Welcome to another addition to Nothing To Do With Anime Whatsoever. It would be rather difficult to write about anime anyway, considering I haven’t watched any in well over a week.
I’ve been too busy composing my final year university dissertation, which is focusing on British TV news comedy shows. The main driving force behind the dissertation is that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has gotten massive commercial success, along with huge critical and academic acclaim. It’s brought a welcome critical voice to the compliant media using a satirical format that has brought in the previously political apathetic youth and so on and so forth blah de blah de blah. Does Britain have a Daily Show equivalent in news comedy? The rather blunt answer is yes. It’s called Have I Got News For You and it even predates The Daily Show. But I wanted to use a similar critical eye that academics used when praising The Daily Show to British news comedy programmes and see if they stack up.
This is not the dissertation. What I’m writing here is some sort of attempt to collect my thoughts on the 4 shows I covered, before I write up my findings in a proper academic way. It’s got nothing to do with anime, but I wanted to try collecting my thoughts on what I’ve researched in writing somewhere before I wrote it up properly, and at least putting it here will allow me to see what others think.
Warning: It is a very long post.
A show that I think rather fails at any form of news satire is Mock the Week. Headlines are removed from full context with the mocking of appearance in photographs of politicians. The news segment they’re supposed to be covering is stated blankly by centre man Dara with no real conversation of the topic in question. Having 7 bloody people on the panels is part of the problem, particularly when the gruffer laddish humour charges in to make a dumb joke about jerking off.
However I’m inclined not to be overly critical of it not delivering any sort of proper news satire, because its main aim is clearly to just be a comedy. The fact they have an entire segment devoted to a random topic coming up and the comedians rifling through their stand up routines a picking out a part that remotely connects to that subject should be enough of a sign that actual news satire isn’t their priority. They aren’t too bad at being a comedy show. Dara Ó Briain is a genuinely funny man when given the chance, but is too nice to ever really give any political satire. Also he’s the presenter, so can’t really do much anyway. Hugh Dennis is pretty funny too. In fact, Hugh Dennis appears to be the one guy who tries to actually comment on the news items in question, but the sheer amount of people there means someone usually gets in after he’s finished a grand total of one line.
Can’t say much about the rest though. Andy Parsons simply isn’t funny. Frankie Boyle is shock humour for shock’s sake. Their regular guests are pretty shit too. I don’t think there are very many people in Ireland who think much of their ‘national treasure’ that is Ed Byrne. Milton Jones is funny, but his humour is surreal and mainly based off puns, which offers nothing to the discussion. And then there’s Russell Howard…
One of the other shows I covered was Russell Howard’s Good News, and god bless the guy because his heart is in the right place. You can tell what his intention is. He’s sick of fear mongering and brainless coverage in the news and he wants to counteract that. And occasionally he gets it right, such as mocking News of the World’s incessant fear-mongering saying that everything gives you cancer. OK, easy target and low lying fruit, but still worth saying. When you consider we’re comparing these all to The Daily Show, where the political landscape and state of the news networks in America means that you have to stoop just to reach the low lying fruit, this is still worthwhile.
But christ above he can’t cover news properly. Let me run you through a typical Russell Howard piece. Bring up news story. Make joke about the person on screen’s appearance. Explain the news story further. Rubbish the entire story for no apparent reason bar his own scepticism. Instead of explaining why he’s sceptical, show a youtube video of a cat. Make joke about masturbation. Move onto next segment. Instead of satirically tearing apart the logic behind the news story, as Ian Hislop off HIGNFY would do, he discredits it by using a personal anecdote. This leads to a huge amount of his pieces starting with “this one time, right, one of my mates, right”. On Mock the Week, where he has even less time to impose his personality, nearly every single time he opens his mouth is with the dreaded “one of my mates, right”.
Oh right, I mentioned Have I Got News For You, henceforth just the ridiculous acronym HIGNFY. Running for over 20 years, it’s rather set in its ways, which isn’t strictly a bad thing at all. It’s a direct descendent of That Was The Week That Was, which The Daily Show is also inspired by. Well, since it was the first news satire television programme, technically all these shows are descended from TW3, but HIGNFY was set up deliberately to capture the original take of TW3. The show does have clear political influence, particularly since politicians appear on the show. Mind you, the clearest way it has influenced politics is, arguably, getting Boris Johnson elected as Mayor of London. Since I don’t live in London, I’ve never had to care about what his abilities as a mayor are, but he’s funnier than most of the actual professional comedians on Mock the Week. I think he hams up his doddering posh boy persona, which makes him oddly lovable and hilarious as a result.
The easiest way to show how HIGNFY is good is to compare it to Mock the Week and Russell Howard. As I explained before, the people on the show are genuinely interested in taking apart a news story and actually talking about it. Obviously Ian Hislop is the chief at this, but any gaps he misses are invariably filled up by Paul Merton, who is far cleverer than his goofy persona would have you believe. Sitting in on those panels for 20 years would mean he’d eventually absorb enough ability to tackle news satirically. Also for the guests they do bring on, christ is Ian Hislop good at tearing them apart. One of the episodes I covered for my research that was particularly memorable was when a minister for foreign affairs was on. Before the show he had apparently gone on twitter asking for advice, and people told him the “little shit on the end would tear him a new one”, which seemed to cheer Hislop up and do exactly as advertised.
Ian Hislop is indeed a little shit, obviously revelling in political scandals so he can tear them apart, but the show needs him to do so, particularly when you compare to the overly nice Dara from Mock the Week. He makes no concessions for that either, something Paul Merton likes to mock him for himself. What’s odd is Hislop isn’t actually that funny a lot of the time. The jokes often erupt after he has satirically examined the news story in question. It’s not just him obviously, even the folks in charge of putting up words on the teleprompter for the host to read out are really good at what they do. OK their jokes are pretty obvious a lot of the time. I’m convinced they are contractually obligated to make at least one joke per episode about Eric Pickles being fat. But hey, it’s a running gag.
HIGNFY is also more ‘dignified’, shall we say. The humour on Mock the Week and Russell Howard could be described as ‘laddish’. And by laddish and mean blatantly sexist. Russell Howard in particular can’t make a single reference to any woman without commenting on her shaggibility. Mock the Week normally has a full male cast. On the occasion they’ve had the one girl, she rarely gets a word in edgeways. Meanwhile on HIGNFY, there was a particularly memorable segment once where the host asked one of the female panel members what she thought of the royal wedding bride’s dress, and she responded with “could you ask that again, except this time more condescending”. OK, it’s calling out sexism on its own show, but it shows that the one time it could creep in, it was shot out by the panel members themselves.
On the episodes of Mock the Week I covered, there was one girl who appeared twice, who was so forgettable I can’t even remember her name. But the jokes she did do help me segue into my next area: racism. The girl in question was Nigerian, and on both occasions she was called up to do a stand up segment, she did one about her race. Meanwhile HIGNFY had the black American comedian Reginald D Hunter. The only reference he made to being black was when there was a news segment about a Cadbury advert that was perceived as racist. When the host asked if Reg accepted the apology Cadbury gave, he said “let me ask the Black committee board and see what they say”. Again, it’s calling out the own show for a touch of racism, but the fact they called out the one time it happened speaks for it all.
Both the issues of sex and race are rather interesting in comedy as a whole. My kingdom for a black comic who does not base half of their fucking routine off them being black, you’re even less original than the comics who base their routine off air travel. The total lack of female comics is a rather touchy issue, particularly since there isn’t an immediately apparent explanation for it. It doesn’t appear to be institutionalised sexism so much as its society not valuing women with a strong comic ability as much as they do for men, which speaks to a much wider sexism problem that gets into a big auld feminism debate. But my point is that HIGNFY both comments on these and rises above them
And now 10 O’ Clock Live. The newest kid on the block. The one with the big talent behind it. The one that claims itself to be trying to bring a satirical look at the news, exactly like that present on The Daily Show. Does it succeed? Short answer is not quite, but a damn good effort regardless. The show received a lot of critical damning on many fronts while it was airing, which may be partly because of the hype that surrounded it. Particularly comparisons to The Daily Show seem to be damning, although I’d argue people put The Daily Show up on a pedestal, and is hardly perfect all the time itself. Maybe I’m being kinder because I came off watching several seasons of Mock the Week and Russell Howard, but 10 O’ Clock Live was a breath of fresh air next to those shows.
Easiest way to cover the show is cycle through the 4 presenters, starting with Jimmy Carr. His quick coverage of the news segment that each show starts off with is similar to that HIGNFY does with its witty quips after each news item, except Carr is even more direct about its satire of the story. He has made quite a name for himself being a shock comic. Now I do think there is a place in comedy for shock comics. Even though I dismissed Frankie Boyle earlier, he was at least more interesting than the other panellists on Mock the Week. However Carr’s barbs are often more barbed and less nasty for the sake of it, which makes them easier to laugh at without feeling like a horrible person. You are actually laughing at the joke rather than the intent of the joke. Well, most of the time anyway.
His sketch segments don’t work quite as well though. I feel rather harsh criticising individual ones, as the nature of sketch comedy like these is that they don’t always work. Every sketch comedy, from Monty Python to Daily Lives of Highschool Boys, has had sketches that simply don’t work. Heck, even a lot of Jon Stewart’s segments don’t quite work. He does sometimes brute force his way through them by being an inherently funny comic, as does Jon Stewart. Also I’m easy to please and Jimmy Carr in a dress is sometimes enough to make me laugh. But enough of them don’t work for me to sometimes feel just a bit silly to be watching them at all.
Charlie Brooker is the kind of guy who attracts rabid fans of his style of ranty satire, but I think his ability is limited. For example, he’s a complete failure at talking about anything that requires nuanced coverage. But in full rant mode against something that’s clearly wrong, such as Gaddafi or media coverage of the Japan Earthquake, he’s the star of the entire show. Thankfully the show seems to realise this, even going so far as to reference his cynical nature about everything when the cast go into their round-table discussions. Just so long as the show remembers that, I think he’s great.
David Mitchell is the one who is clearly the most emotionally invested in the news coverage, and the one who has done the most research of the cast, which is clear when they go into round table discussion. He’s the one that usually brings up the best points. The show realises that, which is why he tackles the interviews and topics that require slightly more nuanced coverage than Brooker can do. But he’s just not very good at these interviews. Jon Stewart feels more earnest when interviewing, and is capable enough an interviewer to force proper discussion from the interviewees. Mitchell just doesn’t have that. He feels genuine and earnest, but interviewing skills means he neither asks probing enough questions, nor is able to control the large debates. When a politician goes onto HIGNFY, they are playing by the rules of the show itself, which is why Ian Hislop always gets one over on them. Mitchell can’t beat politicians at their own interviewing game.
He isn’t helped by the liveness of the show. Frequently a discussion will have to be cut off before the discussion can really get to the heart of everyone’s problems and some sort of agreement, with them having to cut off to an ad break. Also the live studio audience doesn’t bloody help, what with even the guests trying to play up the audience by suggesting they hang bankers. Mitchell even chastises the audience more than once, telling them it’s not a bloody pantomime. I think a lot of this is simply down to practice, because he definitely has the right intentions and is going about it the right way. Also since I’m mentioning some other problems with the show, christ is this show ever the most left leaning thing on television. This is coming from someone who had the Guardian website as their homepage for a few years. Yes the Tories are in power and satire should be largely directed at those in power, but christ above is it ever overly liberal.
Then there’s Lauren Laverne, who simply does not belong on the programme. I get her roll. She’s supposed to be the presenter to get the other guys talking, but she just doesn’t fit next to 3 professional comedians. She simply isn’t funny. Her comedy segment feels forced. As much as I talked about the lack of women in comedy earlier and how terrible that is, I can’t shake the feeling watching her that she’s simply here because she’s The Girl. She’s a good presenter, but she doesn’t fit with the show’s format. I mainly covered the first season for my dissertation, but I did see the final 2 episodes of season 2. They cut out a bunch of the content to fix the problems of having ads cut halfway into segments. No more of Mitchell’s rants, which is a shame but it made sense when Brooker is better at them anyway. Plus they cut down Brooker’s rants to one per episode, which works because it means they focus on one thing Brooker to cover per episode. But Laverne seems to have gotten even more comedy content to do. Either focus on being a presenter or get an actual comedian in.
Honestly speaking, I think the show is pretty great. I think it’s often more daring and cutting than HIGNFY is, and often even more so than The Daily Show is, although Daily Show is operating in a different environment. It produces some brilliant satire at times, and I hope it doesn’t get cancelled because they appear to be ironing out the kinks. What’s oddly one of my biggest criticisms is I don’t really see why it has to be Live. The one time watching it where they got breaking news in was the No Fly Zone instated over Libya, and all they did was go “ooh boy is there going to be a war”. The sketch nature of it means they’re better pre-recorded anyway. The only other signs of it being live were the cast occasionally fluffing their lines and Jimmy Carr improving occasionally, along with an irritating audience. Ditch the liveness, and change the name to 10 O’ Clock Late or something.
So umm yeah, good job reaching this far, you crazy person who read all this. This is a layman’s version of my dissertation. I’d be really interested in hearing opinions on what people think of the shows in question.