I have a strong aversion to American comedy. Every year, American film corporations produce numerous pieces of cinematic trash posing as comedy. They tend to portray a trivial plot armed with weak lines and weaker jokes, often about sex, drugs and stupidity. Some of these films are like hydra – giving them terrible reviews seems to spawn sequels. It’s a rare moment to see me in the cinema, watching one of these films, out of my own free will.
Obviously, I’m not saying that all American comedy films lacklustre. With everything there are exceptions – masterful examples of humour, parody and satire, such as Airplane! – and I’m told that there are some comedic gems I’ve yet to see, such as Good Morning, Vietnam. But in general, I will turn down American comedy. And, yes, that includes Friends. Friends is not funny.
There is, however, one element of comedy which American broadcasters do so well: the late-night talk show, fronted by a comedian, often assisted by a house band.
My first taste of the late-night talk show host came in the form of The Daily Show led by the masterful Jon Stewart. He was excitable, frantic and humorously irate, but, crucially, extremely intelligent and piercing. He’s the hero of many current hosts and a lot wish he were still on the air in the crazy political world of today.
For now, my go-to comedians are Stephen Colbert (The Late Show) and Trevor Noah (succeeding Stewart on The Daily Show). It’s their witty takes on current affairs in the USA that makes the ludicrous and abysmal goings-on in Trump’s America bearable. Delivering the most sarcastic jibes, often coated in deliberate political incorrectness, is of course Bill Maher, whose show includes panel discussions with guests from political, academic and entertainment backgrounds. If you want biting political critique and humour, Real Time is one for you.
When it comes to the two Jimmies, Kimmel is a warm, jovial host whose games and gags are always good-natured and leave the viewer feeling somewhat satisfied; Fallon is a goon, preferring to clown around, employing cheap gags with helium and karaoke. Fallon, like fellow late-night host Seth Meyers, found fame through his work on Saturday Night Live, a comedy show of hits and misses. Unfortunately, Fallon and Meyers are some of those misses.
Oddly enough, the commentary I view the least comes from one of our very own Englishman abroad, John Oliver, who fronts Last Week Tonight. To his credit, Oliver’s mix of comedy with informative critiques always leaves the viewer well-informed about what he’s lambasting on a given week’s show. But, when it comes to the jokes, Oliver just barks at the camera with insults that sound like rejected lines from Blackadder scripts.
Sure, British TV has had its fair share of late-night programmes too. Our parents will recall shows like Parkinson and Wogan and our generation has been treated to Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and The Graham Norton Show. But when it comes to late-night comedy, we’re no good. The reviews of our latest attempt to emulate the Americans, The Nightly Show, are far from glowing. (It’s a show “in which a series of well-known television hosts watch their careers go down the khazi over five days,” begins one Guardian review.)
Could it ever work? I doubt it. To truly enjoy the success that overseas show command, British talkshows need to be led by a household name – someone who doesn’t need to be Googled by half the viewing audience when they see them. Our recent attempts don’t boast many dazzling names and tend to bite it soon after launching (2008’s Lily Allen and Friends or 2016’s Up Late with Rylan, to name a few).
Say a stand-up legend was found: who or what would be their target? So much of Jon Stewart’s criticism was toward the numerous television networks present in America. They have a wealth of news channels – MSNBC, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox News, CNBC – and commercial broadcasters – ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC. Stewart satirised the personality-driven, bombastic and at times ridiculous news media that dominates channels stateside but is absent in Britain. In particular, you could always rely on Stewart to tear Fox News to pieces, again and again. “Oftentimes this show is critical of Fox, but only because… they’re terrible,” he said in 2015.
In Britain, our TV news media aim to be neutral and non-partisan. The BBC does not employ John Humphrys in the same way that Fox News employs Sean Hannity. We have personalities in all sorts of areas, from interviewing (Jeremy Paxman) to gardening (Alan Titchmarsh), but they don’t lead the agenda in what they’re doing. We don’t have a ‘World According to David Attenborough’ segment and we never will.
We certainly have some personalities within politics, the main target of satire and the subject of almost every late-night host’s monologues. However, even our battiest characters pale in comparison to some of the individuals involved in American politics. Did you see the Republican presidential candidates besides the bloke who won? Whether it’s the belief that universal healthcare is akin to slavery, that the pyramids were built to store grain, or simply the phrase “alternative facts,” Stewart, Colbert and co. have the luxury of being able to comment on moments of insanity from a wide range of madmen, a luxury that is in much shorter supply for us.
Finally, although it’s Colbert who delivers the lines in The Late Show, behind him is an extensive team of expert writers, working constantly to produce jokes for a show that airs five days a week. British TV is no stranger to satire, but the default format would be a panel show like Have I Got News For You. To shake things up would take a crack team of comedy virtuosi who had the stamina to crank out gags every day – and how often do these people all come together at once?
Our series of failed attempts to achieve this shows that the late-night talk show is something we prefer to watch, not perform ourselves. Until we’ve finally cracked the formula that brings so much success to these stars, British TV should stick to the things it has already mastered. We can do interviews, parodies, sitcoms and panel shows, but the satirical monologues and commentaries led by the host are best left to the Americans.