Case Study 56: The New Statesman, Episode 18–“Let Them Sniff Cake”

Original Airdate: January 20th, 1991 on ITV

Politics is an intriguing and underexposed subject for television shows, and the British have proven extremely adept at generating high-quality political fiction like Yes Prime Minister, The Thick Of It and The Politician’s Husband. But The New Statesman is something of an odd duck. In terms of political tv shows, the cheerfully scheming immorality of its characters reminds me of House of Cards, while its sense of humor calls to mind Married…With Children. If you think that sounds like a bizarre combination, you’d be absolutely right.

Strengths

  • Edgy. Shows like Married lay claim to edginess by wholeheartedly embracing vulgarity and coarseness, and shows like Game Of Thrones reach for the ever-popular audience of easily titillated man-children by stabbing pregnant women in the baby and chopping horses in half, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen a sitcom whose plot revolved around cocaine purchases and car bombs. Perhaps it’s because the British have more creative license than censorious Americans. I don’t want to make the mistake of identifying mere novelty as quality, but these elements are at the very least attention-getting.
  • Rik Mayall. The main character has the on-the-nose name of Alan B’Stard (Mayall, The Young Ones), which gives you an idea of the level of humor we’re dealing with here, but Mayall sells the material. He goes from preening cockiness to pitiful obsequiousness very smoothly, and he makes a cartoonishly evil character seem real. Given his obvious talent, it makes sense that he’d be offered the starring role in a sitcom in light of his work in cult classics like Young and The Comic Strip Presents.

Weaknesses

  • Three different flavors of unfunny. There’s always the risk when you’re mocking a conservative character that you’re inviting the viewer to laugh with their despicable comments about the world instead of laughing at them. Shows like this one, All In The Family, Will & Grace or South Park all have character-based jokes that embrace this ambiguity. It can be done well, but one important caveat remains salient. In the wake of controversies brought about by things like greasy sewer clot Daniel Tosh wishing rape on his hecklers and Jerry Seinfeld whining about how you damn college kids can’t take a joke, it’s important to remember that a big reason why shitty jokes about rape victims and gay people are shitty is not just because of their politics but because it’s also hack material. A creative comedian can respond to a female heckler with something other than rape threats, and a creative comedian can critique a fickle, callow youth culture without relying on tired gay stereotypes. So I’m not exactly inclined to roll in the aisles when B’Stard makes a joke about how women’s pussies smell weird, even if the joke could remotely be construed as being about his own sexual repression. Then there’s every first-grader’s favorite: bathroom humor! At one point B’Stard’s long-suffering office mate Piers Fletcher-Dervish (Michael Troughton) is doing toe touches while bemoaning a mung bean casserole he was compelled to eat, and of course he farts right in B’Stard’s face. Yeah, yeah, Shakespeare and Aristophanes both used fart jokes, but you’ll forgive me for not jumping off that particular bridge. The third cardinal sin of comedy on display here is one that makes a lot of sense in context but is still unlikely to whet the appetite of the contemporary viewer: extremely dated political humor. At one point, Alan is on the phone with Salman Rushdie, who is bemoaning his ill fortunes: “First The Satanic Verses, then you poured all your royalties into Polly Peck shares!” When was the last time you heard a good joke about Enron? Or how about this gem: when confronted with a £40,000 ransom to call off eco-terrorist attacks on his office, Alan exclaims “that’s more than John Major charges for a peerage!” This stuff may have seemed like cutting political commentary at the time, but it’ll have today’s viewers struggling to remember what was going on in the news in Britain back in the early 90s.

Final Judgment: 4/10. This show has potential, but a comedy can have a great cast and original ideas and it’s all worthless if it’s not funny.

NEXT TIME: I continue my coverage of the deep cuts of British television by reviewing the mid-seventies short-form cartoon Roobarb!

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Case Study 56: The New Statesman, Episode 18–“Let Them Sniff Cake”