lessons from America

The jokers in the political pack

The economy must be worse in the States than I thought.  Even those involved in politics are having to get second jobs.  Of course we already knew that political comedian Al Franken was having to supplement his income with a run for the Senate in Minnesota.  But I didn’t realise that even the presidential candidates were having to moonlight as comedians.  But that’s exactly what they did yesterday in New York, at a special dinner.  The Al Smith dinner.  The links to the videos are below.  McCain was up first and was on good form: likeable, funny, at ease and very different from his debate performances.  Obama’s delivery was slightly more stilted and nervous and while he had some good lines, comedy is not going to become a profitable sideline for him.

(clip 1) McCain’s speech
(clip 2) end of McCain’s speech, first part of Obama’s
(clip 3) Obama’s speech

Would we ever get our prime ministerial candidates ‘bringing the funny’ and sending themselves and their campaigns up in the same way?  And knowing that it would be broadcast, as opposed to a completely private event?  I don’t see it happening.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that situation.  The Al Smith dinner is a one-off event on the campaign trial and a venerable but very specific tradition.  And then there is also the US tradition of candidates going on the evening talk shows and sending themselves up a little – this election cycle taken to new heights / extremes on Saturday Night Live.  A chat on the daytime sofa with Richard & Judy or Des O’Connor, or a spot with Jonathan Ross, just is not quite the same. 

The Victorian, or more accurately Bagehot, view of the “dignified” aspects of our constitution still prevails.  Just maybe though we need a little less dignity from our politicians and a bit more humility and humour.  Not often, but enough to show that they are human; and that while politics is a serious business it can also be accessible and fun and put in perspective, even at election time.  We all hear that Gordon Brown has a great sense of humour and energy in private.  And John Major’s friends always used to say the same about him.  So maybe an opportunity to show this side of their characters might be politically beneficial …. as well as a chance for people to laugh with, rather than at, them.  After all, Maggie Thatcher’s one-off ‘Yes Minister’ sketch is fondly remembered and part of political folklore.  And it also works – just as the SNL sketches and the Al Smith dinner speeches do – because it is rooted in the political context of that person/moment.  Just having Gordon and Dave do a Comic Relief-style silly scene wouldn’t have the same effect … and would be hideous to watch on many levels.


October 18, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America | , , , , | Leave a comment

Life imitating art imitating life

How to prepare for Denver? That’s my challenge. In under a week I’ll be there, following the Convention from my base in the Big Tent. So I’ve watched the West Wing – the final two series all about the post-Bartlet primaries and the general election. You can see the Obama candidacy emerging first on screen, mapping the path to the White House for a political outsider with a funny name and non-white skin who proclaims a message of change and fires up the young people and Democrat activists.

Then I watched the entire run of Commander-in-Chief. A Hillary-vehicle, some cynically said, as it offers us a world with a credible liberal woman as the first female occupant of the White House. The series ends as battle lines are drawn for an election run, so we never know what happens next. Intriguingly, the show not only sympathetically features a black chief-of-staff, but also has him about to take up the post of Vice President. A case of hedging bets before the primary season perhaps?

Now, I’m at the Edinburgh Festival. Along with happily sampling the usual comedy, musical and theatrical fare – and some fantastic live African music – I’m trying to discern if there’s an American election undercurrent around. In past years (this is my 4th Festival in a row) I’ve managed to pick up and follow a theme: one year it was blogging and diaries; another it was constitutional reform (you gotta believe it). I am on the hunt to see if US electoral politics is on the menu. And I don’t just mean anti-Bush rants / jokes. I’m looking for Obama and McCain gags, “Si si peude” chants and November references.

Leafing through the fringe guide, there weren’t nearly as many obvious references to election year as I imagined. Only two shows have it in their titles: Jeff Kreisler ‘08 (an American comedian’s stand-up show taking aim at contemporary political and pop culture); and ‘Tina C – Tick my box‘ (a spoof about a country & western singer running for president). Both have ads in the guide which depict electoral images, like ballot papers or campaign posters.

There were another two shows that focused on politics and elections stateside: ‘The Americans’ (a sketch show from a trio of Comedy Central actors depicting the nation as a once proud family on the verge of collapse); and ‘Queen of Wyoming’ (a musical about the protagonist’s father running for Governor of a Midwestern State). ‘Attack of the Soccer Mums’ sounds like it could be an account of the 1996 election, or even a Obama horror story, with women rising up to support Hillary Clinton, but is no such thing; instead being about over-competitive parents. Another that flatters to deceive in its name is ‘Jaik Campbell – The audacity of hopelessness’ – but full marks to the riff on Obama‘s book title. I wonder how many people here actually get that joke though?

I did however manage to dig up one show that Obama would be proud of. ‘Word-up’ is billed as an insight into the hip-hop generation, dealing with the post-segregation world and the fall out from global economics. That sounds more like the spirit of change.

Two long-running Festival favourites that draw heavily on the elections are ‘News Revue‘ (the satirical look back at the year) whose finale features Bush, Condeleeza, Clinton and Obama in a Bat out of Hell pastiche; and ’Political Animal’, a revolving group of comedians talking and joking about politics nightly.

The legacy of Bush‘s ‘War on Terror’ is perhaps the one issue that has captured the passion and imagination of artists. The Patriot Act (a serious play); ‘The Axis of Awesome’; Jesus: the Guantanamo years; Eco-friendly Jihad all draw inspiration in their titles – if not always their content – from that rich artistic vein.

Iraq may be a lot less prominent that in previous years, but Bush’s chief ally – our very own former PM – still attracts an audience; with two shows about him (Tony of Arabia / Tony! The Blair Musical). He is on a par with Mugabe, who also gets two shows about him: ‘I am Mugabe’ and ‘Requiem to Robert Mugabe’. Compare that to Gordon Brown or John McCain: neither get to be the subject of shows. Neither may get to win an election either.

And so the November election. ‘The Americans’ ends with Obama in the ascendant, but possibly about to be denied victory by someone fixing the election for the Republicans. Only time will tell whether life imitates art in this respect.

August 24, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America, the world wants obama | , , , , , , | Leave a comment