Sir Antony Jay has died at age 86. Jay is best known as the co-writer, along with Jonathan Lynn, of the beloved television shows Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. To be honest, I knew next to nothing about Jay's life prior to his death, and to remedy that I recommend the Telegraph's fine obituary.
However, I am quite familiar with Jay's work. The show was something of an instant classic in the U.K. when it started airing in 1980, and its reputation certainly got a boost when then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher publicly called it her favorite show. In the pre-internet era, however, the was remained virtually unknown in the U.S. But its greatness could not be denied. It slowly attracted a cult following in the U.S. over years of late-night re-runs on PBS stations.
Its influence can be directly felt in the best of today's political comedy; if you've ever seen Veep know that creator Arnando Ianucci's hilarious show is standing on the shoulders of Jay and Lynn (as were Ianucci's prior forays into making fun of British politics, The Thick of It and In the Loop.)
However, Ianucci mines much of his humor from absurd comedic situations and venal characters. The signature achievement of Yes, Minister was not just that it was hilarious. It was downright educational. In fact, as someone who writes about politics for a living, one of the resources I keep close at hand is a volume of the scripts from the show. The show actually explains politics in a way that is broadly applicable to any number of situations. Take this classic bit from the first season of Yes, Prime Minister the where they explain the "Standard Foreign Office response in a time of crisis":
Bernard Woolley: What if the Prime Minister insists we help them? Sir Humphrey Appleby: Then we follow the four-stage strategy. Bernard Woolley: What's that? Sir Richard Wharton: Standard Foreign Office response in a time of crisis. Sir Richard Wharton: In stage one we say nothing is going to happen. Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it. Sir Richard Wharton: In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there's nothing we *can* do. Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it's too late now.
If you're a political junkie, you've probably witnessed scores of foreign policy scenarios play out exactly like that four stage process. As the years go on, the show hasn't lost an ounce of relevance. Watch this bit from Yes, Minister where they explain the bizarre contradictions involved in countries joining the European Economic Community, the predecessor to the EU:
In the wake of Brexit, that clip started making the rounds on the internet, and no wonder, because it looks downright prophetic.
And here's another classic bit that explains the media landscape.
That extended joke at the end is so on the money, when I got my first job at a major daily newspaper, one of the editorial writers explained to me the U.S. newspaper hierarchy using the American version of it: The Wall Street Journal is read by the people that run the country, the New York Times is read by the people that think they run the country, the Washington Post is read by the people that think they ought to run the country, and USA Today is read by the people that think they ought to run the country, but don't understand the Washington Post.
But it's worth noting that Yes, Minister explained politics so clearly and accurately because it started with the assumption that the process was corrupting and those involved in it were not just deeply flawed and self-interested, they were continuously oblivious to these shortcomings. As a pragmatic matter, if you're looking to make sense of things, this is the best frame to apply to politics with the vast majority of the time.
But because this skepticism of human nature is often associated with conservatism, Hollywood has increasingly defaulted to laughably earnest portrayals of politics that reek of good intentions and promise a better world through legislation. I recognize that the West Wing was a well-written show, but having spent nearly 20 years in Washington, let me assure you that Aaron Sorkin's political worldview is to politics what pornography is to sex: A fantasy that stokes unrealistic expectations and ultimately leads to real-world disappointment.
Yes, Minister was the anti-West Wing. It was always absurd, but somehow felt real. As the cliché goes, it was funny because it was true. And because of that, Jay's work will long outlive him. May he rest in peace.