The Lite Beer of American Satire

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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24 Responses

  1. North says:

    I’d say that the Commonwealth countries have a healthier scorn for their politicians in general. Politicians are viewed as the most likely criminal and most assuredly scheming and grasping civil servants that they are. Being a monarchist I like to claim that it’s because the Crown has a legal monopoly on formal nationalist reverence which leaves the politicians free to do the dirty work of governance and at least partially deprives them of the ability to drape themselves in flags.

    And yes, House of Cards is very different. Underwood is virtually a superhero (supervillain) in the American version.Report

  2. NobAkimoto says:

    I think it’s worth noting that the composition of the parliamentary model also means that Opposition Parties in Parliament will never, ever work together. That’s why papers are so much more nastily partisan, and why there’s so much more heckling: The opposition party has no realistic way of contesting the Government other than by mocking it.Report

  3. Matty says:

    I have a friend who once worked in the same part of Slough where the British version of the office was filmed. She flat out refused to watch after the first episode because she said it was too close to reality.Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Matty says:

      Same deal with me and the American “The Office”. It’s like, this is my life, it’s what I spend eight hours a day trying to mitigate, how am I supposed to laugh at it?

      The British “The Office” just left me flat because nobody in an American office would even be allowed to act like that, much less actually do it.Report

  4. Maribou says:

    Interesting. I had been thinking that I couldn’t watch the American House of Cards after watching the British one because the British one was just *better* (better written, better acted, etc), but now I’m thinking it might just be my cultural biases…. Canadians are neither British nor American, of course, but I think (at least in my part of the country), we’re more like the British than like anyone else. Maybe NZ? Hm.Report

  5. Jim Heffman says:

    Maybe the assumption in British society is that you might hate someone, and they might be worth the hating, but because of their position in society there’s nothing you can do about them, and because of their position in society they don’t care what you think about them.

    And the assumption in American society is that everyone is basically the same, with differences due to different lives, and so if you really let loose the hate on someone then eventually you’ll find some way that they’re likeable, or even like you, and now you’re hating someone who doesn’t really deserve it. But at the same time, anyone in American society can be dragged down by anyone else, so you always have to care about whether or not people hate you.Report

  6. LeeEsq says:

    Many of our creative sorts probably had no more love for Reagan than their British counterparts had for Thatcher. The difference is that Reagan was never subjected to very harsh humor on television the way Thatcher was. British creative sorts had no problem portraying their hatred for Thatcher even though she won elections by landslides.

    My theory is that British satire can be harsher because they are protected by the relatively non-commercial nature of the BBC. Our media is basically run as a for profit enterprise and PBS doesn’t produce original dramas and comedies of its own that aren’t aimed at children. Our media corporations are going to be less willing to subject a politican popular with a decent amount of the population than their British counterparts with a few exceptions like Palin.Report

    • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Jeb Bush was popular when arrested development was running, wasn’t he?Report

    • James K in reply to LeeEsq says:


      My theory is that British satire can be harsher because they are protected by the relatively non-commercial nature of the BBC. Our media is basically run as a for profit enterprise and PBS doesn’t produce original dramas and comedies of its own that aren’t aimed at children. Our media corporations are going to be less willing to subject a politican popular with a decent amount of the population than their British counterparts with a few exceptions like Palin.

      I think there’s something to this because I don’t think it’s true that Americans are bad at satire. The Onion can be very sharp and the most vicious piece of satire I’ve ever come across was Tom Lehrer’s Werner von Braun. What I think is true is that US broadcast TV is bad at satire. I suspect the reason for this is probably the reason broadcast TV is blander than what you can find on premium cable channels (where the US does produce some good satire) – it has to do with how different funding models react to the intensity of viewer preferences.

      On an advertising-funded channel all the broadcaster cares about is ratings numbers because the more people whoa re watching the more money they make. The commercial ideal for a broadcast TV show is to be mildly appealing to as many people as possible. By contrast, subscription TV channels have a reason to care how much people like their content, not just how many people like it, since the more intensely people like your content the more they will be prepared to pay for it. Content that is strongly liked by a relatively small group can be a viable business model for a subscription TV channel. Since blandness is practically necessary for something to have wide appeal, it’s no surprise that advertiser-funded channels have fairly bland content.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to James K says:

        Premium cable isn’t immune from commercial pressures either. Many of shows characterized as weak like Veep appear on premium cable. People of all stripes watch cable and they can’t get to hard on particular side.Report

  7. LeeEsq says:

    I think Nob, North, and Jim have some very interesting ideas about why British satire can be biting in a way that American satire is not. There social and political systems including the fact that they have a monarch and royal family that receives the public reverence and respect make sense. I also once read an essay about the same subject that brought up the point that in the UK like most other countries, the political, economic, and cultural capital is the same city. In the United States our cultural capitals are Los Angeles and New York while our political capital is DC. We also have many more centers of elite education than the UK. In the UK, the creative people and politicians generally spent many of their formative years together at Oxbridge and London and this sort of familiarity brings contempt. Our creative people and politicians are less close and more likely to glamorize each other because of lack of familiarity.Report

  8. Kim says:

    I think Arrested Development does a better job of satirizing american politicians…
    I think you might be doing American Comedy a bit of a disservice by only looking at
    direct analogues.Report

  9. Saul Degraw says:

    When I ever I speak or read ex-pats who have had a prolonged exposure to Americans, they are always astonished (usually in a good way) about how nice and sincere and sarcasm free Americans are. I’ve been told by many non-Americans that they see the NYC-Metro area as being distinctly non-American for a variety of reasons including New an ability to use sarcasm at all. We are largely seen as a plain-dealing people.

    Many Americans like to say they are great at sarcasm and snark but I suspect we pale in comparison to the Brits.

    Debate over sarcasm is relative. New Yorkers complain that San Franciscans don’t get sarcasm and people from San Francisco complaint that people from Portland and Seattle don’t get sarcasm.Report

  10. LeeEsq says:

    I also wonder if the long-length of our television series compared to the short length of British television series has a lot to do with the less biting nature of it. If your series are can to only last for a handful of seasons and episodes than you can afford to have much darker and less sympathetic characters because the audience doesn’t have to live with them for so long. When British series are long like Doctor Who than the characters tend to be much more likeable and sympathetic. American series aim for a long run rather than a short run so they want the audience to like their characters.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I’d actually intended to mention this, @leeesq but didn’t get around to it with anything more than a passing mention. I’d imagine that it’s much, much more difficult to keep an audience invested in unlikeable characters over 22 episodes than 6, and that there would be a concern over several seasons than if you know it’s likely to be between 1 and 4.

      Even if we’d wanted to make Underwood much more like Urquhart, you’d likely want a long-term opponent trying to take them down. British or American, I have difficulty seeing interest sustained if they didn’t. And the longer it goes, the more that evolution becomes necessary to avoid stagnation. In the case of Michael and Dwight, that evolution was almost inevitably some degree of redemption.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Will Truman says:

        A series that consists only of dark and unsympathetic characters that extends over dozens of episodes would be unwatchable for most people except the most jaded and cynical. People would have nothing to emotionally invest in so would have no reason to continue watching. A long-running series of horrible people doing bad things to each other would also get boring becaus it would be the same thing over and over again. Character development is necessarily as you point out and if a character starts out unsympathetic than most development is goign to run in a positive direction.Report