Has British TV satire lost its way? Have I Got News For You still trundles along but with its unchanging format and limited pool of guests, its seems provide more comfort than satirical bite these days. How can it be that John Oliver, the most popular British satirist on television at the moment, is on HBO satirising American news? Something isn’t right.
The return of BBC2’s The Mash Report, a spin-off of the popular satirical website The Daily Mash, might well be a sign that we are moving in the right direction. It was immediately clear that last night’s episode was a vast improvement on the first four episodes broadcast last summer.
For a start, Nish Kumar, the host and undeniable star of the show, has finally been given more space to do his own stuff. At one point in the summer series, his opening monologue was cut to a criminally short two minutes but he started Thursday’s show with a long monologue on the collapse of Carillion and had a second slot all to himself, attacking staple targets such as Trump, Boris and Brexit. Nish excels at this style of satire, curating a chaotic news story with a blend of absurd comparisons, photo-shopped images and personal outrage. He is not afraid to let rip: at one point he called Brexit ‘geopolitical suicide’.
Unfortunately though, many of the problems that dogged the show in July and August still persist. The Mash Report is at its best when it focuses on topical stories, as any weekly satirical show should do. But the show still relies too heavily on cramming clichéd social commentary into a news format.
Most of these kind of jokes, whether performed as headlines or spoof packages, have the freshness of a microwaved salad and the deftness of a sledgehammer to the face. Thursday’s episode saw a spoof report about a man who disastrously ‘said what he was thinking’ on a holiday with his girlfriend. Later, a newsreader announced the headline: ‘Tough-guy cyclist asserting authority with tinkle-tinkle bell’. This show, which Kumar joked was ‘furious not to be nominated for a fake news award’, is indeed far stronger when it is being topical and parodic rather than making cheap gags based on stereotypes.
The show experimented in the summer episodes and squeezed lots of different segment into its 30 minutes. We had Nish doing stand-up, comedians such as Andrew Hunter-Murray masquerading as special correspondents and repeat visits to Rachel Parris’s social media corner and the news desk throughout. It was all a bit much and gave the show a frenetic, superficial tone. As well as giving Nish more space, Thursday’s return ditched the comedian-correspondents and also gave an extended segment to Rachel Parris, who skilfully brought humour and satirical fury to the sensitive subject of sexual harassment.
And yet The Mash Report, which admittedly has only had 5 episodes, still does not feel like a coherent programme. This might be because it hardly contains any recognisable elements of actual news programs in this country. What rolling news channel has another anchor sitting at a table next to the news desk? What newsreaders actually say “Headlines on the hour”? The show is confused about whether it is parodying rolling news, a news bulletin or a Newsnight-style current affairs program. At the moment it is relying on Nish Kumar’s charm, affability and wit to tie it all together, while also encouraging him to turn it into an American late-show.
Any new satirical TV show which wants to become established in this country has a mammoth job on its hands. Though the way we consume news has changed since Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci’s The Day Today first aired in the mid-nineties, the way news packages and programs are made has largely remained the same. Perhaps the brilliance of The Day Today has left a legacy in TV satire which nobody is foolish or brave enough to attempt to surpass. This might explain the scatter-gun approach of The Mash Report, which seems not to want to commit itself to being just one form of satire.
In some ways it is tempting to think that TV is simply no longer the medium most suitable for topical satire. With a news cycle spinning at the speed of light, and Twitter giving everyone the chance to be a topical gag-smith, The Mash Report’s response seems to have been an attitude of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. With its click-batey one-liners, short videos and the review of fictional tweets from viewers, it feels like a slice of attention-lite social media in its own right.
But like any fledgling topical show, The Mash Report needs time to develop. Hopefully it will recognise that it is at its fiercest and funniest when it gives us a chance to more deeply connect with the characters or personas on screen. If not, expect Nish Kumar to be hosting his very own satirical TV show in the not-too-distant future.