The Mash Report's Nish Kumar: how can I launch a satire show when politics is already beyond parody?
The presenter of BBC2's new political comedy series tries to work out how to take on Trump and Brexit: "We are living in an era of self-satirising politicians"
Greetings reader, my name is Nish Kumar. I am an award-winning stand up comedian.
In the interest of full disclosure, the award I won was not for stand up comedy. In 1996, aged 11, I was named “Clubman of the Year” by Addiscombe Cricket Club, an award I later found out was given to the player who had “shown the most enthusiasm in the face of an overwhelming lack of ability”.
In July, I start a new job as the host of a topical comedy show called The Mash Report, with the very funny people behind the popular website The Daily Mash. It will take the form of a news show, but with comedians instead of journalists.
The consensus from journalists, people on Twitter, social acquaintances and random passers by shouting at me in the street is that this is some kind of glorious era to be doing political comedy. Three or four times a week I hear some variation of the following sentiment: “It must be great doing your job right now. With all this stuff in the news, you don’t even have to write jokes, you just say what’s happening”.
Now, there are various problems with this statement. First off, comedians can’t just report verbatim what is happening in the news, because there is already a programme doing this, and that programme is “The News”.
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Secondly, if – as seems increasingly likely – we are entering the endgame of human civilisation, comedians are not in the prime position to scrap for survival. If Donald Trump accidentally presses the big red button instead of the button he has reportedly installed in his office to order Diet Cokes, and we end up in some kind of Mad Max-style fight for survival, I’m dead. In the event of the apocalypse, I have no transferrable skills. People will need food and water, not sassy quips.
Thirdly, this political era presents a challenge to satirists. How do we add comedic value, when the behaviour of our political leaders seems already to verge on parody? We are living in an era of self-satirising politicians.
Take Trump, a man whose behaviour only really makes sense if it turns out he’s being played by Sasha Baron Cohen and his whole political career has been a Borat style prank. Where do you start with Trump? How can you make jokes about a politician who seems to have had his sense of shame surgically removed?
Not that our situation in this country is any less ridiculous. We have lived through the most British election in my lifetime. No one wanted it, nothing really changed and the only people happy are the losers. Both political parties have accepted that we must push ahead with Brexit, even though no one seems clear on what that means for the country other than “Brexit”.
We’re told to be confident of a positive outcome, despite the fact that our negotiation team appears to be an absolute rogue’s gallery of incompetence: Theresa May, as strong and stable as a jelly in an earthquake; Michael Gove, an adult who doesn’t understand clapping; Boris Johnson, a man with the vocabulary of a Victorian man and the political beliefs of a Victorian man; and David Davis, the child of “Unimaginative Naming Magazine’s parents of the century".
Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn plays Glastonbury like a rock star, despite looking like he runs a neighbouring farm and has come to tell them all to keep the noise down because it’s upsetting his livestock. Meanwhile, pundits wonder why on earth a generation of young people might be inclined to vote for anyone promising them an alternative to zero hour contracts and living in a “studio flat” which is just a public toilet with a mattress thrown in the corner. They’re told that they have voted for false promises written in the Labour manifesto, whereas we all know that the only time you’re supposed to vote for false promises is if they’re written on the side of a bus.
Even the press seems beyond parody. In taking up a position as the editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne may have come up with the perfect career model: "Mess everything up, then be paid to discuss how messed up everything is". Osborne at the Standard is the political equivalent of Michael Bay being paid to write a book about how bad the Transformers films are.
Meanwhile the Daily Mail’s coverage of Theresa May was so fawning that it proudly celebrated her as a “Prime Minister not afraid to be honest with you” – which would have carried more credence if she hadn’t lied about the fact that she was going to call an election, campaigned for us to remain in the EU, and is now pushing for a Brexit so aggressive Pret A Manger is going to have to change its name to “Lunch Innit”.
When the news hasn’t been utterly ridiculous, it has been utterly heart-breaking. A year that has seen terrorist attacks and the starkness of the social and economic inequality that has festered for decades be brutally exposed by the fire at Grenfell Tower has left the nation shaken and disorientated.
So where does this leave us as we start on the show? We’ll be looking to our idols for inspiration.
Jon Stewart, the high watermark for modern satirical comedy, dealt with 9/11, the Iraq War and the buffoonery of George W Bush by refusing to go for the easy laugh: not shying away from the serious elements of news stories, but confident enough in the comedic skill of himself and his writing staff to know they would always be able to find laughter in the unlikeliest of places. This combination of righteous ire and comedic technique continues to thrive in the longer form forensic examination of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
In Britain, we have seen satirists respond to the challenge of shifting political landscapes in various ways. Chris Morris fixed his crosshairs squarely on the sensationalism of television news with The Day Today and Brass Eye. Meanwhile, his sometime colleague Armando Ianucci was faced with Tony Blair’s gleaming spin machine, designed to deflect criticism and make the Prime Minister immune to parody.
Ianucci simply went for the jugular, satirised the machine itself and gave us Malcolm Tucker, a volcano of profanity and one of modern comedy’s most memorable characters. Stewart Lee turned intellectual discontent into an art form as his Comedy Vehicle ploughed its way through David Cameron’s green and unpleasant land.
Now, just to be clear, I am not saying that we will be as good as any of these shows. That’s hubris beyond even my reach, and I often refer to myself as “an absolute legend”. All I’m saying is that we’ll take our cues from our heroes as we navigate the choppy waters of the news in 2017. If we end up doing something half as good as any of the aforementioned shows, I’ll be delighted.
So please watch the Mash Report. I can’t promise we’ll be successful, but we’ll do our absolute best. You can expect nothing less from the clubman of the year.