Monday, November 13, 2006

Fat man can't take joker

Has David Aaronovitch lost his sense of humour? He raves in the Times about Armando Iannucci's Tate Britain lecture, where Iannucci made the point that comedians are an increasingly important part of the political arena.

Long ago, complained Iannucci, politicians used to speak to us properly, the media used to subject their every action to forensic scrutiny and broadcast culture was so robust that people were happy to get their information from the news. Now politicians say stupid or mendacious things, the press (as over Iraq) doesn’t pull them up on it, and it has left a gap. And “I find myself stepping into that gap. Not just me, but many other humorists, satirists, comics, artists, people who . . . feel compelled to analyse that logic because no one else will.”

Actually I will. Alice Miles will. Matthew Parris will. But onwards. Armando — “. . . there’s a decreasing pool of ideas and arguments to analyse. There is an emptiness in public argument waiting to be filled. That’s where my lot come in again. If politicians fail to supply politics with content, is it any wonder people turn to other, more entertaining sources?” It’s hard to know where to begin with this. Should I first wonder at the scale of Iannucci’s delusion, or the very fact of its existence?
This question caught my eye.

Does Aaronovitch really find these ideas deluded? Or is he just upset that more people listen to Armando Ianucci than him or Alice Miles (who?) or Matthew Parris? Surely he can appreciate the increased presence of satirists in the political mainstream over the past few years. Michael Moore came to prominence as a great lampooner of America, with shows like TV Nation. Now he's a massively influential film-maker. Jon Stewart's Daily Show reaches more people in America than most traditional organs (including DA's columns, I guess). Former Presidents queue up to appear on it. Love these two or loathe them, they are part of the scenery now. Closer to home, what about Mark Thomas, and his work exposing the arms trade? A comedian stepping into the gaps left by others, no?

The big man gets a bit more bizarre:

Do his in-tray and e-mail inbox fill up every day, like mine do, with invitations to public debate or with copies of discussion documents, almost always involving politicians? There are scores of papers and meetings on public health, climate, social services, care of the elderly, prison policy, disability, health rationing, the role of PTCs, the funding of local government, rural regeneration, social exclusion, changes to the curriculum, aid policy and, Armando, so on. Some of it gets on the 24-hour news but most of it, being unpictorial, doesn’t. And none of it seems to involve comedians; there are no invitations to discuss road pricing with Ricky Gervais.

This stuff doesn’t entertain or amuse those looking for quick stimulation. The broadcasters would far rather fill the public arena with comedians. Got a factual programme? Stick a comedian on it and at least you’ll have some jokes.
Isn't he losing his focus here?

He started off having a go at the comedians, but now he's blaming the TV companies - (insert gag here about jokers running the BBC) they're not the same people. I don't think any of the issues listed would "entertain or amuse" anybody, really, and by the sound of things, Aaronovitch should probably change his spam filters. But there is surely a place for comedians to poke fun at the way politicians bugger up their attempts to make coherent policies. Politicians don't all lie all the time, but they do frequently talk a lot of nonsense. If satirists can't have a pop at them for that, what kind of world are we living in? I agree that politicians from other parties and "serious" journalists should make counter-arguments more strongly, but should we blame comedians for them not being able to do so?

The rant continues, this time bringing in (from where? I have no idea) Britain's playwrights:
Having fallen off the Iannucci Winterval card list I might as well now stick it to Alan Bennett, since there’s no way back.
A non-sequitur par excellence, followed up by a simple skewering of Alan Bennett's musings on tuition fees. Then a similar jab at David Hare (one barrel, two fish, easy-peasy). I quote:

Three years ago Sir David put on his play about deaths on the railways, The Permanent Way, and described it as a “painful parable about the badness of British government”. He went on: “The play is really asking: why do politicians not see what is completely obvious to everyone else? And the answer is that it suits them to privatise things, because then they’re able to blame other people when things go wrong.”

Yes, that would be it. But in 2005 there were exactly zero passenger fatalities on British trains. That’s none. So where’s the parable now? Is Sir David likely to do a follow-up in which he discovers the essential goodness of government through the numbers our trains (compared with France and Germany) don’t kill? I look forward to Marcus Brigstocke bringing us a skit on the lack of rail casualties.

Er, what?

Firstly, I don't think Hare's broad point about the cynical aspects of privatisation is necessarily wrong, despite no-one dying on the railways in 2005. Secondly, as DA should know, there are other ways of measuring the success of a privatised public transport network besides the number of fatalities (compared with France and Germany, I'm sure British trains suffer longer delays, more overcrowding, higher prices and lower levels of customer satisfaction for a start).

But again, shouldn't DA be chiding the Opposition, or his chums in the "serious" media, for creating the vacuum in the big political debate, rather than a pointless dig at his idol Hare and Marcus Brigstocke for unwittingly filling it? (And while he's at the playwrights, where's his shot at Harold Pinter, the most overtly political scribe of the lot? Not such an easy target, perhaps?)

The big man then goes on about some TV shows I haven't seen, and I have no idea what he's on by the end:

TV companies, comedians and playwrights seem to think that the best politicians are those who have “high-paced short conversations” because those appeal to popular taste. Comedians, eh? They’re only in it for themselves. As for playwrights, they’re just as bad each other.

No, Armando, satirise yourselves first, and your smug audiences, whose laughter and contempt is never, these days, uncomfortable enough. And that’s because, they think it’s never about them, while actually, in a consumer democracy, it should never really be about anybody else.

Okay, David, let's just call it a day there, shall we? Best leave the punchlines to the professionals.

None of that summary tackles what Iannucci was saying at all. He (Iannucci) wants to have a laugh at politicians because generally speaking they're feckless idiots who deserve derision. But he also wants a higher class of political debate, like there used to be when "serious" journos could (and would) stick it to the Government and everyone else with unerring accuracy. These days, he argues, comedians are better at hitting the targets than columnists. And by writing such a shoddy article and dismally failing to kebab anyone (apart from dear old Alan Bennett), Aaronovitch has kind of proved the wee man's point.


Baby Washington said...

Hi Chris,

Good point on Pinter - how he escaped a sideswipe there I'll never know. It would have greatly improved the article in my eyes. The 'comedy doesn't do politics' any more strand of thought is just another way of looking down at the current generation, usually in order to promote your own. The same is said of music - it is, of course, nonsense.

Anyway, being a little controversial, and a little off-topic, I do think Iannucci is generally over-rated. His comment pieces are poor (poodle jokes do not pass for political comment - they never did), and when away from other men of comedic talent, his TV shows aren't great. I suspect he has been lucky to work with Chris Morris, Coogan etc. Being able to produce good comedy shows (or to temper them while in the writing process, whatever) doesn't make you funny in your own right.

What do you reckon?

Chris G said...

Hi BW,

Yes, I'd agree - the funniest thing about Armando Iannucci is probably his name. He's written and produced some great stuff (The Day Today, Alan Partridge, Thick of It), but the shows he's starred in have been much more hit and miss.