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Jon Stewart and Colbert show why British topical TV satire is dead

February 16, 2009

It’s long been the fascination of the British quality press that Comedy Central’s twin pillars of satire, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and its spin-off the Colbert Report manage to satirise American affairs with a clarity that British programmes don’t.
The last two weeks have shown, with pin point simplicity, just how far ahead of the game these two vehicles are.
On the day Obama shut Guantanamo Bay, Colbert released the Islamic terrorist Mohammad, imprisoned under his desk for four years, with words ‘Be free and don’t forget to waterboard yourself twice a day!” Of course, he wasn’t a terrorist and was Greek and had been delivering kebabs when arrested.
Stewart went several times better last week when he likened the Israeli election to two children’s party entertainers, Tzipi and Beni, battling for the house in a segment called ‘Jews or Lose’. But he topped everything when he debated former New Hampshire Republican senator John Sinunu over Obama’s recovery bill.
And here’s the thing, Stewart could address the debate from the position of intellectual equality while having a tonne of great gags; gags which simplified the issue for the viewers.
As John Oliver, the Daily Show’s lone Brit cast member said recently in an interview in The Word magazine, Stewart is committed to current affairs and making a difference with his comedy.
Stewart is in effect a hugely funny and combative comedic Paxman, able to battle with any public figure. The glory is that he even tries to.
Now, picture Mock the Week panelists getting into a debate on fiscal stimulus and not resorting to cheap attacks and feigned vitriol while picking up thousands doing corporate gigs on the side.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Boyle (25K a corporate, reportedly) and his brilliant attacks on Thatcher, but Brit satire is little more than Clarkson-style shock focussed abuse, as David Hepworth pointed out recently in Word.
Maybe Spitting Image ruined everything for us – point out physical or character abnormalities and failings and that does the job. It doesn’t.
From Bruce to Hicks, the States throws up comedians who challenge the status quo on its level and have a go. Instead, Brits either decide to fight with Clement Freud over a digression or crack a gag about Charles Kennedy and boozing for students on BBC2.
With the exception of the now politically insightful but unfunny documentary impressionist Rory Bremner and the righteous Side Show Marks, Steel and Thomas, who really takes on the establishment on it own turf in Britain?
The BBC tried its version of the Daily Show with the Marcus Brigstocke-fronted Late Edition and when not rehashing huge sections of the format he resorted to tired gags about Scousers, looking down on the working class and all but rimming Richard Dawkins on air.
Luckily Brigstocke’s doing his bit for the credit crunch by running a comedy festival for British skiing tourists in Verbiers. Right on, brother.
Meanwhile Stewart, to quote Hunter Thompson, is beating the opposition like dog with mange.

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