Zaltzman and Kreisler: Fair and Unbalanced

'Change' is the buzz word of today's political scene, so what does this mean for the political satirists? Robert Duffin speaks to Andy Zaltzman and Jeff Kreisler for a British and American perspective.

Feature by Robert Duffin | 08 Aug 2008

Everyone has a George W. Bush joke. Not since a certain ex-President forgot to hand his assistant a Kleenex to dab her dress has a Commander in Chief generated such an industry of humour around his occupancy. The same goes for Tony Blair, forever cast as the perma-grinned lap dog. With the latter gone and the former on his way out, this is a period of vast transition in political comedy. With the easily lampooned leaders departing, will satire led personality politics continue to thrive or recede back into the fringes?

Andy Zaltzman, writer for Bremner, Bird and Fortune, co-founder of The Bugle Podcast and host of Political Animal at this year's Fringe, notes, “We spent years complaining about the leader who gave us style over substance, now we are complaining that his replacement gives us no style and a substance that we don’t like. Personality politics is essentially shorthand for a lazy concentration on figureheads, at the expense of genuine examination.”

Jeff Kreisler, the Comedy Central writer who appears at the Fringe this year with his first show Jeff Kreisler ’08 as well as The Americans remarks, “Personalities are great to mock, but that's really just substituting the characters of politics for standard characters of comedy. Satire still has the edge when it examines actions and motivations. Making fun of Bush's stupidity is one thing, making fun of his secret plan to ignite the rapture by seducing Condoleezza Rice at the Wailing Wall is another.”

With the incumbent whipping boy on his way out, there is dissent regarding the perceived impact of new faces entering the arena of political satire. “I don’t think the change will be especially radical, other than the removal of a source of easy and largely uninteresting jokes. The legacy of the Bush era will remain with us for an irritatingly long time as Neither Obama nor McCain will provide such a throbbing target,” states Zaltzman.

Symptomatic of being an American liberal in 2008, Kreisler sees things differently. “I think there'll be less of it for two reasons: One, no one can match the sheer comic brilliance that is George W. Bush; and two, things are going to get a little better. They have to, right? Right?”

Two or three easily lampooned politicians do not define the evolution of contemporary political humour; instead it can be attributed to the collapse of public trust in our news, media and political institutions. From The Queen’s questionable quarrel with Annie Leibowitz to Fox News’ ‘fair and balanced’ coverage, we engage with the mainstream news media with an in built belief that we are being lied to by everyone in the age of spin. Clearly British political satire both in the 00s and in its emergence in the 80s reflects the nations exasperation with Government.

Zaltzman elaborates, “Britain is bored with electoral politics, with its interminable twittering and self-regarding twattery. And we are bored of petty fraudulences – if politicians are going to fiddle the system, they should have the bared-faced balls to go in hard, and screw the state out of millions of pounds, or some helicopters.” Despite this continued zeal, the difference now compared to the domestic issue led satire of the 1980s Thatcher era, is the switch to a greater engagement in global politics.

With the mounting impact of mainstream media on public culture and the recent popularity of the irony-laden political satire found in the likes of The Daily Show, humour plays a much more serious role in global politics than ever before. The American and British governmental institutions have made the job easy, but the success of politicised comedians is in their irreverent checks on power; it is in fact political comedy shows, from television to stand-up, that are doing the job that has been abandoned by the news media.

Kreisler concedes, “I'm deluded enough to think comedy can help. In the States, people are so disengaged that humor may be the only way to get them involved. Sneak a little knowledge into the laughter. Then we might start thinking critically, and that's the first step towards competent government. Dreaming isn't outlawed yet, is it?”

With boundaries blurring, it was only a matter of time before a comedian ran for political office and Saturday Night Live alumni Al Franken is now running for the Senate. Zaltzman believes it won’t be long before someone in the U.K. follows his lead: “I could see Mark Thomas running as an independent candidate in an election. Although whether he has the inclination to throw himself into the Westminster temple of futility is doubtful. There is an argument that anyone who expresses an interest in entering politics as a career should be constitutionally barred from doing so.”

Kreisler concurs, “I think comedians would make great leaders: They're perceptive, relatable, and somewhat humble. Then again, none of those traits make a successful politician. So, comedians are probably more useful as Court Jesters than as King. At least Jesters get to tell the truth and wear curvy shoes.”

Andy Zaltzman Boldly Unbuttons The Cloak Of Civilisation, But Is Perplexed And Perturbed By What He Finds Lurking Beneath, The Stand,14:40, 1 Aug- 24 Aug (not 11). Andy also hosts Political Animal, Underbelly, 22:30, 2 Aug-24 Aug (not 4,5,11,12,18,19). Jeff Kreisler '08, The Stand, 18:10pm, 1 Aug- 24 Aug (not 11). The Americans, Gilded Balloon, 15:00, 1 Aug- 24 Aug (not 11).