Jesters For Putin: The comics breaking through on RT
5th January 2018
For Victor Lewis-Smith, the comedian, producer, and regular contributor to Private Eye, putting his new show on RT, the channel formerly known as Russia Today was simple: “In recent years, mainstream broadcasters seem to have given up on investing in edgy and boundary- pushing satire.
Instead, support for bold new voices in comedy has come from a seemingly unlikely source – RT.”
Lewis-Smith’s new show, the Establishment Club, a Keith Allen hosted satirical programme, named after the legendary, anarchic nightclub run by Peter Cook in the 1960s, will be broadcast as part of the Moscow-based station’s British output later this month, and will, he says, provide a platform for “angry, passionate, original, razor sharp” comedy.
That’s the sort of comedy RT tends to like.
It’s not the sort of comedy the man ultimately in charge of the station likes though.
In 2000, Vladimir Putin, or at the very least, aides of Putin, brought weekly satirical puppet show “Kukly” to an end.
The Spitting Image-like programme had shown the new president done up as a grotesque latex puppet, but worst of all, it had joked that he was weak and indecisive. Within month, NTV who broadcast Kukly, was effectively under state control.
So how does that circle square? Can a channel owned by a regime that hates being the butt of the joke, really become the only place on British TV “investing in edgy and boundary-pushing satire”?
“If UK channels gave performers the chances RT is at the moment they would go there. But they don’t,” Scottish comedy critic Kate Copstick tells Bella Caledonia.
“They want Big Names and PC. They want their quotas filled and their boxes ticked. RT has come along just when comedy and commentary needed it.“
Fellow comedy journalist Jay Richardson agrees, in part: “I would think most comics on something like News Thing would think of it as a TV credit and even perhaps something for the showreel that very few people will see, beyond producers on mainstream channels being sent tapes by their agents. I doubt anyone in that scenario thinks too much about where the money for RT is coming from.”
RT America has for the last four years been showing Lee Camp’s Redacted Tonight, a comedy show that claims to “truly bring truth to the people”.
In an interview with the Washington Post last year he was asked about appearing on a channel that, according to the US authorities, is an agent of a foreign government.
“The Russian government funds you?” the paper asked.
“Is that weird?”
“They knew what kind of comedy I did, and I was picked for that reason. I would do this show for any network that would let me.”
Liz Wahl, a former journalist for RT who quit on air, accusing the network of “whitewashing the actions of Putin” in its coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, called Camp a “stooge”.
Wahl told the New York Times there was a reason the station was hiring angry comics to satirise the governments of the western countries the station was broadcasting from.
“The tactic is to use American anger against itself,” she said. “They know our divides and aim to make them bigger. To make the angry angrier and the paranoid more paranoid, to push people to extremes.”
One angry man who found his big break on RT was Jonathan Pie, the TV news reporter who hates his job.
Tom Walker, who created Pie, told The Spectator he’d been “given a lot of shit” for taking RT’s rouble.
“I’m Putin’s puppet, blah-blah-blah,but, to give you some context, they offered me 500 quid a week which was more money than I’d ever seen in my life. And they gave me total artistic control. They never wanted to see a script. It allowed me not do any more shit jobs working in call centres.”’
Does that matter? Can you separate the comedy and who funds it?
“Of course you can,” Copstick says. “Does it bother people that most of the great art works in the world were paid for by despots? The patrons of the Old Masters were, generally not nice people. The greatest patrons of the arts were people like the Medicis – a family of murdering, poisoning, evil monsters.”
“RT is just a space paid for by the Russian government. When they start to make demands about what performers are allowed to say, then you can worry. Till then … there are bigger things to worry about”.
RT itself claims that it is a “publicly funded” media outlet, similar to the BBC or Germany’s Deutsche Welle.
But Putin ultimately has editorial control of RT in a way that Theresa May simply doesn’t have at the BBC.
I ask Copstick if the comics on the channel are being used as the tools of an authoritarian regime.
“Do not be ridiculous,” she says. Look at who owns other channels… look at who sponsors major programmes on our TV. Look who keeps the channels afloat with high priced adverts. I would rather do a show on RT than one on ITV sponsored by Coca Cola.”
The latest audience figures (from the week leading up to Christmas) says the station has a daily reach of 137,000 in the UK – far lower than the BBC News 24’s 2,770,000 or Sky News’s 1,735,000 – but significantly more than other foreign news channels that broadcast in Britain.
It’s the viral content, the Jonathan Pie videos, and clips from key comedy show News Thing, that has really made the impact for the station.
Ironically, it’s the internet, social media, short snappy videos that are allowing the angry young satirists of Russia their opportunity to mock Putin.
It’s took a decade or so, but satire is “thriving” in Russia today, even if new protest laws could see comics jailed for joking about Putin.
On New Year’s Day, a parody Kremlin account, tweeted to it’s 2.1m followers a picture of the numerals 2018, the eight on the side, making the symbol for infinity.
Putin, it joked, was going to go on for ever and ever.
RT did not respond to requests for a comment.
Andrew Learmonth is a political reporter at The National @andrewlearmonth