Sir David Frost looks into the power of political satire with the help of some of the funniest TV moments of the last 50 years and contributions from leading UK and US satirists.
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A headline on the front page of The Sunday Telegraph: "Mosley appeals to churches".
Nice to think he appeals to somebody.
Satire is different to humour.
It's edgier, it's tougher.
It's more daring, more adventurous.
-David, you're so marvellously witty.
-Shut up, David.
Satire only works if you think, "Oh, that's right. That's true."
-In that case, I'm just going to have to get back to you.
-I don't think there should be limits.
I think if you can get it funny enough, you can get near anything.
If it's funny and if it's true and if it's sharp, then it's satire at its best.
Hello, good evening and welcome to Frost On Satire.
Some moments there from the last 50 years of television political satire.
But in all this time, has that satire ever had a real effect?
Can shows such as Spitting Image, Rory Bremner or Saturday Night Live change the political landscape?
What ultimately is the power of satire on TV?
Well, to find out I'm going to look at some of what I consider
to be landmark shows of the past 50 years, both here and in America.
And my journey starts where it all began,
in Studio 2 at BBC TV Centre in West London.
The date was 24th November 1962,
and the show was...
# That was the week that was
# The bunnies are here, no doubt. #
If you're worried about whether we can really
look after all these missiles we're kindly being loaned by the United States,
you may be reassured by this direct quotation from an Admiralty circular.
"It is necessary for technical reasons that these warheads
"should be stored with the top at the bottom,
"and the bottom at the top.
"In order that there may be no doubt which is the bottom
"for storage purposes, it will be seen that the bottom of each head
"has been labelled with the word 'Top'."
Here, for the first time ever, was a satirical series that tackled the issues of the day head on.
I tell you, it's a real man's life in the regular army.
Never a dull moment.
Why don't you join?
Your country needs you...
..to take my place.
'The idea was to create a show that should,
'in the words of the then Director General of the BBC, prick the pomposity of public figures.'
Our other bouquet for the week goes to the Government
for its sensitive handling of the half a million unemployed.
Only yesterday, Mr Maudling received a delegation of the unemployed,
and after talking to them for 10 minutes, he got up and said,
"Well, I don't know about you, but I've got work to do."
'It was groundbreaking on so many levels.
'In its late night Saturday slot,
'TW3 would discuss, dissect and indeed deride the news makers of the week
'with startlingly direct language.
'And no subject was taboo.'
# Mississippi is the state you've got to choose
# Where we hate all the darkies and the Catholics and the Jews
# Where we welcome any man
# If he's white and strong and belongs to the Ku Klux Klan. #
From race relations in America, to rising illegitimacy rates in Britain.
# Don't you weep, my little baby Cos you haven't got a dad
# Go to sleep, my little baby
# Things aren't really quite so bad
# There's no reason any longer Why you ought to feel so blue
# The world is full of bastards Just like you. #
As perhaps a rather sad sign of the times, the News of the World is running a competition
which is headed, "Picture yourself in this gay summer dress", followed by a coupon which begins here
by asking you to state your hip size, and then goes on to enquire whether you are Miss, Mrs or Mr.
The show also dared challenge the establishment like never before,
aimed with a potent mix of humour,
irreverence and some ferocious debate.
When you grow older, you won't talk so much and you'll listen more.
I hope I won't be so bigoted, Sir Cyril, as those you stand for.
Look, first of all I'm not a socialist.
But the socialist gospel has always been
that all wealth comes from work, and you cannot have wealth without work.
And satire, and this folly for which you stand,
would leave our country,
if it were the only thing we'd got,
leave us hungry.
Wealth comes from work.
-Sir Cyril, Hunger Through Satire has never been my slogan, but, er...
Heated debate would occasionally produce reactions from the audience.
It was not a review, it was a vicious attack.
It may well have been. But would you mind going back to your seat?
There's just one tiny thing to be done.
'But outbursts like this didn't deter the team from taking pot shots
'at even the most senior political figures.'
This has also been the week of Dean Acheson's sensational outburst,
when he said....
Having lost her empire,
Britain is not quite as important
in the world as she used to be.
She cannot remain
Acheson's wild words have caused an international furore.
What does Acheson think, Jack?
It's Harold here.
Harold MacMillan. M-A-C...
With an unflinching attitude to the status quo, our goal was simply to change the world a joke at a time.
And not all the victims of our humour were amused by it.
Complaints would pour in, questions were asked in the Commons, the papers had a field day.
Despite this, the show ran for two thrillingly successful seasons.
That Was The Week That Was really helped me to get involved in politics.
When you started,
I became, as a young doctor, an avid fan.
And I rocked with laugher and thoroughly enjoyed the whole bloody thing.
I think the spoofing of politicians appealed to me, and still does.
Even when I'm on the receiving end of it.
And I've been quite often on the receiving end of it!
But with a general election on the way, lampooning politicians made the BBC nervous.
And sadly, for those who loved it, TW3 was cancelled.
So we took the show to America.
'Live from New York.'
# That was the week that was Panama's flag is flown... #
TW3 paved the way
for the young to criticise those in power
And this new-found confidence to challenge authority was embraced by TV execs in the States.
The American TW3 began its weekly run in January 1964.
For those of you who wrote in that you hated our pilot show, wait until you see this one!
'Like the UK version, the show poked fun at current political leaders.'
A spokesman for the Republicans said today, "With the candidacy of Senator Barry Goldwater,
"the Republican Party is on the way back.
"And who knows? One day it may even go forwards."
'But it was all too much for the US networks, and after the second season they pulled the plug.'
That's it really.
That WAS That Was The Week That Was, that was.
# That was the week that was It's over, so bye-bye! #
Was it really because the establishment thought TV satire was a serious threat?
Well, whether they feared TW3 or not, the seeds for challenging authority had been sown.
It was in the mid-'70s when young Americans found
their voice again after Watergate and the Vietnam War had highlighted the failings of those in power.
And now for my second announcement.
Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!
The bright young things at Saturday Night, soon to be Saturday Night Live,
created a show that skewered American society
and its key political figures.
We've just arrived at the NBC's Studio 8H here in Manhattan.
The very same studio 8H where we actually did That Was The Week That Was American version back in 1964.
Nowadays the tradition continues with Saturday Night Live,
which is alive and well, flourishing and kicking after 35 years.
And so is its creator and producer, Lorne Michaels.
-Does satire have to make you laugh?
-Here it does, yes.
-With an audience.
There can be serious satire, I think, but not if you got an audience of 500 people.
Yes, and serious comes after. First, you have to get the laugh.
I'm going to bring out a special guest we've got with us tonight.
This is Jimmy Carter's campaign manager.
You described it once as a "satirical watchdog of power".
Right? Did I? My God, I must have been in a very serious period.
An eloquent moment that was.
Principally, the job is to hold an audience.
And to do it in an intelligent and hopefully thought-provoking way.
You certainly don't put "thought-provoking" on the marquee.
In the early days, which was, you know, er...
everyone under 30 understood the show immediately.
The kind of music we were putting on didn't appear on television at that time,
the kind of topics, the sense of humour we were doing.
-KNOCK ON DOOR
Good afternoon, Mr President.
Good afternoon, Dr Speck.
I just want to say that these sessions have been great for me,
and I'm feeling much more clear-headed already.
I'm very glad to hear that, Mr President.
-If you'd just like to lie down, we can get on with the session.
-Wonderful. Thank you.
What do you think is the most powerful,
single item you have produced over the last 35 years?
It's so hard to narrow it down because they're different times.
I think in the '70s when we began, we followed Watergate, and, er...
and distrust of authority and opposition to authority was in the air.
And now, Weekend Update with Chevy Chase.
Weekend Update was a direct descendant of That Was The Week That Was,
and so we came on with somehow a right to be able to question.
President Nixon was formally pardoned
for all Watergate crimes today
by the People's Republic of China.
Honouring the ailing former leader, the Chinese have named a new dish
after Mr Nixon called Sweet And Sour Dick.
I was a writer predominantly for 12 years out here,
Lorne came looking for writers
for this new show and we met and immediately got on.
He was at the Chateau Marmont, a famous old hotel here in Los Angeles.
I spent the day there in an interview with him as he interviewed others,
so it was almost understood that I would come and write that stuff.
And then you transmogrified into being the performer with Weekend Update.
I never thought that would happen. Lorne pulled that out at the very last minute before the show.
He said, "Chevy, get up and do something," and I did some news thing that I had written
and I was used to doing that.
He immediately accepted it and said we have got to use that.
He came up with this Weekend Update concept, and that is where all that stuff began.
-And I said, "That's Sir David Frost," I don't think it was Sir at the point.
-That came later.
Overworked and exhausted from his flight, the President mistakenly bumped his head on the face
of a little girl who was presenting him with flowers at the airport.
Smiling, but alert, secret service agents seized the child and wrestled her to the ground.
I think the essence of what I wanted to do at the time, and what has been carried on
as a tradition on that show, Saturday Night Live at least,
the essence of it is to try and get one guy out and another guy in.
We are all democratic liberals, so that is what we were doing.
And in this case it was kind of an easy shot.
Gerald Ford was falling all over the place.
A very sweet man, and I liked him very much and I felt bad.
-You got to know him later, didn't you?
-Yes, I did.
The other thing that was really original about that was that you...
you obviously aped his gestures and all of that, but you didn't try to be Rich Little,
you didn't go for the exact voice.
No, I have no talent in that area.
So, you were just you,
-but being Gerald Ford.
Bang your head and say, "No problem."
The difference between then and what has been done ever since is that they get impressionists,
and if the writing is good and the impression is good, it's working.
I can't do an impression any more than Steve Martin.
We can't even do accents, guys like us.
We're just lucky to be alive.
So as SNL set the goal stand for satire in the States, in late '70s Britain,
it takes a huge shift in politics for a major satire show to come along.
Gentlemen, pray be upstanding for your most gracious Sovereign, the Queen.
Good evening, boys.
Good evening, Your Majesty.
There were parodies, there were politicians,
and most important of all, there were puppets.
Spitting Image went on air on the 26th February 1984
and ran on ITV for 12 years.
For the millions who regularly tuned into the show, Sunday nights were never the same again.
In my day, we were always very shy of calling ourselves satirists,
because you'd done that
and you were proper grown-up people that we adulated at school.
The kind of things you did on TW3, and the kind of thing Bernard Levin did rather brilliantly too,
was really thoughtful, properly researched pieces
and in many ways Spitting Image is a much sort of simpler thing.
What we kind of learnt was that you could call a person corrupt, incompetent or useless in any way,
but if you said they had funny, little piggy eyes, they get really cross.
What do we call it when people go around stealing other people's property? You?
-A free-market economy?
Following in the footsteps of Gillray and Hogarth,
Spitting Image brought the nation's politicians to life with a grotesque realism.
I used to have to go to the IBA every week and report on why these jokes were funny.
"John," said so and so, in a five-man meeting, "now you say here,
"it's a Bernard Levin puppet, I understand, rather topical,
"and somebody says to him, 'Why did you become a journalist?'
"and he says, 'I think it was because I was circumcised with a pencil sharpener.'
"Now, do you find that amusing, John?
"Do you find that amusing?"
I said, "Well, we think it's quite funny." "OK, well, moving on now..."
Then they would go through all the jokes trying to work out why or whether they were funny,
and there was one particular thing where I had to resort to saying I was a satirist
when there was a famous sketch when Norman Tebbit's puppet was being interviewed about the unemployed
and he said that if the unemployed are so hungry why don't they eat themselves?
The chap at the IBA said, "Now, John, this really has gone too far -
"Norman Tebbit eating the unemployed."
And I said, "Well, you see, sir, it's a nod in the direction of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal,
"where he proposed that the Irish unemployed ate their own babies."
And he said, "Oh, satire!" And I said, "Yes, that's right. Thank you, sir."
"Oh, well, if it's Jonathan Swift, that's fine. Absolutely fine."
So we would quite often hide behind you and your ilk,
whereas actually we were just doing people with big noses really.
The extraordinary thing about Spitting Image
is that it had essentially a new medium,
which was political puppets,
and you added, at the time, an extraordinary series of people doing voices, people like Harry Enfield,
doing the voices, Chris Barrie, extraordinary talent.
Rory Bremner, doing voices.
A group of puppeteers from the Henson workshops, who'd done amazing things already.
So you had all these, and then you had some writers in,
people like myself and Nick Newman, the cartoonist,
brought in from a print tradition
as well as the sketch one.
And you shoved them all together at a time when the country was at its most divisive.
I'm sorry, I couldn't get the hairspray.
-Say that again?
-Couldn't get their hairspray.
And on this bit.
-That'll do nicely.
Once it got going,
it used to this terrible power that satire shows can have
for actually influencing the way an individual is seen.
There are two basic ways. You can either write satire about the issues or about the personalities.
And, for obvious reasons, Spitting Image tended to be focused
on the personalities in politics, the actual people.
And they would often pin an identifiable tag on somebody.
And because more people watch TV comedy than Today In Parliament,
those tags really stuck.
So Norman Tebbit as this leather-jacketed thug, or Heseltine sweeping his hair around,
those images really went into people's heads.
I apologise for any possibility that I may have misled the House
by giving the impression that I was a competent minister
who knew what he was talking about.
Of course, some politicians didn't like the way they were represented at all.
And I am completely useless.
I was actually accosted in your garden by Diana Britton,
as she became, but was then Leon Britton's girlfriend, who said,
"Look, Leon's only got three warts on his face and you given him five."
And Leon popped out of the bush and said, "Yes, look, you see, one, two, three. It's totally unfair."
And David Steel famously used to say, "I'm half an inch taller than Neil Kinnock. It's totally unfair.
"I'm portrayed as a tiny little man in David Owen's pocket."
I think it's to David Steel's credit that it didn't appear to be
a major issue, but, underneath, it must have been.
He would have less than human nature not to be upset about it.
It was not a true picture of our relationship, but it had enough truth
to be able to wildly exaggerate it and therefore make it appealing and attractive for satire.
And it was a curse really, that this was being exaggerated out there.
It was not helpful, but you had to admit it was quite funny.
David, you're so marvellously witty.
Shut up, David.
Hurt me, you hunky thing.
It's a funny thing about satirical representational caricature,
that it's the strong characters who simply appear stronger.
So all of the big beasts, Heseltine, Mrs Thatcher,
Tebbit, the more you mocked them for being mace-wielding, axe murderers,
the bigger they became.
And the weedy ones who spent all their time moaning and complaining about how unfair it was
and how they didn't have a very big nose just seemed smaller and smaller.
I'm sorry, Nigel, it won't do.
It must be changed.
You know what to do.
All right, I give in.
Tebbit said, "I was one of the few politicians who liked my puppet."
He loved the leather jacket, he loved the bruiser image and thought it was very funny,
because, as you know, he has a great sense of humour, Tebbit - very funny man.
He said to me, "You know, John, the great thing about politics in those days,
"we all knew how much it mattered.
"We had to take some very difficult decisions.
"I'll tell you now, we made some bad mistakes, but a lot of the stuff we had to do it."
And that was kind of what was fun about television in the '80s,
and exciting and risky, was that people minded.
They really, really cared.
The government cared and we cared that they had to be called to account,
and in some cases mocked openly.
I have a theory about satire in that it functions best in eras when politics is very polarised.
When everyone's in the middle agreeing, it's much harder for satire
to identify what the issues are and find the contrasting personalities.
But if you look at the Thatcher era in Britain, you had the parties way apart.
We had riots on the streets.
People weren't politely disagreeing about policy, they were actually out there,
and that gave a set of very disparate, larger-than-life people in a Punch and Judy show.
I think that power has to be checked.
You need cabinets to check it, you need legislature checking politicians' power,
and one of the ways to check them is humour and satire.
And satire is different to humour.
It's edgier, tougher, it's more daring, more adventurous.
I certainly used to take my job very seriously and responsibly
and say that we needed to get the facts as right as we could, and then fire arrows at people
in our callow, juvenile judgment deserved a bit of a thrashing.
-So, satire can change the world or not?
-Not in my experience. I think satire changes perceptions,
but I don't think it changes the actuality.
When I left Spitting Image after the first four years of it, I certainly felt we had achieved nothing
but possibly made the government slightly more powerful than we had found it.
In the late '80s, Spitting Image was continuing to enjoy great success,
but its creators were frustrated.
The entire direction of politics had not yet been transformed.
Then, in 1989, with the politicians of the day still providing satirists with rich pickings,
the BBC commissioned its own satire show
with a bright young star who provided some of the voices for Spitting Image.
-I don't want to spoil your fun, Neil, but you're crap.
If you want votes, it's your act you need to tidy up.
I saw Thatcher's routine last week, and she's got them eating out of her hand. Get yourself a strategy.
"Oh, bloody hell." "That'll do for a start."
Early on, I started out doing, you know,
cricket commentators, the Richie Benauds, the Bill McLarens,
who's no longer with us, but, of course, a fond memory.
And I used to love all that, because I was a fan, and then increasingly working with John Wells
at the beginning of the '90s, and then with John Bird and John Fortune,
I began to feel I should be doing more with the voices and I became more interested politically.
If it's true, as they say, that you can't mix sport and politics,
why have the government got so many substitutes on the front bench?
Like Spitting Image, Bremner set about the political figures of the day.
But this time not only was it important to get the voice right, but the whole impersonation accurate.
-AS RICHIE BENAUD:
-1979, of course, the year when the England opener Thatcher went in.
She followed on, and on, and on -
rather reminded me of the great Geoffrey Boycott.
She's out there for a whole match, grinds down the opposition and then runs everyone out.
I don't rehearse in front of a mirror a lot of the time.
Most impressionists will tell you what you have in your head
is a film that's running as you're talking.
There's a film of the character you are being, and you can see in your mind's eye.
It's like you're watching a film in your mind's eye to which you're providing the soundtrack,
and that's how it works.
And you can hear yourself being the voice, the film that is in your mind, and that all projects out.
And hopefully it all works instinctively and it comes out through your face naturally.
I almost went into you for a moment there.
-AS DAVID FROST:
-You feel yourself doing those, those facial gestures
like you're doing now.
And it all becomes part of the characterisation.
Thank you very much, Rory Bremner.
-Maggie, we were a team.
-A touch of class.
-I kissed your hand.
I kissed yours too.
Ah, yes, I remember it well.
The most satisfying times are when you can actually nail a politician
or a character with a line that you hope forever more when people see that person,
they will have in their mind the caricature, so if you can reduce that to one line.
With John Major, it was, "I'm still here.
"They said it couldn't be done.
"It wasn't. They said I wasn't up to the job, I'm not."
And, of course, life imitating art, as it were, I remember watching a press conference he did one day.
And he was asked if he would resign or not, and Major stood there and said, "I'm still here."
So the satirical line had become had become attached to him permanently.
Of all the targets you have done over the years, so far, who or what has been the most fun?
I enjoyed being Bill Clinton because he had the licence to be a bit naughty.
You could flirt with the interviewer and you could say,
"Well, when I was in government a lot of great things happened under me,
"but let's not go into that." You have that.
They were, from a personal point of view, were fun to do.
With Blair, it was the kind of openness and sibilance and those S's and the rhythm,
which was very much in his speeches which we caricatured, as "tea for two, of course.
"Of course, tea for two, but also two for tea.
"I like apple pie, unless of course you don't like apple pie."
We struggled for a couple of years when Blair came in to think, "Where is it?
"What's at the heart of this government?
That is when we invented the Blair/Campbell sketches.
The fly on the wall, Andy Dunn as Alastair Campbell, me as Tony Blair.
Well, you messed up this time, didn't you?
May 3rd, go for it, go for May 3rd.
It's all geared up for you, May 3rd, May 3rd, May 3rd.
I think, "OK, maybe May 3rd's a good idea."
Suddenly it all changes, all up in the air and I'm left with egg on my arse.
Hey, just back off. It's not the press's fault, is it?
It's the public. They're the ones who went ahead and change their minds without telling anyone.
Yeah, the public. Don't get me started on them. The public moan, moan, moan.
They were the ones who thought we might achieve something, who thought we might make a difference.
They were the ones with the ambition. It wasn't me.
I always think with things there is a comic line and a true line.
And the most satisfying comedy you ever do is when the comic line
and the true line are going the same direction and are side by side.
People are laughing, but laughing at the truth.
That is why when it is just gratuitous for the sake of getting a laugh, it's not so satisfying.
If it hits the target, if it's funny, and if it's true and if it's sharp, then it's satire at its best.
Rory Bremner is very political these days, and at times,
when the Blair sort of thing was at its height
and everybody thought Blair was great, at that time,
Rory Bremner spotted first the flaws in Blair
and was quite lethal, really, in penetrating it.
And I think it was a great service, actually.
There was no really serious opposition,
and I think that was extremely important.
We just need, you know, we need a message.
Something we haven't said before.
All right, something we have said before but they won't remember.
How much do you think you can trace the clear impact that it's had?
I think reading Campbell's Diaries afterwards and seeing what has come out of various inquiries,
like the Chilcot Inquiry, a lot of it now, you realise that we weren't that far off the mark.
It was funny, but more importantly it just got under their guard a little bit,
and I think it slightly...
It felt like it annoyed them, and subsequently
it's felt like we were on to something.
So, for satire to work, it needs targets.
And the more those targets divide opinion, the better it works.
And when those targets were lost, as they were when, say, Margaret Thatcher left power,
satire tends to run out of steam, as it did in Britain.
In America, however, their counterparts were about to enter a new golden age.
Other people may drop like flies in this administration, but I want to be around for a long time -
on the job, making the tough decisions, 24/7, that's 24 hours a week...
..seven months a year.
I wasn't really known in our cast for being, you know,
someone who had that as part of my repertoire.
I had written a sketch called Janet Reno's Dance Party, so I would perform as Janet Reno,
the former Attorney-General, which was just me in a dress,
which anyone can do. You could do that, David.
-Yes, I'll let you go first.
So I wasn't really known for that sort of thing.
There was a member of our cast, Darrell Hammond,
who was kind of like the go-to guy for all these impersonations,
and he had an excellent Al Gore waiting to go.
Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live said, "Do you want to do Bush?"
Just this kind of like, "You in the room here, you want to do Bush?"
I said, "Sure, I'll try it." And that's kind of how it started.
What made Bush such a good target, as it were?
Well, I think you had someone who misspoke frequently.
-Um, he, er...
and also this kind of...essentially what was a fraternity boy
who had kind of become President, really.
It's a guy who is kind of petulant at times,
a little bit of "my way or the highway" approach to his policy.
I really think it was the petulance and all stuff that made him so kind of fascinating to me.
Some of the lines that are attributed to him now
were probably actually created by you, for instance.
I don't know whether you did this one,
but I'm sure the one about "the French don't even have a word for entrepreneur",
I'm sure he never said that, but somebody said it, and it was so convincing.
-I think he did.
I will instead ask each candidate to sum up in a single word the best argument for his candidacy.
The one word or phrase that we were able to kind of contribute to the lexicon was "strategery".
We found out later they would use that in their meetings. "Let's have a strategery meeting."
Er, but yes, it was very interesting
in the sense that I was either accused or applauded by some people
for helping him win the election, the first election.
Because people said they found my portrayal to make him, in a weird way, kind of likeable,
and er, which, I don't know, I never put much credence in it either way.
So, if Ferrell's impersonation did really help Bush win an election,
it can be argued then that satire is directly influential,
though not necessarily in the way it was intended.
In George Bush, American comics and commentators had their perfect satirical quarry.
But when George W was about to leave office, it seemed there was no obvious replacement.
And then John McCain picked an unknown Senator as his running mate for the US Presidential elections.
Governor Sarah Palin of the great State of Alaska!
That was the most asinine thing I've ever seen, McCain doing that.
And she is just ripe, ready to go at.
And I don't think she knows it, and I think she's enjoying herself,
but she's about as bright as an egg-timer.
I don't know what that's all about.
You've cited Alaska's proximity to Russia
as part of your foreign policy experience.
What did you mean by that?
That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border
between a foreign country, Russia,
and on our other side, the land boundary that we have with Canada.
It's funny that a comment like that was kind of made to,
char... I don't know.
From this Sarah Palin interview with CBS's Katie Couric,
ex-Saturday Night Liver Tina Fey was able to draw much of her material from what Palin had actually said.
On foreign policy, I want to give you one more chance
to explain your claim that you have foreign policy experience based on Alaska's proximity to Russia.
What did you mean by that?
Well, Alaska and Russia are only separated by a narrow maritime border.
You've got Alaska here, and this right here is water, and up there's Russia.
So we keep an eye on them.
And how do you do that exactly?
Every morning when Alaskans wake up, one of the first things they do is
look outside to see if there any Russians hanging around.
If there are, you've got to go up to them and ask, "What are you doing here?"
And if they can give you a good reason, or they can't,
it's our responsibility to say, you know, "Shoo! Get back over there."
Shown just a few weeks before the election,
despite its late night slot,
at its peak it's been estimated that over 17 million people were watching Tina Fey as Sarah Palin.
So was Sarah Palin your first serious impersonation...
or funny, rather than serious.
My first and only.
I had been on Saturday Night Live as a writer for a long time.
-The head writer..
-The head writer eventually.
And I did the news segment that they call Weekend Update,
so we did a lot of political jokes,
but I was never really in the cast in the way that the other performers were.
I was rarely ever even in sketches, let alone called upon to do an impression,
and I think people forgot that that wasn't really anything I had ever attempted before.
So when you agreed to come back and do Sarah Palin,
did you expect it to be as big, as huge a hit as it was, or was that a surprise to you?
It was a big surprise. She came on the scene, really, in August -
she was chosen as McCain's running mate in August,
and I started getting e-mails saying, "You should play her."
People, one, forgot that I didn't work there any more, and two, forgot that I didn't have those skills.
I think she was just such a compelling media character immediately.
She's so telegenic and so likeable, so polarising pretty quickly that people wanted to see her portrayed.
And so I sort of thought that it became clear that I would have to try and do it at least once.
I thought, "This will be terrible and we'll do it once and everybody will say it was terrible."
In that area, you're looking for one or two outstanding characteristics.
What did you seize on first of all?
Well, she has, er... Former Governor Palin has a very distinct accent,
and she had a very folksy way of speaking.
She would drop her Gs at the end of words and was very heartfelt and she smiled a lot.
What lessons have you learned from Iraq and how specifically would you spread democracy abroad?
Specifically, we would make every effort possible to spread democracy abroad to those who want it.
Yes, but specifically, what would you do?
Katie, I'd like to use one of my lifelines.
LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
-I want to phone a friend.
You don't have any lifelines.
Well, in that case, I'm just gonna have to get back to ya!
Do you think that slightly damaged her,
or did it build her up into being now a vaguely potential Presidential nominee?
They made the decision not to allow her
out there much with the press,
and so there had been the one interview,
the Katie Couric interview, and then Tina pretty much defined her,
because we were doing it more frequently than she was speaking.
Our version became more vivid and real, and I think that we helped define her in a certain way.
I believe global warming is caused by man.
And I believe it's just God hugging us closer.
I don't agree with the Bush doctrine.
I don't know what that is.
Do you think you do, in terms of satire, and I think one can,
have an effect? Satire can have a real effect.
Yes, I think every four years Saturday Night Live
finds itself in a spotlight that it doesn't really have either before or after.
This last election cycle was no different with Tina Fey
playing Sarah Palin,
and I actually came on for one of the shows that they did, and we did a sketch
with myself and Darrell playing McCain.
A vote for John McCain is a vote for George W Bush.
I want to be there for you, John, for the next eight years.
The next 16 years!
And later all the news shows said
that summed it up perfectly.
I think that show
can kind of shape people's views.
Tina Fey's impersonation is seen by many as the pinnacle of modern-day television satire in the US.
And as for its political impact, according to the New York Times,
the sketch "undermined Palin's plausibility as a candidate".
Satire now makes big media stars. It's got that power.
And not just those performing it, but also the politicians who are in the firing line as well.
Alongside these headline-grabbing impressionists, we've seen a return to the roots of TV satire
and shows like TW3, where the focus was on razor-sharp wit rather than outstanding impersonation.
I think television wanted to have an equivalent to...
There's a long-running radio news quiz in this country,
and it wanted to try and recreate that in a mainstream televisual way.
And what it wanted to do was pair up essentially myself, who was more considered as a journalist,
with Paul Merton, who was a great stand-up, an improviser.
And the idea was to put these two different sorts of comedy
into one framework and see whether it would work.
Keep your nose out of Ulster.
Clinton, who is the new President of the United States,
has said he is going to solve the problems of Ulster,
and people are very upset
that the Americans are telling us how to run our country,
because that's the Germans' job.
And the experiment paid off, as the show's been on our screens for two decades.
The odd thing Have I Got News For You does
is have real politicians coming onto a show whose format
they cannot master, and then getting exposed by it.
I mean, that is rather different.
Al Fayed is a liar, and we have a detailed report saying he's a liar,
but in this case he wasn't lying.
Which happens sometimes. Even liars tell the truth...Neil.
Just before we go, we have to give you your fees.
Do you regard Have I Got News For You as a satirical programme?
-Have I Got News For You has smuggled quite a lot of satire into...
Political satire, into what looks like a mainstream quiz show.
I think probably that's the bit I'm meant to do.
And I think it does it extremely well.
Ian and John, take a look at this.
-Yeah, people wanting to vote!
Unmanageable turnout of 65%.
What do they think this is? South Africa? Get out of there!
That's the Lib Dem votes being chucked in the river.
Well, the people have spoken, as Jo said, and they have said, "Er, umm... I'm not sure."
Satire, is it a force for good?
Does it have any effect?
I have been doing this in print and on television for about
25, 30 years, on and off in various ways, so it's quite difficult to
look back and say that had a particular effect.
I do still feel, even at the jaded end of the telescope,
that the effort of attempting to point out
what seems to me consummately mistaken, wrong or immoral
about public life has been worth the effort.
The reaction I get from people who have enjoyed the shows or read the material is one
that they enjoy someone taking the debate in comic form and then presenting it back to them.
And I think that's what satire can do best.
And I leave you with the news that as the polls close, Gordon reveals he's not quite sure how it happened,
but he appears to have cast his vote for David Cameron.
Do you think satire is more powerful today than perhaps it was, say, 20 years ago?
I think the power of satire is, to be honest, more or less always the same.
The greatest satirist in Britain was Jonathan Swift,
who managed to change one small tax in a small part of Ireland.
That was it.
If you're looking for concrete results, satire doesn't tend to produce them.
You swell a consensus, you make a point, you crystallise opinion.
That's what you can do. People say, "Why haven't you toppled the Government?"
You say, "Well, it's a democracy and YOU'RE meant to do that, by your vote."
What I hope to do is add to the debate.
From Comedy Central's World News headquarters in New York, this is the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
In the US, for Hislop's style of political commentary to exist,
satirists have had to move away from the major networks
to the relatively censorship-free world of cable.
Well, congratulations Gordon Brown, you've broken the heart of the sweetest old lady in England.
I do apologise if I said anything that has been hurtful and I will apologise to her personally.
Someone has just handed me the tape, let's play it.
'You should never have put me with that woman.
'Whose idea was that?'
-"Somebody... Somebody has..."
-"Somebody has just handed me..."
"Somebody has just handed me the tape."
It's like a crash-test dummy.
Let's watch it again in Daily Show soul-o-vision.
You can actually see the moment when his political career leaves his body.
John Stewart first hosted the award-winning Daily Show over 11 years ago.
Its success lies in Stewart's ability to target his wit
towards the day's top political news stories.
Anything that has passion, anything that has emotion, anything that is
visceral, it's the translation of that into your performance.
-So does satire always therefore have to be funny in order to win the audience over?
No, I think...
You know, it's always in bounds.
We always try and put...
There's a certain high-minded stridency or a point that you want to make
that has to be mitigated by... a very nice fart joke.
There is that mix that allows it to be palatable.
You still think you can win over detractors through sound, rational policy?
Were you following the campaign?
I can't trust Obama.
I have read about him, and he is not... He's an Arab.
I don't like the Hussein thing.
I've had enough of Hussein.
You think those ladies are backing down because they see you've made
some concessions to Bush era intelligence policies?
And as for your fervent supporters?
She thinks you're asking her to live with you!
And what about the effect?
Obviously you want have an effect, most of the time.
I don't... I don't know that...
If its purpose was social change, we are not picking a very effective avenue.
In some respects, the real outcome of satire is typically catharsis.
And whether that is positive or negative, I don't know.
And, by the way, catharsis for me.
As far as the audience goes, I have no idea.
-It starts with you.
-It starts with me.
The difference between a satirist
and a demagogue is that we are observers.
We don't have the confidence
to take that next step.
"Everything's wrong, follow me!"
We just go, "Everything's wrong. What you want to do? I don't know."
Stewart's show continues in its role as watchdog over the political process from the east coast,
whilst over in LA, the self-styled bad boy of American satire
is firing off his opinions to anyone who will listen.
Barack Obama, an actual college professor
replaced George Bush, an actual chimp.
Commentators announced that comedians would be out of a job.
Well, they were wrong.
Everyone's out of a job.
When I hear the word satire I do expect a laugh.
It's the difference between a comedian and a humourist.
If they say you are a humourist, I'm like, "OK,
"this is not going to be that good."
But hey, I guess you heard the big news today.
The President won the Nobel Peace Prize.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
The Nobel committee said he won for creating a new climate in international politics,
which sounds so much nicer than, "In your face, George Bush, you cowboy asshole!"
No stranger to controversy, Maher's outspoken comments on 9/11 just a week after the terrorist attack
meant that his relationship with the ABC network came to a rancorous end.
This country is not overrun with rebels and free-thinkers, it's overrun with sheep and conformists.
-Yes, who said that? Very wise.
-A very wise man, sitting before me now.
It's true, isn't it?
It is true. We are very conformist,
which has been great for me, because if you're not a conformist you have a lot to work with.
We have a very polarised electorate now.
And the problem is, they don't need to ever hear anything outside of their own echo chamber.
They do not want to have their views challenged.
There are a lot of things that people have not examined or re-examined
or ever sat down to think about.
And it gives me a living!
Yes, the teabaggers who started a movement and,
in the process, sullied the name of a perfectly good gay sex act.
That's right, when the year started, "teabagging" was a phrase that referred to
dangling one's testicles in someone else's face
and they managed to turn it into something gross and ridiculous.
So, from the comfort of cable TV, Bill Maher is able to vent
his opinions with relatively little interference,
leaving him to push the boundaries of taste and decency in the name of satire.
But taking political satire as a whole, are there any limits?
Can it ever go too far?
For public figures who want to be in the eye of the storm,
you can't go too far, really.
But for me, I felt that if I'm really actually hurting the President's feelings
a little bit, maybe I am going a little too far, you know?
I don't feel like I want to hurt the guy, I just don't want him to ever be President.
I don't think there should be limits.
I think as long as you can get it funny enough, you can get near anything, I think.
I think the point of satire is to try and keep pointing out where
what we in England have always called "vice, folly and humbug" still exist.
Where you draw that line is up to you.
I don't say, "I would never do that, I would never do that." It's events.
It depends what those people do, or it depends what happens.
The whole point of living here is you are allowed to say these things
and you're not shot or incarcerated, and we can take it on the chin.
That's what a free society means.
So even if a show like Spitting Image achieved absolutely no political changes at all,
which I think is probably right, at least it aired the subject, and I think that's a very good thing.
For me, it can never go too far, but I'm a comedian.
WC Fields once said, to make a regular person laugh
all you have to do is dress up as an old lady and have the old lady fall down a manhole cover,
but to make a comedian laugh, it has to really be an old lady.
Unless you go too far, you don't know where that line is. I'd much rather go too far
and take my lumps for it, than not go far enough and have people call me soft.
It's a very personal...
People say, "Where is the line?"
-I can't draw the line for other people.
Because it's different for whatever...
I can't tell you how many times
I will hear from somebody, "We love your show, we watch it all time,
"until you made a joke about the thing I care about, and now you've gone too far.
"And I will never watch again."
So we try and use,
as we do with everything, our own internal barometer of human decency,
and we try not to overstep that, and that's all we can do.
The greatest danger now is that one of the big issues of our time is religion, and particularly Islam.
And you're in a situation now which I've never been in before,
which is, when you are writing a sketch about Islam, for example,
but I'm writing a line, and I think,
"If this goes down badly, I am writing my own death warrant here."
Because there are people who say, "Not only do I not think that's funny, but I'm going to kill you."
And that's chilling. If you're a Danish cartoonist
and you work within a Western tradition, if you like, the tradition we have
in this country that you don't take things too seriously,
and suddenly you are confronted with a group of people
who are fundamentalist and extreme, and they say, "We are going to kill you for what you've written,
"for what you have drawn," you're in a very chilling reality.
And where does satire go there?
I think we like to be brave.
-But how brave?
-But not foolish.
But not foolish.
So is TV satire alive and well and playing an active role in the democratic process?
Whatever the challenges facing it, I feel many of our satirists
have been rather modest about its impact so far.
But then, they would be, wouldn't they?
Far more fun to wield nation-changing power when pretending to people that you haven't actually got any!
I'll never forget one Salvation Army major who came up to us after one show and said,
"Congratulations, you've done what the Salvation Army could never do,
"you've emptied all the pubs on a Saturday night."
Goodbye for now.
# I wanna go back
# To Mississippi
# Where the sandy blossoms kiss the evening breeze
# Where the Mississippi mud
# Kind of mingles with the blood
# Of the niggers who are hanging from the branches of the trees
# So carry me home to Mississippi
# That all-American
# All-American state. #
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Sir David Frost presents an investigation into the power of political satire with the help of some of the funniest TV moments of the last 50 years.
Beginning with the 1960s and That Was the Week That Was, he charts the development of television satire in Britain and the United States and is joined by the leading satirists from both sides of the Atlantic. From the UK, Rory Bremner, Ian Hislop and John Lloyd discuss their individual contributions, while from the US, Jon Stewart analyses the appeal of The Daily Show, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell talk about their respective portrayals of Sarah Palin and George W Bush, and Chevy Chase remembers how Saturday Night Live turned them into huge stars.
All of them tackle the key question of whether satire really can alter the course of political events.