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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“The Hole-Up”: a poem by Matthew Sweeney

“You could taste the raw / seagull you’d killed and plucked, / the mussels you’d dug from sand, / the jellyfish that wobbled in your / hands as you slobbered it.”

Lying on your mouth and nose
on the hot sand, you recall
a trip in a boat to the island –
the fat rats that skittered about
after god-knows-what dinner,
the chubby seals staring up,
the sudden realisation that a man
on the run had wintered there
while the soldiers scoured
the entire shoreline to no avail –
you knew now you had been him
out there. You could taste the raw
seagull you’d killed and plucked,
the mussels you’d dug from sand,
the jellyfish that wobbled in your
hands as you slobbered it.
You saw again that first flame
those rubbed stones woke in
the driftwood pile, and that rat
you grilled on a spar and found
delicious. Yes, you’d been that man,
and you had to admit now you
missed that time, that life,
though you were very glad you
had no memory of how it ended.


Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Prize. His latest collection is Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe).

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt