How healthy is British satire?

A discussion with John Oliver of <em>The Daily Show</em> about UK and US humour.

I was on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning to talk about satire with John Oliver of The Daily Show (the link is here -- it's about 2 hours 38 minutes in).

We hopped around a few issues but one of the most interesting was whether big broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4 are too hemmed in by corporate and public pressure to do satire -- as opposed to topical comedy in the vein of Have I Got News For You or Mock The Week. (My feeling is that the difference between them is that satire is a call to action, highlighting a wrong to be righted. There's a difference between a joke that says, in effect, "Isn't Eric Pickles fat?" and one that says "This person is a hypocrite," or "Our political system is broken.")

Although their importance in the grand scheme of things can be overstated -- their audience is small, if influential -- the US has a couple of beacons of satirical telly that I really envy -- The Daily Show and The Colbert Report -- and, when it's on form, South Park.

In a bit of the discussion that didn't make it to air, Oliver talked about the fight that the Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart has faced for editorial independence, which dented my belief that he and Stephen Colbert were given fairly free rein by their channel, Comedy Central, and its parent company Viacom.

That makes the boldness of their shows all the more commendable. Colbert has recently called out Viacom for its efforts to stop him exposing the iniquities of American political campaign finance by forming his own "Super PAC", the opaque funding vehicle beloved of Sarah Palin et al. (More on that story here.)

There aren't any TV shows doing something similar in Britain at the moment, as far as I know -- although 10 O'Clock Live did gesture towards the idea. Of course, Private Eye does a fantastic job of exposing "unsexy" corporate malpractice. The interesting thing about the Eye, though, is that the campaigning bit -- the "In the Back" section -- is separate from the news and skits, rather than rolling them together in the way that, say, Colbert's "The Word" section on his show does.

John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show is on tonight (21 July) at 11.05pm on Channel 4.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times