The Relentlessly Hopeful Comedy of 'The Last Leg'
Political comedy is necessary these days. But hope is even more so. Thankfully, The Last Leg provides both.
The Last LegAirtime: Fridays, 10pm
Cast: Adam Hills, Alex Brooker, Josh Widdicombe
Network: Channel 4
In addition to being a connoisseur of comedy, I teach writing and critical thinking. I also am a human being with a brain and a heart. These facts explain why I’ve recently spent a lot of time shifting between waves of shock, anger, and despair, thanks to the chaotic state of the world. I don’t think I’m the only one.
Like many, I turn to humour as a way to deal with troubled times. One place to find it is on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and programmes like it (many of which are headed up by former Daily Show correspondents). Earlier this year, TV critic Charles Bramesco talked about the importance and power of these shows, saying, “With the tangible consequences of Trump’s political doctrine now coming to pass, late-night diatribes have taken on a more actionable bent.” He praised Jimmy Kimmel’s moving talk about his son and healthcare and Samantha Bee’s fundraiser for the Committee to Protect Journalists, because “One-liners and impressions, no matter how withering, no longer carry the weight to enact meaningful change... Actions, as ever, deafen words” ("How Late-night Comedy Went from Political to Politicized", The Guardian, 5 May 2017).
I enjoy and appreciate these shows (and their ‘actions’). Colbert gets me through the week with John Oliver stepping in on Sunday nights. Watching them reminds me that I’m not alone in my reactions to each upsetting turn of events. But because they reaffirm all my emotions, I must confess I’m often left feeling just as despondent as I did before the monologues began.
However, there is one show that consistently acknowledges the shock and anger but also challenges me to replace the despair with something else: hope. That show is Channel 4’s The Last Leg, starring Adam Hills, Alex Brooker, and Josh Widdicombe.
It first appeared in the summer of 2012, as part of Channel 4’s Paralympics coverage. It was called The Last Leg with Adam Hills and featured guests, comedy, and reviews of each day’s sporting events. Hills and Brooker both have disabilities, and Widdicombe was along for the ride as “both ‘an honorary disabled person’ and ‘the token able-bodied, white male’ of the show” (Frances Ryan, "The Last Leg: Often Tasteless, Sometimes Awkward, Always Funny", The Guardian, 5 September 2012).
One of the show’s features was #isitok, which allowed Twitter users to ask often awkward questions about disability. Some of the questions inspired useful conversations: the tweet “when being introduced to a Quad athlete #isitok to try and shake their hand when they can’t” led to Hills admitting he wasn’t sure and turning to Brooker, as “the hands issues expert”, who explained that “it’d be worse if you patted them on the head”. (In 2014, Brooker addressed this question again as part of a series of "End the Awkward" adverts with the charity Scope.)
Other questions were less useful, such as “#isitok to be considering chopping off my left hand (I’m right handed) to enable me to enter #paralympics in Rio.” Brooker simply pointed out that just missing a hand doesn’t qualify anyone to compete in an international sporting competition; instead the person should probably first get good at a sport. Frances Ryan said the #isitok section “consistently provides the best moments -- partly for confronting the dilemma head-on and partly in providing an excuse for Hills to (albeit kindly) publicly cite the most stupid and/or offensive thing about disability that he has recently heard” (ibid. Ryan at The Guardian).
Not everyone was impressed, though. In Sabotage Times, Gareth Dimelow described #isitok as when “the show’s thick-headed viewers submit a series of inane questions.” This is a bit problematic as many of the #isitok questions seemed genuine and some were written by Paralympians themselves. Dimelow’s primary criticism seemed to be based on his discomfort with the show’s focus on disability:
Of course, there’s always the possibility that the show was devised to appeal to a predominantly disabled audience, but that would be to undermine the whole point of the Paralympics. Unlike other minority communities, there’s no discernible culture to speak of, where the ‘differently-abled’ are concerned. Rather than being defined by the physical challenges they’ve had to overcome, they’re far more likely to identify with people of the same gender, religion, sexuality or race -- just like the rest of us do. The more The Last Leg fixates on what we can or can’t say about disabled people, the more we focus on the disability, rather than the person. ("Unfunny and Uncomfortable: The Last Leg Reviewed", Sabotage Times, 5 September 2012)
Dimelow seemed to feel that mainstream Paralympics coverage (for ‘the rest of us’) should ignore disability, whereas The Last Leg acknowledged it -- not something that is done very often or very well on our televisions.
His perspective did not represent the public’s, though: the show regularly got more than a million viewers during its run. In fact, many people credit The Last Leg with Adam Hills with increasing interest and respect for the Paralympics overall. Its popularity led Channel 4 to continue the show, and on Friday, 25 January 2013, the first episode of The Last Leg appeared. Hills described it as “three guys with four legs talking about the week” (Niamh OConnor, "Adam Hills Reveals His Dream Guest for The Last Leg: David Cameron", RadioTimes, 13 April 2017).
Since then, the show has continued to get strong viewing numbers. It has received numerous accolades, including a BAFTA nomination, and in 2017, the series won the Entertainment Programme category at the Broadcast Awards and the Entertainment Performance Award from the Royal Television Society. They travelled to Rio for the Summer 2016 Paralympics, filmed two episodes on a road trip across Australia, and in June 2017, launched an online spin-off show called The Last Leg: Correspondents where they introduce a comedian who investigates a topical news story by speaking to experts as well as the British public.
Part of The Last Leg’s success is based on what seems like genuine camaraderie between the presenters. While you get the sense that they’re all mates from the comedy circuit, it’s not true: Brooker was a sports journalist working at the 2012 Paralympics when he was asked to be a reporter for the first show and ended up staying on. Despite his lack of comedy experience, he is quite funny, playing on the laddish image of being more informed on football and alcohol than on politics.
Widdicombe is an observational comedian who is recognisable from his many appearances on panel shows. Additionally, he created the BBC sitcom Josh, which he stars in alongside Elis James, Beattie Edmondson, and Jack Dee.
Adam Hills is also a stand-up comedian, performing around the world and earning three Edinburgh Award nominations. In his native Australia, he is best known for his television work, hosting a music quiz and his own talk show. The three of them joke about the host/co-host distinction, but Hills is the one who gets the desk (the other two sit on the sofa with guests). Hills opens the show and directs the topics, and he also occasionally sings, much to the dismay of the other two.
The singing often appears in short sketches peppered throughout or in the closing segment of the show, referencing something they’ve been discussing. For example, in 2015, they attempted to explain the Greek economic situation through the medium of dance, with a parody of the Jeremy Kyle Show, and via a 50 Cent-style rap song. And while Hills is actually a pretty good singer, his skills are overshadowed by the general silliness going on around him.
One of my favourite closing segments was a response to a story on Americans threatening to move to Canada if Donald Trump became president (he did). During the episode, Hills suggested that Canada, using Trump’s own logic, should build its own border wall to stop Americans fleeing the Donald. Then Hills (dressed as Mountie) and a choir of moose sang a Pink Floyd parody with the lyrics: “We got better education, we don’t have no border control, got no gunshots in the classroom, Yankees leave us all alone -- hey, America, leave Canada alone. All in all, we need to build a Canadian wall.” As the song went on, Brooker, Widdicombe and that night’s guest Caitlin Moran built a cardboard box wall, bricking off people wearing the oversized faces of Trump and supporters Chris Christie, Dennis Rodman, Gary Busey, Charlie Sheen, and Piers Morgan.
The show books great guests, most of whom are game to go along with such silliness. Comedians, actors, journalists, and politicians have all graced the sofa. However, they don’t always get an easy ride -- they are expected to engage in discussions about the news; Kathy Burke and Sue Perkins are two who made valuable and impassioned contributions.
And when the guests are a part of the news, they get called on it. Three days after the chemical attack in Syria this April, former Labour leader Ed Miliband appeared. The interview began with the tweet “#isitok that Miliband stopped previous action against Assad and left many people to die”. Miliband responded honestly defending his decision, but Brooker dug in further: “I’ve got to ask you, when you’re involved in a big decision like that and you do see some of the images that we’ve seen, is it the sort of thing that does kind of ... does it keep you awake sometimes at night to think about?”
Later, they poked fun at Miliband’s infamous bacon-sandwich-eating picture, inviting him to a photo shoot where he donned a leather jacket and shades and sat on a motorcycle while holding a bacon sandwich. Hills posted the picture on Twitter and encouraged people to share; by the end of the episode, it had been retweeted 17,000 times.
Brooker had already made waves during the 2015 election when, despite his apparent lack of political knowledge, he interviewed Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. They sat across from each other, and Brooker started the interview by asking for a “no bullshit” guarantee; if Brooker sensed a dodgy answer, he would hit a red bullshit button.
The 11-minute interview was filled with questions that, even when delivered humorously, were on point for a political leader up for re-election. In fact, journalist Hugo Rifkind called it the best political interview he’d seen all year:
His first question was “Boris Johnson: statesman or twat?” Clegg didn’t flicker. “Bit more the latter”, he said. Then Brooker asked him whether he preferred David Cameron or George Osborne, and Clegg grimaced and hit the button himself. Then, amid the laughter, things stepped up a gear.
“What Tory policy”, asked Brooker, “do you most agree with?” Clegg wriggled, and talked about the deficit. “On a scale of one to ten, with one being ‘Couldn’t give a toss’ and ten being ‘Literally cannot sleep at night,’ said Brooker, “how shitty do you feel about what you did with the tuition fees?” And Clegg wriggled again, and waffled, and Brooker slapped the bullshit button, and Clegg shrugged, and went with it, and said “nine and a half”. Thereafter, we learned that he never wished he was actually in coalition with Labour, but was a bit of a fan of Douglas Alexander. Then he called a former Gove adviser a “wanker”, and agreed that he quite often wanted to give David Cameron a slap. ("How Alex Brooker Made Political Interviews Interesting Again", The Spectator, 7 February 2015)
So political humour is definitely a key part of the show and thus so is anger. So much so, that on the show’s YouTube channel, there is a playlist called “Adam Hill’s Rants”. One of the most dramatic and meaningful rants came in 2014 after the death of Robin Williams, who Hills had once worked with. The show’s tribute included a clip from an Australian interview, and when the cameras cut back to Hills, he was struggling: “I’ll be honest, I’m a little bit shattered this week, I’m feeling really... I’m taking it kind of hard, because he was my comedy hero. And I think the only thing we can do is keep remembering him. So that’s what I’d like you to do tonight,” asking for viewers to tweet their memories to share throughout the show.
They discussed some of the media’s reactions to his death, which allowed Hills to do a few spot-on Williams imitations. Believe it or not, this segued nicely into a discussion of Iraq and then a tweet about the Westboro Baptist Church’s threat to picket Robin Williams’ funeral. And that’s when the rant kicked in. Using a few choice words, Hills suggested if the WBC really wanted to stand up to those threatening the Christian way of life, “how about putting your money where your mouth is and taking a direct flight to Iraq and picketing the people threatening to behead Christians if they don’t convert.” And suddenly, he found himself offering to “personally pay for every member of the Westboro Baptist Church to fly to Iraq right now -- I’ll even send you first class and pay the carbon offset.”
While his rage was appropriate, watching the rant also felt like watching a man going through the anger stage of grief. The WBC’s being what it is, though, things did not end there.
The following week, Hills mentioned that the WBC had tweeted the show, saying they had accepted the challenge. He’d looked into tickets and had discussed the issue with both the UK and US governments (who weren’t very happy about his “sending professional shit-stirrers into a warzone”). However, the WBC wasn’t taking no for answer and kept tweeting. This made Hills realise the group was getting off on the attention, using him to spread their message.
And this is when The Last Leg introduced the concept of hope.
The shock and anger shifted when Hills decided he “didn’t want to fight hate with hate.” Taking inspiration from the humanitarian group Planting Peace, he decided to use the money to support one of Robin Williams’ favorite charities, St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. He tweeted the link to the donation page, asking people to share, and encouraging viewers who’d previously said they’d chip in for plane tickets to make donations. The team raised almost $111,000 helped by a huge donation from Adam, Josh, and Alex.
In the last year or so, rants seem to have become more frequent as the political climate has become more divisive. Some may argue that the rants have a left-wing bias, but I disagree. There’s been a conservative-led government or coalition for the entirety of the show’s run, so what’s seen as an anti-Tory rant is often simply a plea to those in power. They also have no qualms about taking on politicians from any party. In fact, Hills expressed disappointment in Justin Trudeau, whom he’d previously admitted to having a bit of a crush on. (Brooker said, “I told you -- this man isn’t as perfect as you think. You love too hard.”)
Obviously, none of the three is a UKIP member, but the politic angle really is less about pitting one side against another, and more about uniting and supporting communities. They’ve addressed proposed disability cuts, election and referendum campaigns and results, and mass shootings and terrorist attacks.
Each time, though, the shock, sadness, and anger morphed into positivity.
Possibly the most moving example of hope was broadcast recently. The UK had a rough start to summer: the Manchester Arena bombing on 22 May, the London Bridge attack on 3 June, a divisive general election on 8 June, and the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June. On 16 June, the one-year anniversary of MP Jo Cox’s murder, The Last Leg had a “Re-United Kingdom” special as part of the Great Get Together, a campaign honouring Cox’s life and celebrating her message that the British people “have far more in common than that which divides us”.
The two-hour long live show was all about people coming together: political foes entered the Lift of Reconciliation; celebrities offered personal apologies (in a video featuring Hills and co. dancing to Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”); and a rumble between the newsreaders from Channel 4, ITN, and Sky was disrupted. Instead of #isitok, the hashtag for the night was #makeitok, encouraging viewers to heal relationships.
The outside street party featured music from Manchester bands Elbow and the Courteeners and chats with members of the public who had overcome their differences or made a difference to their communities. Inside, guests discussed recent events and what’s needed to unify the country. Politicians remembered Jo Cox, including via a video clip of four former prime ministers (John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron) paying tribute.
And, of course, there was silliness. Spats were ended with a shared soak in a hot tub. Former MP Ed Balls did his 'Gangnam Style' dance (for the last time ever, he promised). Nick Clegg (who’d lost his seat the week before) buried the hatchet with Alex Brooker (but smashed an egg on his head first).
Political comedy doesn’t make the bad things go away. Anger, fear, and sadness are often justifiable and healthy to experience. But so is hope, which is much, much harder to find right now. I am grateful that Adam Hills, Alex Brooker, and Josh Widdicombe have it and are willing to share it. They make a difference.