The Thick of It

By Michal Shimonovich (Staff Writer)

On the HBO show Last Week Tonight, comedian and host John Oliver joked in a monologue about “the United Kingdom, where I’m formally known as ‘who?’” My brother in New York, who like me is a compulsive viewer, messaged me to ask how much of that was Oliver’s self-deprecating charm and how much of that was true. As Oliver himself insisted in the segment, “that’s so much truer than you have any idea.”

Oliver – despite performing at a sold-out show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, writing and starring in several shows on BBC Radio 4, and appearing in television shows including Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You – arguably only made it big when he got to America. Compatriot Ricky Gervais recommended him to Jon Stewart, who signed him on as a correspondent on the hugely popular nightly news satire, Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

While Stewart was on leave in the summer of 2013, Oliver took over as a guest host. His presentation was so well-received that HBO offered Oliver a contract for his own show, and the rest is satirical news show history. But even though Oliver is British and his appeal is largely based on his very British modesty and dry wit, the show and its format are a long way from home.

America has a long history of stealing Britain’s best television (see: The Office, House of Cards). But a model of television that Brits should borrow from Americans is the satirical news program, commandeered by a host of equal measures irate and eloquent. Irate about both the frustrating British news cycle and, more importantly, the bureaucratic and paralysing political and legislative British systems that perpetuate the news. The host needs a toolbox of oration skills to eloquently and comically explain these issues to captivate the audience. While the comedian host leans towards mostly mocking absurd current affairs, or politicians’ and celebrities’ responses to current affairs, it is when the tone changes to passionate frustration that sparks citizen engagement with these issues. The issues explained most effectively by American satirical news program hosts exist in similar form in the UK; from Samantha Bee’s piece on resettling refugees or Grace Parra’s piece on racial biases in dating on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.

It is distinctly American to have plenty of passive activism and media attention with little change (see: gun violence), but the level of engagement that television news hosts have with their audience can be extremely far-reaching. The median age of The Colbert Report was younger than any other television news program[1]. But more importantly, satirical hosts provide a voice for many who feel stifled by more traditional media form; as JJ Abrams said to a departing Jon Stewart, “the narrative that you helped gave us to navigate the madness that is this world cannot be overstated.[2]

I don’t know for certain why news satire television programs aren’t big in the UK, but it definitely is not for lack of talent. The Brits arguably invented the realistic premise of showing political offices as no more functional the Dunder Mifflin (Wernham Hogg) and elected official no more capable than Michael Scott (David Brent). Yes, Minister portrayed the Right Honourable Jim Hacker as an incompetent MP managed, appeased, and manipulated by his permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, who often had his own agenda. One telling scene between Humphrey and his private secretary, Bernard Woolley shows the internal struggle of efficiency caused by decentralisation.

Humphrey: Bernard, what happens at the moment if there is some vacant land plan in say Nottingham and there arrive proposals for its use. You know, a hospital, a college or an airport.

Bernard: Well, we set up an interdepartmental committee. Department of Health, Department of Education, Department of Transport, Treasury, Environment. Ask for papers, hold meetings, propose, discuss, revise, report back, redraft. The whole thing.

Bernard: Precisely, months of fruitful work, leading to a mature and responsible conclusion. But if you have a regional government they decide it all in Nottingham. Probably in a couple of meetings, complete amateurs![3]

Obviously the ability to communicate the shortcomings of politicians is not a talent lost on the Brits. So why not political satire on a fake news show? Granted, there’s Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You. But these panel shows don’t offer Brits one beacon of clarity, a singular voice that can be replayed over and over again across social media platforms. Hosts that audiences grow attached to and respect have the ability to shape the conversation in a way that might get lost in a panel.

I’ve asked a few British friends why they think there is no “Jon Stewart” in the UK, or why they didn’t appreciate John Oliver when he was here. A lawyer friend thinks it’s because while hosts might take for granted first amendment rights in America to mock other news organisations or celebrities, there is no such catch-all in the UK. The idea that someone can use Twitter to allege that a MP was involved in child abuse – as horrible as those allegations might be – and be held liable for it, seems outlandish to Americans, who are not used to that kind of accountability[4]. While defamation suits have increased in the past year in Britain,[5] media outlets in America insist that they have the right to the “exercise of editorial discretion, consistent with the guarantees of a free press.”[6]

I understand why the fear of defamation suits might not inspire a network executive to pitch twenty two or so minutes of nightly allegations and diatribes against persons of interest. Of course, there must be a way to do it. The print version of satirical news, Private Eye, has suffered so many suits that its editor, Ian Hislop, is known as the most sued man in England. For this, they have a fund to prepare them for such cases. And, with due respect to print media, if a magazine can afford to be sued surely a television show can!

Another theory I have is that it’s just a cultural barrier. News anchor celebrity here is different. Yes, there’s Katie Hopkins – the Megyn Kelly of the UK, but probably worse – but there historically has not been news anchors here like Ted Koppel or Peter Jennings to capture the public trust. Maybe it’s because there are fewer news organisations in the UK, or because the media (by American standards) is less biased. Whatever it might be, this seems to have translated into satirical news programs.

 But the light worship of Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah (seriously, is there a greater chance of being called Jon/John than being a woman?) has made us better. When Stewart retired in 2015 after 16 years on the air, people were distraught because they couldn’t bear to lose the man who made sense of so many shootings, terrorist attacks, and country invasions. And he couldn’t have done this so effectively unless he had a platform through which to do so consistently: our television screens. Say what you will about blogs and social media, we needed to see our man (why is it always a man) be candid and sad and angry on a television screen, and connect with him. And that’s why Britain needs a satirical news anchor it can turn to.

Britain has its political comedy in television shows and stand-up comedians. But as an expat who’s been in the UK for well over 4 years, it’s time to lobby for some late night talk show hosts. It would be great to have a nuanced perspective on things like Scottish independence and Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour election. Americans, absolutely never ones to tell people how best to run their country, need their more refined English-speaking counterparts to explain to them just what’s going on across the pond.