Plunkett on TV:
Boom time for satire
The comedian Robin Williams once joked: “People say satire is dead. It’s not dead; it’s alive and living in the White House”. And that was before the arrival of its current incumbent.
What’s bad for the world (all depending on your point of view, of course) tends to be good for comedy.
And thanks to Brexit, a looming second vote for Scottish independence and of course Donald Trump, it’s boom time for TV satire, from Saturday Night Live in the US to ITV’s Nightly Show, from Tonight with John Oliver to Unspun with Matt Forde on Dave.
“It makes it easier in the sense that people are more aware of what’s going on and there’s more of a desire to know,” says Forde.
“It’s always harder when you are having to convince people that politics is interesting and trying to persuade them to take notice. There’s a lot more stuff out there that is exciting,” he adds.
Unspun is currently in the middle of a second series on Dave having debuted on the UKTV channel last year. “It’s an opportunity to inform as well as entertain and that’s particularly thrilling,” says Forde.
“People don’t turn to newspapers as a source of information as much as they once did, so a show like this can pull together lots of clips to give a summary of an important news story, as well as finding the funniest, weirdest angles.”
It’s only a few years since commentators were bemoaning the death of political satire, complaining that people weren’t interested in politics and Westminster politicians were too dull.
Not any more, while at the same time the advent of social media has reinvigorated (and occasionally poisoned) political debate among the masses.
But how to do political satire when so many current events, Trump in particular, already seem stranger than fiction?
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have said they would lay off Trump’s administration in future episodes because “they’re already going out and doing the comedy. What was actually happening was way funnier than anything we could come up with”.
“There is a truth in that but there is an appetite for satire at the moment because people are pissed off,” says Giles Pilbrow, who makes ITV’s satirical puppet show Newzoids, and previously worked on Spitting Image and another ITV satirical show, 2DTV.
“When people are happy with the status quo there’s not much to say but for one reason or another everyone has an axe to grind at the moment. It’s a fantastic time to do satire.”
A weekly appointment to view, shows like Unspun and Newzoids look back on the previous seven days’ events, an enduring format that goes all the way back to That Was The Week That Was.
Both are edited up to the last minute to make them as topical as possible. Channel 4’s Last Leg goes even further, and is broadcast live.
The public’s appetite has been reflected elsewhere in the media, with Ian Hislop’s Private Eye enjoying its highest ever circulation in the second half of last year, the Christmas edition selling a record high of nearly 300,000 copies.
Pilbrow, a long-time contributor to the fortnightly magazine, says: “Private Eye is doing fantastic business because it’s great, but also because in this environment people want a laugh, they want an outlet to let off steam rather than bottling it up. The world has gone nuts.”
If the reality of what Donald Trump gets up to can sometimes seem hard to match, then Newzoids’ digital trickery is able to give him a surreal spin, regularly featuring him with a cat on his head, for instance.
Forde adds an extra element of his own to his UKTV show with his impressions and forensic analysis of Trump and what makes him tick.
But has there been a time when Forde has thought, hang on a minute, we’ve done so much Trump, let’s give him a rest this week? “Theoretically that moment could come,” he laughs. “But I haven’t reached it yet.”
Seven to watch, click through and enjoy
Unspun with Matt Forde (Dave)
Recorded the night before transmission, the impressionist, writer and stand-up comic is currently in the middle of his second series on Dave.
Combines old-school puppetry with digital tricky to give a “hyper-real” take on the week’s events, featuring impressionists including Jon Cumshaw and Debra Stephenson
The Last Leg (Channel 4)
Began as a spin-off of Channel 4’s Paralympics coverage in 2012 but has since evolved into a show in its own right, presented by Adam Hills, Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Sky Atlantic)
The satirist from over here doing rather well over there, John Oliver was a regular on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show before landing his own series on HBO three years ago. Broadcast in the UK on Sky Atlantic.
The Nightly Show (ITV)
ITV looked to revamp its late-night line-up with the topical comedy show fronted by guests hosts including John Bishop, David Walliams and Davina McCall. Its 16-34 audience in the slot is up 31% year on year.
Have I Got News For You (BBC1)
Hard to believe that the Friday night panel show featuring team captains Paul Merton and Ian Hislop started more than a quarter of a century ago. Fronted by guest presenters since Angus Deayton’s departure in 2002.
Saturday Night Live (NBC)
More than 40 years old but it’s never been more relevant. Alec Baldwin’s impressions of Donald Trump and Melissa McCarthy’s take on Sean Spicer are all over social media the following morning.