LONDON (Reuters) - They were the two stories that rocked the Western world last year. But while Donald Trump’s election injected new life into U.S. political comedy, the British are still waiting for Brexit to usher in their new golden age of satire.
Americans can choose from half a dozen weekly or nightly TV shows for acute observations of a political transformation that has given veteran actor Alec Baldwin a whole new career as a Trump impersonator.
“(My comedy career) did die and I’m being reincarnated as Trump, oh God!” Baldwin told Reuters.
In Britain, comedy fans have thin pickings as broadcasters have to respect rules on impartiality, and chatty panel shows, rather than hard-hitting satire, dominate the schedules.
“I don’t know if there’ll be a boom in satire here. Clearly there’s some big issues to get stuck into,” satirist Andy Zaltzman told Reuters after recording an episode of “The Bugle”, his weekly “audio newspaper for a visual world”.
“In America, their politics and in particular their media are conducted at a much higher pitch ... There’s an unending stream of news stories that are ripe for satirical comedy which we probably don’t have here, but we should be able to do a very strong weekly topical satirical TV show.”
Zaltzman launched The Bugle in 2007 with fellow Brit John Oliver who has since become one of the most influential TV satirists in America with his own weekly HBO show “Last Week Tonight”.
The re-booted Bugle, with a roster of co-hosts to replace Oliver, gets 12 million downloads a year and gives Zaltzman independence he would not have with a broadcaster.
“Because you don’t have a commissioner saying ‘you can’t say that’ or ‘you have to balance this out’, you can just say whatever you want,” he says.
That was not always a problem.
The social revolution of the 1960s was met by “That Was the Week That Was”, the BBC show that launched the career of David Frost. The famously vicious 1980s puppet show “Spitting Image”, broadcast on the main commercial channel ITV, had a grotesquely domineering Margaret Thatcher as its central character.
The closest thing Brexit Britain has is “Have I Got News For You”, a panel show running since 1990 that, some critics say, is ripe for retirement.
“Images are required to spit in a balanced, proportionate fashion,” Guardian columnist Peter Preston wrote, branding “HIGNFY” a “semi-satirical quip show”.
A smaller TV channel, Dave, best known for showing reruns of HIGNFY and other “banter” formats, has launched its own weekly political comedy show, “Unspun”, presented by Matt Forde, whose Trump impersonation gives Alec Baldwin’s a run for his money.
“He’s got the manner of someone trying persuade an elderly relative to go into a nursing home,” Forde told Reuters, puckering his lips and adopting Trump’s voice:
“‘You’re going to be so happy, It’s such a beautiful place, ok, now off to sleep now.’” There’s something deeply untrustworthy about how calm he makes himself sound.”
While “Unspun” has some elements of “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live”, it is far gentler towards politicians. The house band, MP4, is made up of actual members of parliament who share their views and anecdotes throughout the show.
Forde worked for Britain’s Labour Party before going into comedy and is unusual for a satirist in that he actually respects politicians, most of whom he says are “really good people who are trying to change the world”.
“Democracy is really important and you could argue at the moment, certainly in my lifetime, it has never been as important to protect us against certain forces ... So I make no apology really for on the whole defending (politicians).”
Fortunately for fans of Trump impressions, he adds this caveat:
“Obviously that doesn’t include people like Trump and it doesn’t include people who are demagogues or racists or prejudiced in any way.”
Unspun has had mixed reviews. “The holy grail of such television – a marquee to stand alongside Jon Stewart-era Daily Show or John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight – remains, on this Atlantic shore, ungrasped,” wrote The Guardian newspaper.
“Forde’s effort is the latest, and – at this admittedly early stage in its development – seems unlikely to change that.”
Editing by Gareth Jones