Turn on a British TV this month, and the first programme you see will almost certainly have something to do with one of two topics. Neither of these two topics is particularly enthralling as a basis for a semi-humorous televisiophile blog post, but I feel that I would be ignoring the elephant in the room if I blogged about, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Fuller House (but look out for next month’s post, sitcom lovers!).
One of the afore-mentioned topics that’s filling up the airwaves is football. I will not be writing about this.
This leaves me with the good old EU referendum (June 23rd, guys! Two days to go! Get your cross-writing muscles ready now!). Much like the Scottish independence referendum before it, the debate on the EU seems to have been raging for years without anyone saying anything remotely useful, leaving the general population (i.e. the people who actually have to make the decision) confused and irritated by the whole thing. Thank goodness, then, for topical comedy. The most recent series of Have I Got News for You did its best to perk things up, but was in the unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate, who can say?) position of finishing its current run a month before the referendum actually takes place. However, as always, when we say goodbye to HIGNFY we say hello to Mock the Week, which started up again two weeks ago.
The first thing to say about Mock the Week is that I can’t really decide whether I like it or not. Sometimes, if the right guests are on, it’s very funny, especially since it can be snarkier and more cut-throat than HIGNFY. But, as others have commented, it’s a little too scripted, a little too smug, and it does sometimes seem to have that boys’ club mentality, particularly since they seem to go out of their way to make the single female guest (mandated, of course, by the BBC) look like the Token Woman. (Maybe, just once, out of seven comedians, more than one of them could be female? No? OK.)
Anyway. What I noticed most about Mock the Week on this occasion was that the EU referendum got comparatively little airtime. Granted, the first question was technically all about the EU, but since it was ‘If this is the answer, what is the question?’ and the answer was ‘4%’, most of the jokes were related to non-EU topics such as Muhammad Ali, Johnny Depp, Sepp Blatter and other celebrities who have either done something very bad or fallen victim to the Curse of 2016. Once the answer was revealed (4% was the difference between Remain and Leave voters in the most recent poll, if you want to know), there was a little more Europe-related comedy: a few jokes about scaremongering on both sides of the campaign, some light criticism of various politicians, including Josh Widdicombe’s astute observation that “Michael Gove looks like a satirical cartoon of Michael Gove”, and then it was on to Euro 2016, the Megabus mascot and Noel Edmonds’ cancer box. Either the BBC is so afraid of appearing biased one way or the other that it’s managed to reign in even the Mock the Week team; or, as Hugh Dennis suggested, “We’ve got to make this last three weeks – we can’t use all the jokes now”.
Perhaps because they kept the EU ref refs on the down-low, it seemed to me that they did a very good job of keeping things even-handed and not showing bias one way or the other, despite the fact that all of them probably lean substantially to the left and are likely to be voting ‘In’. In fact, there was very little in the way of argumentation or debate at all – they just carried along with the same kind of ‘politicians look a bit weird’ humour that gets bums on seats but can hardly be called politically motivated.
Not so The Last Leg on Channel 4. The first episode got straight into the nitty-gritty of the issues by kicking off the series with everyone’s favourite bearded Labour Party stirrer Jeremy Corbyn. The JezCorbs segment was halfway through the episode, and he was immediately subjected to viewer questions that were surprisingly incisive for hash-tagged tweets, starting off with ‘Why have you always been Eurosceptic but are now pro-Remain?’ (Answer in brief: being part of a slightly flawed group is still better than not being in the group at all.) Jezza was a good speaker, if not a particularly jolly one (lampshaded by another Twitter question: “Why are you on a comedy show if you have no sense of humour?” Burn.) Overall, though, he acquitted himself well enough that large swathes of the programme were, by sheer dint of his presence, pro-Remain. (And anti-Trump, but then he is a functioning human being.)
Apart from this interlude, though, there was generally a pervasive sense of having no opinion one way or the other, largely due to having no idea what was happening. The three hosts (Adam Hills, Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker) all carefully avoided the question of what they personally thought, and there was a lot of chat about the enormous amount of nonsense spouted by both campaigns, complete with “Bullshit!” buzzer. They briefly ventured to state some facts, mainly regarding economic claims, before we moved to mocking the people in charge on each side (cue videos of Jean-Claude Juncker drunkenly kissing foreign dignitaries and Boris hanging off his wire) as well as the attempts of both parties to engage the youth: the Leave campaign producing branded condoms and beer mats, and the Remain campaign enlisting June Sarpong, T4 presenter of the late 2000s.
The overall feeling of the Last Leg opener, then, was one of “getting Brissed off with the whole thing”; in fact, the only people to demonstrate an actual opinion seemed to be the audience, who cheered and whooped for JezCorbs and booed the pro-Leave frontman of Right Said Fred when he won an arm wrestle against the Pro-Leave Johnny Vegas (it sort of made sense in context).
This week’s episode was a little different, since large parts of the show dealt with other topics arising from a horrific week of awful news stories, discussed, by and large, with dignity and compassion. Since, as a result of the terrible news, both EU campaigns were suspended for several days, the show also veered away from explicitly discussing the referendum (Mock the Week’s second episode, due on Thursday, was withdrawn for the same reason). Again, therefore, no political biases were evident, and most jokes were at the expense of everyone’s two favourite tyrants, “wigged prick” Donald Trump and “secretly gay ultra conservative” Vladimir Putin.
Speaking of whom…
You expect topical news shows to be up-to-date, but it seems unreasonable to expect it of a sitcom; or DOES IT??? Power Monkeys would beg to differ.
In its original incarnation last year, Power Monkeys was called Ballot Monkeys. It was aired in the run-up to the General Election, it took place on board the (fictional) campaign buses of the various parties, and, crucially it was written and filmed the day it was shown. This astonishing feat of televisual speed and stamina led to a very funny, very topical show; and, if the first two episodes of the new series was anything to go by, they’ve managed the same astonishing feat again.
Power Monkeys follows the chaos and hysteria leading up to the referendum, with scenes variously set on the Brexit campaign bus, the HQ of the Conservative Unity Unit, Trump’s battle plane and Putin’s government offices. Stars include Jack Dee, Claire Skinner (Outnumbered), Amelia Bullmore (Twenty Twelve), Archie Panjabi (with a much more convincing accent than in The Good Wife) and Stacey’s brother off of Gavin and Stacey.
The first episode was broadcast the day after the Farage interview and Hillary securing the Democrat nomination for president; it made reference to both of these things, as well as the extension of the voter registration deadline and, naturally, Noel Edmonds’ magic cancer box (how we all long for those heady days two weeks ago when that was the biggest news story). Episode two included references to Russian football hooligans (“The flare? No. That was festive. We use them like party poppers”), John Cleese coming out as pro-Brexit, the sheer absurdity of the Thames flotilla, and recent polls putting ‘Leave’ ahead (“Huh. We’d better make it seem like we have a plan”).
As with Mock the Week and The Last Leg, the general theme of the programme is that everyone involved in politics is bonkers. The pro-Leave campaign is full of crazy scaremongerers whose claims are ripped straight from the headlines of The Sun (“I’ve just tweeted that since we’ve joined the EU, the number of verrucas has risen sharply”), while the Conservative Unity Unit is a diverse bunch of weird people who are constantly at each other’s throats. Then, of course, there’s the antics of Trump and Putin, whose existence has the dubious advantage of making our home-grown British politicians look slightly less awful. It should be noted that neither the Big T nor the Big P actually appear themselves; what we see are their secretaries, assistants and aides being generally useless and commenting on their masters’, erm, foibles (“Don’t hover! Litvinenko used to hover!”).
But what’s curious about this set-up is the omission of a pro-Remain group. The original series featured Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and UKIP in comparable measures and was equally scornful of all of them. This time, there’s no specific group of lefties; apparently the Conservative Unity Unit is pro-Europe, but this doesn’t clearly come across in the dialogue – most of the jokes in those scenes are at the expense of David Cameron personally, which means that the limited amount of explicit anti-pro-Remain mockery all falls on Jack Dee’s character, who hits right back with razor-sharp snipes at the leaders of his own party (“Don’t mention the British Virgin Islands, or the British Islands as they’ve been called since Boris paid them a visit”). This is odd because, as Mock the Week and The Last Leg have beautifully illustrated, the pro-Remainers have their fair share of nutcases, ripe for quips about playing it safe, prophesying the apocalypse and being under the heel of Angela Merkel.
The makers of Power Monkeys have stated that they’re trying their damnedest not to show their own hands, but the result of the set-up described above does, inevitably, come across as a slightly sneaky nudge towards ‘Remain’. This is probably a more natural reaction to the whole farrago than scrupulously toeing a central line so as not to offend or influence anyone; but, at the same time, it feels a little bit uncomfortable, maybe because everyone else is trying so hard to avoid taking a stand. Still, if campaigning with facts is dull, and campaigning with lies is unethical, maybe campaigning with comedy is the only option.
So let’s be sensible about this, OK, guys? For the next two days, let’s concentrate on the task at hand, try to sort the facts from the rubbish, keep a civil conversation going, vote accordingly, and then, whatever the result, go forward as a diverse but courteous United Kingdom. And then we can all focus on a cause close to the hearts of every man, woman and child in the country: ripping the shit out of Donald Trump.
Anyone for #Chicken?