Comedians like Wanda Sykes and Jon Stewart make a living skewering US politicians. British comics should get in on the act
Jon Stewart drinks your milkshake. He Drinks It Up!
It's hard to imagine a British version of the White House correspondents dinner. Every year the American media and the president gather for dinner in a strange combination of mutual back slapping and mickey taking. And the fun poking isn't always a light-hearted affair.
This year's "ouch" moment (or "hurrah" moment, depending on which lapel badge you're wearing) came courtesy of Wanda Sykes. In Britain, stand-up Wanda's best known for her work on Curb Your Enthusiasm as the "right on" black character who always seems to turn up just as Larry David is being inadvertently or accidentally racist.
Now she's even better known for causing gasps among the White House correspondents after insulting America's most famous über-patriot broadcaster, Rush Limbaugh. As a comedian, she'll have chosen her words very carefully. So calling him a "traitor", implying he was no better than a terrorist and saying she hoped his "kidneys would fail" might seem quite shocking.
But, of course, everything must be judged in context. Knowing that Limbaugh spent his Bush administration years saying nasty things about immigrants, ethnic minorities and the underprivileged might lend Wanda's words a different resonance.
What if he regularly attacked anti-war liberal types as "traitors" – would that make a difference? Oh, and if it came out that he used to say drug users should be banged up – until his own personal struggle with narcotics became public – then maybe you'd be ready with the high-fives for Wanda? Surely she was just giving the cigar-chomping motor-mouth a taste of his own prescription medicine?
Sadly for Wanda, as a member of the liberal elite she isn't allowed the standard rightwing defence on these occasions: "Lighten up – it's only a joke!" Either way, as an invitee of the Obama family, Sykes knew she was on pretty safe ground.
Not so satirist Stephen Colbert, who at the 2006 correspondents dinner demonstrated an unprecedented level of daring and courage when he presented what can only be described as a master class in extreme satire. He knew George Bush was sat two seats away from him. He knew there were armed bodyguards in the room. Yet still he skewered Bush to his face with a calculated and sophisticated critique, which is now a YouTube classic.
Legend has it that Laura Bush spat her disapproval of Colbert as he left the stage. Mr Bush meanwhile – as tradition requires - just had to sit there grinning and bearing it. Yes it's really hard to conceive of a similar occasion in British public life. It points up a significant difference in British and American popular culture. Americans produce day-to-day political satire more intelligently and more prolifically than Britain ever has.
Some ask why, for example, the British have never managed to produce an equivalent of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart? It's renowned as the number one most trusted place 18-35 year olds go for their news and current affairs. Interestingly, one of the hot talents on the show is John Oliver – a Brit who's presumably working there because there isn't a comparable gig on UK television.
Their coverage of the Sykes affair as usual went straight to the heart of the matter. Stewart contrasted rightwing pundits' outrage at Wanda's gags with those same rightwing pundits' blithe indifference to Bush administration torture.
The cultural divide between UK and US political humour has historic roots. The nightly satire tradition is part of American TV history dating back to Johnny Carson. His heirs are presenters like David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and former Brit now naturalised American Craig Ferguson.
All of these chatshow hosts work on light-entertainment programmes with showbiz guests. But they also make a point of including some comment or other on the public life of their nation. In many cases, it's heartfelt comment. Britain has some great late night presenters too – Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton spring to mind – but unlike their American counterparts any intelligent analysis of politics seems to be off-limits.
If Britain was ever calling out for a nightly dissection of public life then surely it's now. I'm not sure a Brit presidential roast is going to happen any time soon, but I think we should at least make plans. I've written some gags to be tried out on Mr and Mrs Gordon Brown at the top table.
"How many MPs does it take to change a light bulb? Two – one to phone the electrician, and one to fill out the expenses claim."
"They say it's inappropriate calling Britain a Banana Republic – because in a banana republic at least they get some money back selling bananas."
Britain deserves its own Wanda moment. But for now I'm guessing Richard Littlejohn and Jon "Gaunty" Gaunt can sleep easy in their beds.
I dunno... I'm on a massive antibiotics course, I feel like a dead oyster and the news from the Obama Admin is depressing me this weekend, so I thought I'd post something relatively benign. I'm sure the Brits here can tell us if there are any favorite politically-incisive UK comedians that The Guardian doesn't know about.