Posted inCultures

Coping with Chaos – The Comedy of Politics

Illustration by Eliott Rose.

CW: homophobia

If there’s one thing everyone in the UK can agree upon, it’s that politics in recent history has been chaotic, to say the least. In less than six years we’ve gone through three prime ministers, left the European Union after a turbulent referendum and now the current government is being investigated by the police for potentially breaking the laws they created during the coronavirus pandemic. Many people have been left angry, saddened, apathetic, or a mix of all three; so why is it that politics is so often played for laughs on screen?

When politics is the primary subject of a TV show or film, it tends to be in one of two genres: thriller or comedy. I saw the commission for this article moments after finishing the original (and far superior) UK version of House of Cards – a prime example of the former genre – which pulls no punches in its depiction of politicians as slimy, self-serving narcissists, who aim to satisfy their personal ambitions regardless of what is best for their country. I initially expected this to sharply contrast with their presentation in political comedies. That said, when I called to mind The Thick of It, my favourite of the genre, I suddenly realised the characters in it are equally as narcissistic. The comedy comes from the differing situations in which they are placed, which invite us to laugh at their failures, rather than fear their schemes. 

In House of Cards, we see the Machiavellian Francis Urquhart blackmail and manipulate his way into positions of power, which creates worrying messages about what happens in Parliament outside of the public gaze. In contrast, the third series of The Thick of It contains an episode in which cabinet minister Nicola Murray fears that her reputation will be destroyed after unwittingly standing next to a sign that reads ‘I AM BENT’. The sheer ludicrousness of the fact that this is genuinely seen as a threat to the character’s career and the seriousness with which the matter is treated by her fellow politicians ­– as we are told that members of the public have started to intercut the image with clips from Family Guy – makes it all the more hilarious. Scenarios that would typically be trivial are raised into the realm of farce and instead of the characters having an almost dictatorial level of power, like Urquhart, they are seen as being at the mercy of public mockery.

Necessary to this mockery is another staple of the political comedy: characters who are simply terrible at their jobs. For every character that is permanently struggling to preserve their reputation, there is another whose ineptitude constantly puts everyone under threat. It is of no importance what governmental position this character has been placed in, they simply have to disrupt the others through sheer incompetence. In The Thick of It, it is civil servant Terri Coverley who repeatedly proves that she is unfit for her job. For example, when opposition party member Peter Mannion visits the government offices, she spends more time trying to chat him up than working. However, in the classic 80s sitcom Yes Minister it is civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby that keeps government running smoothly, dealing with the blunders made by Minister Jim Hacker. Part of the fun in both of these shows is watching the almost unbelievable, self-sabotaging decisions these characters make and the consequences they then have to try and prevent.

I should say that the key word here is ‘almost’. Although the actions of the characters in political comedies seem unbelievable, it is essential to the comedy that they always remain realistic. I believe this is one of the most important reasons why they connect so well with the general public. It would not be a stretch to say that public trust in politicians is at an all-time low, given the large number of laughably silly choices they make – think of Boris Johnson effectively giving a speech about Peppa Pig, after misplacing his notes. Therefore, political comedies never seem to strain their credibility when presenting their characters as moronic; a layer of realism always remains. Perhaps the best example of this is from the very first episode of The Thick of It, when a minister and his two advisors are brainstorming potential policies they can launch, after a previous one has fallen through. The suggestions given are:

  1. ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) for pets.
  2. A national database of spare rooms. 
  3. A new rule that everyone must carry a plastic bag with them at all times.

Creator and writer of the show Armando Iannucci has pointed out numerous times that, in the years following the episode’s broadcast, each one of these has seemed scarily similar to new policies the UK government has introduced. Dog ASBOs were introduced in 2014, a bedroom tax was placed on households that contained spare rooms in 2012 and, though we don’t have to carry a plastic bag with us at all times, the price of single use carrier bags has dramatically increased. Regardless of your opinion on these policies, the fact that a political comedy effectively predicted them is an excellent endorsement of its accuracy. We don’t laugh because politicians are being caricatured, we laugh because they don’t need to be.

However, revisiting a seventeen year-old show like The Thick of It in 2022 makes it seem somewhat less ground-breaking. The jokes still land and it’s definitely worth watching, but it’s interesting that it no longer seems particularly subversive. If you consider its reception on first broadcast, the show definitely had the reputation of being bold and refreshing in its depiction of the behind-the-scenes world of government. Nowadays, however, the chaos of this political satire no longer seems chaotic enough. By providing a more realistic impression of how government functions to the general public, political comedy has led to politicians reaching a point where they believe they can get away with more. When the Prime Minister can be investigated by the police without feeling the need to offer his resignation, being photographed posing next to an unfortunately placed sign doesn’t seem like a particularly big deal.