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How healthy is British satire?

A discussion with John Oliver of The Daily Show about UK and US humour.

By Helen Lewis

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.

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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.