Difficult as it may be to remember, there was a time when Western politics seemed fairly stable and predictable. That was certainly the premise of Veep, the Emmy-winning White House sitcom which has just returned to HBO for a sixth series. “When the show started it was very much satirising the stasis of Washington,” says Will Smith - not the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but one of the writers of Veep. “It was about the feeling that nothing really changes, and that bureaucracy keeps grinding on.”
Then came 2016. Triggered by a series of populist votes, an earthquake rearranged the political landscape in the US and Europe. The United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union. The United States chose to elect Donald Trump. Whether you think this shake-up was long overdue, or whether you’re stocking up on canned goods and digging a fall-out shelter in your back garden, there is no doubt that our leaders and their decisions are, shall we say, less conventional and more colourful than they once were. And this raises the issue of whether any comedy set in the political realm can possibly be as ludicrous, hilarious, exciting and terrifying as what we see on the news every day. Is reality officially beyond satire?
It’s hard to parody people who are already a parody of themselves – Jonathan Lynn
“It’s a problem,” says Jonathan Lynn. “There’s no question about that.” In the US, Lynn is best known as the director of My Cousin Vinny and The Whole Nine Yards. But in Britain he is revered for co-writing the country’s most elegant political sitcom, Yes Minister, in the 1980s. He believes that that was a very different era. “Our politicians in Britain and America have been behaving in a bizarre fashion for several months. And it’s hard to parody people who are already a parody of themselves.”
“There’s been nothing like this before,” agrees David Quantick, a former writer of Veep and its British precursor, The Thick of It. “Veep was always set in a parallel world, but that parallel world was vaguely similar to what was going on. Now, though, America has been taken over by a deranged monarchy. They’re people who aren’t politicians in the old sense. They’re billionaires and people from Breitbart News. They’re aliens.”
So what’s a satirist to do? Trey Parker, the co-creator of South Park, has admitted defeat. “In the last season, we were really trying to make fun of what was going on, but we couldn’t keep up,” he told Australia’s ABC News. “What was actually happening was much funnier than anything we could come up with, so we decided to back off and let [politicians] do their comedy and we’ll do ours.” Armando Iannucci, the mastermind behind The Thick of It and Veep, made a similar admission to CNN in September. “When the politicians are providing us with the fiction, there’s no place for people like me.”
Stranger than fiction
The challenge faced by political screenwriters has three facets. The first is that the real-life characters are suddenly so weird and wonderful. Andrea Leadsom, a British MP who stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party last year, “would have been too broad as a character in a sitcom,” says Smith. “You’d think, I just don’t believe that person would ever have the nerve to put herself forward as prime minister. It’s the same with Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. If we’d had any of them in The Thick of It, it would have been too much.”
The sea change is that politicians are no longer even trying to be tactful, says Matt Forde, the host of a topical British comedy show, Unspun. “Traditionally, comedy about politics came from characters saying things without saying them, saying yes while meaning no, being offensive while being polite. But with Trump, all nuance is gone. When you’re doing impressions of politicians, you can get a lot of mileage out of saying outrageous things that they would never say. But there’s nothing that Trump wouldn’t say.”
For Lynn, the most significant shift is politicians’ willingness to spout ‘alternate facts’. “Politicians have never been notable for telling the truth,” he says, “but what’s happening now is just flagrant lying with no shame about it. Whether it’s because politicians are delusional, which might be true of the Brexit people, or completely paranoid, which is true of Trump, it’s truly Orwellian. It’s Newspeak, right out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
The residents of the Big Brother house are more discreet than the residents of the White House
The second facet is that there are so few secrets left in politics for satirists to uncover. In the 1980s, Yes Minister revealed what went on behind the scenes in British government. “We had lots of sources,” says Lynn, “who told us things that were not widely known.” In the 2000s, The Thick of It took on that mantle. “It was about the spin and what was behind the spin,” says Smith. “But now so much of politics is played out in public that spin doesn’t exist in the same way.” Thanks to social media, we live in a world where senators blurt out every passing thought on Twitter and where policies are leaked while they’re still being drafted. The residents of the Big Brother house are more discreet than the residents of the White House.
The third facet is that current affairs are hurtling along at such a breakneck speed that screenplays go out of date before the printer ink is dry. “Reality is so mad and so fast-moving that nobody knows what’s going to happen, so I just can’t see how you could do any kind of commentary on it,” says Smith. “You could write a sitcom about Trump now, and by the time it got on air, he might have done anything between going to prison and starting a war.”
‘A thrilling period’
Lynn and his co-writer, the late Antony Jay, never worried about that when they were making Yes Minister. “We used to write the whole series months ahead of the recording,” says Lynn, “but then we would often put in one topical joke or reference at the last minute, and that had the effect of making the audience think that the whole thing was topical.” At the moment, Lynn is scripting a play about Brexit, but is finding it to be a “moving target”. “Every week I write a scene,” he says, “and then the following week I have to rewrite it because something’s happened. If the play is ever finished and ever produced, it will need actors who are flexible enough to make changes on a weekly basis.”
One solution for satirists, says Lynn, is to draw themes and characters from life, but to put them in a different setting. The anti-hero of his new novel, Samaritans, is based on Trump, but he works in a hospital rather than on a golf course or in the Oval Office. Likewise, Howard Jacobson, winner of the Man Booker prize, has reimagined recent developments in the US as a fairy-tale novel called Pussy, in which the President is transformed into Prince Fracassus.
And coincidentally, the writers of Veep were fortunate enough to turf their sitcom’s heroine, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), out of the White House and into the political wilderness at the end of the last series. “If Selina was still in office,” says Smith, “it would be very difficult for the show because it wouldn’t be reflecting reality of all.” The West Wing suffered in later series, Smith notes, when its Democratic president was so obviously unlike George W Bush, the Republican who had just been elected. “It just seemed to exist in a fantasy-land after that.”
At any rate, the loopiness of today’s politics is only a headache for a writer who is sweating over a sitcom, a film, or some other project that takes months to come to fruition. For satirists who can respond instantly to the news, it’s a boon. Daily and weekly shows now have so much material that Stephen Colbert’s political jokes on The Late Show have made it the most popular late-night show in America, while the impersonations of Trump and Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live have brought the programme its highest ratings in over 20 years. “It’s a very thrilling period,” says Forde, “in a quite macabre way.”
The newly mind-boggling nature of politics hasn’t been all bad for the writers of Veep, either. “The Jonah Ryan character [played by Timothy Simons] is such an awful, unpleasant, bigoted person,” says Smith, “that there have been moments in the past where audiences might have thought, ‘how come his colleagues haven’t got rid of him?’ But Trump’s rise has allowed us to have Jonah succeed in spite of himself. So that’s one good thing about Trump. He’s let us make Jonah more extreme.”
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.