Jesters For Putin: The comics breaking through on RT

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

Comments (13)

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  1. Phil says:

    I suppose the proof of ‘total artistic freedom’ is in the pudding. I have seen many comedians on the BBC mocking Theresa May, the UK government and the Tory party, as well as Putin and his government.

    I hope the ‘angry, passionate, original, razor sharp’ satirists will find enough freedom to criticise the Russian government’s persecution of LGBT people, its war crimes in chechenya, illegal annexation of Crimea, the undemocratic disqualification of opposition leaders etc etc.

    If not, they are either self censoring, because of who is paying them (I believe ‘selling out’ is the correct phrase) or they actively agree with their authoritarian patrons. Neither is a good look for supposed truth tellers.

    1. tartanfever says:

      So Theresa May can be ‘mocked’ but Putin has to be chastised with a list of evils.

      Why doesn’t May get her own list of evils ?

      ie Selling arms to Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s key terrorist supporting states, along with her support for Qatar and their subsequent demolition of Yemen, or that of Israel and their apartheid regime against Palestinians ? Or closer to home her ‘Go home vans’ as Home Secretary or her government’s violation of human rights against disabled people ?

      Seems to me that all your doing is falling for the May myth, ‘if you’re a citizen of the world, then you are a citizen of nowhere’ – ie, believe in the same old tropes of the official enemies and bad guys, Russia, Iran, North Korea.

      How about some consistency on all the bad guys being equally vilified ?

      1. Rory MacLennan says:

        “Why doesn’t May get her own list of evils ?”

        Select individuals in the bbc and other media take their criticism so far then back off. The bbc and press know enough dirt to bring any Westminster government down and the monarchy for that matter.

        They choose not to, because they are all part of the same establishment living off a symbiotic relationship.

        The influence of the bbc and media can not be over stated, if Scotland had its own state braodcaster and media, Bella, Wings and other Scottish blogs would not exist, we’d be independent!

  2. Ivan DeVenter says:

    I would rather do a show on RT than one on ITV sponsored by Coca Cola.”

    Really, Kate? REALLY?

    1. Mala Content says:

      Exactly. And the writer fails to ask one basic question: how many jokes do you get to crack about Putin and his murderous regime on RT then?

  3. Josef O Luain says:

    Newsquest … pure as the driven snow. Aye, right.

  4. Jim Alexander says:

    The article is nothing more than an excuse to justify the former Head of the SNP working for Putin – the strategy for both the USA & the UK is as quoted below – in short they want anti establishment figures on RT – however as long as its not Anti Russian establishement – the National is becoming more and more like Pravda by the week and to think Yes Supporters go on about the BBC & “MSM”

    Tha aim of Russia is to create havoc in Western Demoracies that way it deflects attention away from itself

    “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.”

  5. Brochan says:

    “But Putin ultimately has editorial control of RT in a way that Theresa May simply doesn’t have at the BBC.”

    She doesn’t need it. The BBC play her tune and many of those who work for it have also “sold out”.

  6. Indyvids says:

    So if a satirist doesn’t criticise everything that’s wrong with everything and everybody all over the world he’s under the control of whoever his satire isn’t aimed at?


  7. DialMforMurdo says:

    Given that our very own state broadcaster keeps us sedated with a diet of endless repeats of Dad’s Army, Morecambe and Wise, remakes of Porridge and the excremental wit of Michael McIntyre it’s no wonder that talents like Lewis-Smith are taking the RT dosh. TV comedy today is utterly asinine with programmes like HIGNFY, QI and Mock the Week no better than their seventies equivalents, except for more swearies.

    Mainstream satire has gone backwards with comedians aiming to become professionals, reaching for that lucrative Ricky Gervais behemoth status, where his one man shows sook up all the available funds, like at Edinburgh a couple of years.

    Lewis-Smith will be aware that every excoriating gag he gets away with will fuck off the establishment with highlights entering the mainstream audience via youtube and social media. If it’s seen to back up Putin’s meddling in so called Western democracy…so be it.

    1. Mala Content says:

      Victor lewis=Smith is as hip and relevant as old boots

  8. Pogliaghi says:

    If Salmond was Russian, he would get locked up for calling for secession from the Federation.

    Let’s go ahead and be blase, say it’s media-Realpolitik. It doesn’t really matter how it all reflects on VLS or Salmond. What matters more is how it reflects on the target audience, ie., the left and Scottish nationalists. When do we kick the crutch of 20th c mediocrity that is a need to massage our attention spans with Americanized/FOX-format political-infotainment? The need to watch telly is not an immutable law of nature, and if only bastards are funding it, it should be possible to switch it off.

  9. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    In 1984, George Orwell presented a picture in which ‘they’ represented by BIG Brother was able to control everything, even to the extent of continuously rewriting history and deleting previous versions. It implied a totality of control, which was in keeping with the idea of totalinarianism, which had been unleashed on the world from the 1920s onwards and which had resulted in a devastating world war. It was a timely warning.

    However, like many such pieces of work it overegged the pudding since hyperbole can be an effective way of emphasising a point. However, it also created a belief that there can be actual total control. Many hubristic leaders have tried this over the centuries, with the myth (?) of Canute trying to command the tides. We see this continuously in the apocalyptic reports of the power of Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

    Personally, I think that there are far too many people and things in the world that it is statistically impossible to have complete control. Even in the appalling conditions of the German concentration camps there were instances of resistance by starving inmates. Repressive regimes have fallen, eventually, due to dissent and their own contradictions.

    However, if enough of us believe these dire warnings of totalitarian control, begin to be hesitant about extending trust naturally to others and to self-censor, then we set the conditions in which some totalitarians can take control of a significant part of life. While they usually do resort to physical intimidation, much of their control is exercised by us complying. By withdrawing compliance, we weaken control. Perhaps Gandhi’s campaign of non-violence is the prime example, but we could ad things like the Birmingham Bus Boycott in Alabama.

    We are continually presented with the ‘malign’ face of It and social media, but, in reality it has been far more liberating and uncontrollable than the power elites would like us to believe. In addition, because we have competing power ‘elites’ such as Putin and American business, they provide competing media outlets which enable dissenting voices to criticise, satirise, ridicule the opposition.

    The nearest thing we have in reality to the Big Brother re-writing of history is Wikipedia, which has literally millions of contributors who post, correct, redraft, edit, readjust, and, broadly, we have a platform where we can, pretty quickly, find the information that we want and verify it to our own satisfaction. Of course, being human we can misjudge, and be fooled, but, there is a self-organising, self-correcting dynamic in it, where, probably the closest approximation to whatever the truth is can be obtained.

    There is chaos there, but chaos is not a bad thing. The universe as we know it emerged, undirected, from chaos and continues to evolve in an unplanned way.

    I welcome, RT and Al Jazeera and all these other sources that are now readily available to me. I am no longer at the mercy of the clique that controls the BBC and ITN. I know RT and Al Jazeera have their cliques, but the battle amongst the cliques provides huge spaces where we can flourish.

    Sure, the world will go through dire times in different places and at different times, but, the human race is still here, and has been immensely adaptable and creative as well as appallingly cruel and destructive.

    Laughter, whether we get it from Morecambe and Wise or RT is a wonderful thing!

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