on, so attuned are we to the formula that they constitute little more than cultural wallpaper, anodyne background noise taken for granted no matter how sharp the line or withering the put-down. When was the last time you specifically sat down to catch either?

There has of course been a wealth of magnificent British political satire on TV in the past, from Yes, Minister and Spitting Image to Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Brass Eye and The Thick of It. The latter two, of course, were masterminded by Armando Iannucci, who has now jumped ship for the US to make Veep. Unless Chris Morris rides back to reclaim his throne and save us all anytime soon, all we have left are Stewart Lee and Charlie Brooker.

Lee’s brilliant, complex Comedy Vehicle foresaw the advent of “Paul Nuttalls of the UKIPs” but was nevertheless cancelled because it couldn’t meet the ratings of the BBC’s flagship stand-up showcase Live at the Apollo, which typically focuses on crowd-pleasing, just-back-from-the-pub observational humour rather than courting controversy.

Brooker meanwhile has his loyalties split between Newswipe and dystopian sci-fi series Black Mirror. Newswipe is perhaps the closest we have to a clip-ready satirical series with an acerbic host but is too erratically offered and too fragmented a brand to gather much momentum.

What is especially dispiriting in the UK is that there’s clearly a huge appetite for comedy and for politically-engaged material specifically. We’ve always relished gallows humour and are only too quick to joke about the apocalypse on Twitter - or retweet a particularly cutting meme - but too often decline to channel that disquiet into a meaningful expression of dissent. We’d rather appear smugly in-the-know about current events than act (except when signing the odd e-petition here and there to assuage our latent sense of guilt).

That’s not to say we won’t demonstrate en masse, as the recent Women’s March or Downing Street protest against Trump’s “Muslim travel ban” illustrated. It’s just that when these rallies occur, they’re more likely to be spearheaded by Owen Jones or some well-meaning celeb – Joanna Lumley or a lesser Redgrave – than a comic.

This is not the case in Italy, where comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement effectively caused the overthrow of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi just two months ago. Now that Russell Brand’s confused and largely inept flirtation with “revolutionary politics” appears to be over and Eddie Izzard’s ambitions to become a Labour MEP have failed to materialise, this seems unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.

The current British inability to make meaningfully acidic satire of the sort offering solace and consolation to Hillary voters in the US says a great deal about our national character. Perhaps we are too resigned, too defeatist to believe that an individual can make a lasting difference or just too apathetic or embarrassed to be caught taking ourselves seriously. Either way, there’s no excuse. Theresa May’s Cabinet offers no shortage of grotesque characters to delight in skewering and plenty of reasons to be fearful as we break away from the EU, a ship of fools drifting off into unchartered waters.

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