What The Day Today Got (Depressingly) Right

Now 30 years old, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris’ satirical news comedy was brilliant, prescient nonsense.

Chris Morris in The Day Today
Photo: TalkBack Productions/BBC

The Day Today was making Fake News its business long before it was even a twinkle in Donald Trump’s eye. Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris’ TV translation of their On the Hour BBC Radio 4 series parodied the gravely serious, scare-mongering, hyperbolic news style of the early 1990s with absurd, nonsensical headlines: “Portillo’s teeth removed to boost Pound. Exploded cardinal preaches sermon from fish tank. And where now for man raised by puffins?”

With a comedy team including Steve Coogan (who road-tested Alan Partridge on TV for the first time here), Rebecca Front, David Schneider and Doon Mackichan, the show didn’t aim to hoodwink its audience or even the public figures in the news (that would come later, with the celeb-goring Brass Eye), the target was the news itself. And if speaking truth to power is the essence of good satire, then the target doesn’t come much more powerful than the media, and satires don’t come much better than The Day Today.

It’s natural to wonder if, in amongst all the laugh-out-loud surrealist nuggets and razor-sharp media skewering, there aren’t a few flights of fancy that over the three decades since The Day Today’s 1994 debut, became a reality?

A Criminal Parrot

The Day Today frequently merged serious scenarios with outrageous what-ifs to produce hilarious reflections of our media-framed world. Some of these blends had real-life antecedents, or else contained some kernel of truth, by accident or design. “Branson’s clockwork dog crosses Atlantic floor” positioned the Virgin boss as an tech ‘explorerpreneur’ a decade before Virgin Galactic was founded.

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One segment asked: what if dentists were forced to behave like prostitutes, and spend their nights plying their trade illegally on the street to sore-mouthed motorists? Well, street dentistry, legal and otherwise, has long been a feature of the developing world, particularly in India, and even last year a man in  Milford, Massachusetts was arrested for operating an illegal, unlicensed dental practice out of the back of a convenience store.

Did you laugh at The Day Today’s black-and-white look-back at Great Britain’s last televised hanging, complete with archetypal 1950s Received Pronunciation presenter? “Yes, yes, the lights have gone out, it’s a perfect drop.” Would it surprise you to learn that in the United States debates have continued to rage about broadcasting executions to the masses?  

To go little more left-field: has a parrot ever been arrested? Well, it has in The Day Today: kidnapped by the constabulary, brutally handcuffed and restrained around the ankles by Sellotape. What about in real life, though? Yes and no. Mainly ‘no’, in all honesty, because it’s impossible to arrest an animal in any real legal sense of the word (although the people of Hartlepool once reputedly tried and hanged a shipwrecked monkey, believing it to be a French spy – which is a line that sounds like it was written by Armando Iannucci, despite being recorded in historical legend). But also ‘yes’, because a real-life example exists that’s just similar enough to serve as a match.

In 2019, Brazilian police officers seized and detained a parrot they suspected of being a look-out for local drug gangs. The felonious polly had been trained to shout ‘Mom, police!’ loudly and insistently whenever it spotted their distinctive uniforms or movements. The hapless creature was taken to the local police station, where it was detained for several days while officers tried to crack it. The bird refused to talk.

Art Theft  

In a section called Genutainment, presenter Remedy Malahide (the inestimable Rebecca Front) cues CCTV footage of a bank robbery being carried out by a mime trio with a fondness for interpretative dance. Regrettably, there aren’t any real-world examples to be found of pawn shops being robbed by renegade Morris dancers, or the local Barbershop Quartet being arrested for fencing butcher meat and doing it in co-ordinated song. But real-life did eventually catch up with The Day Today in 2015 when former professor and avant garde odd-ball Joe Gibbons offered the world and the judge at his trial – a bank robbery with an artistic twist.

Joe filmed himself as he robbed a branch of the Capital One Bank in Manhattan. He used neither firearm nor bizarre dance move in the commission of his crime, electing instead to slide the teller a note which simply read: THIS IS A ROBBERY. This minimalist statement was enough to see Joe leave with about $1,000, which later exploded, covering Joe and his notes with a Smurf’s worth of blue ink.

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His defence in court was that the crime had been a piece of performance art designed to comment on the condition of his relative poverty. Had he been caught speeding, he probably would’ve sought exoneration on the grounds that he was trying to highlight the dire existential consequences of showing too much haste in life. Joe was sentenced to a year in jail. It was a sentence that led to many other sentences, good sentences: ones that were written down about him in newspapers all around the world. Serving time must have been tough for Joe, but the publicity couldn’t have hurt. And has the news itself ever shied away from monetising tragedy?           

Taking the Piss

Episode one featured a throwaway headline about a Yorkshire-woman who’d been fatally impaled by a shard of frozen urine that had fallen from the undercarriage of a passing aeroplane – complete with a picture of the final result. It was one of the show’s more brutal and ridiculous visual gags, and not one many people would’ve predicted would one day return to enter into posterity. A still-frame from the episode resurfaced in 2017, this time weaponised in meme form, where it toured the internet on a mission to convince untold numbers of incredulous people that this tragic death-by-stalactital-pee-pee had genuinely occurred. Things got so out of hand that fact-checking website Snopes had to weigh in with a permanent shrine to the picture’s true origins. File that one under ‘T’, for taking the piss.

Life, though, so often imitates art – if you can get onboard with describing pee-based comedy as ‘art’ – and thus it proved in 2015 when a falling 7-inch block of frozen expulsions (poo included this time, unfortunately) smashed a hole through the roof of a retired couple in Wiltshire. Thankfully, no one was harmed, although, as the lady of the house gravely reminded the press: ‘It happened around 9am, so only a short time after mums and dads were walking their children to school… It could have easily hit some of them.’ Snopes may one day have to work hard to convince people that this event actually took place, and wasn’t just another sketch from The Day Today.  

‘Fact’ times ‘Importance’ equals NEWS

In one memorable short The Day Today parodied MTV with Rok TV, hilariously presaging the age of mass celebrity sell-out by giving us a version of Nirvana who’d reworked their most famous hit to advertise sanitary towels. But most prescient of all was the act of making Elastoplast the in-world sponsor of Rok TV news. This sort of corporate cash-grab of the news media has real-world corollaries, deftly highlighted by John Oliver and his Last Week Tonight team (and if that isn’t a name that pays homage to The Day Today, then I don’t know what is) when they managed to smuggle an advertorial for a bogus sexual-wellness blanket onto the airwaves of several US local news shows, without scrutiny or follow-up.     

The show also ‘predicted’ broader sea-changes in society. The yoof-TV-spoof ‘Dealing with Dad’, in which a duo of hyperactive adolescents crafts a cheery, Pinterest-style vlog on how to dispose of a deceased relative, is almost an assembly-guide for the sorts of ubiquitous modern-day zany YouTube videos parents have long questioned if their young children should be watching. And the short in which members of a family spend their days with camera-phones strapped to their heads so as not to miss any of the minutiae of their angry, shallow lives perfectly encapsulates where we’ve long been heading with social media.  

“The Extremity Became Reality”

In general, though, the world proved more absurd and borderline bonkers in the years following 1994 than any of the team could have predicted. Speaking to Huckmag in 2019, writer and performer Patrick Marber (who played, among many other roles, beleaguered journalist Peter O’Hanrahanrahan) said:

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“We were reaching for an extremity that would be both credible yet shocking and funny, then the extremity became reality. If we had done a sketch about an American president who wanted to build a giant wall to keep Mexicans out, we would’ve said, ‘No, it’s too comedy, it’s too silly.’ The early 90s now seem like a rather lovely and innocent time.”

Unfortunately, far from The Day Today ‘reforming’ the news media by holding up a mirror to its worst excesses and manipulations, in the view of Marber those excesses have only grown more craven and pronounced. “If we had invented a right-wing news channel at the time and cut live to what Fox [News] is now, it would have seemed over the top.”

30 years later, would a comedy like The Day Today even be distinguishable from the ‘real’ thing?