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A bar mitzvah was the last formal experience of Lynn’s Jewish education. Though he played drums in jazz bands and sought out the oddball crowd in school, he did not escape the fact of his Jewishness, nor the casual anti-Semitism common to British life in that era. “It wasn’t vicious,” Lynn said, shrugging. “They just didn’t know any better.”
At Cambridge, he said, being Jewish was not an issue: “It’s an educated, literate, tolerant place.” There he joined the 120-year old dramatic society the Footlights Club, along with future Monty Python-ites Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and John Cleese. His stage-acting experience led to writing and directing. He eventually teamed up with writer Jay to create “Yes, Minister,” the BBC series that ran from 1980 to 1984, and its sequel, “Yes, Prime Minister,” which ran from 1986 to 1988. Lynn revived the series for a new season earlier this year. But if you call it topical satire, you’ll get an argument from its co-creator, who sees his work following more in the literary humor tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis.
“Satire is a mode of wit or humor designed to change society,” Lynn said, adding, deadpan, “Tony and I write comedy.” The effect was an evergreen topicality, as the episodes of “Yes, Prime Minister” were written a year in advance of airing. By not aiming their barbs at today’s headlines, Lynn and his co-writer also avoided certain comedic disasters. “We avoided IRA jokes, for example,” Lynn said. “You never knew if a bomb might go off on the night the show aired.”
“Topicality is an illusion,” in Lynn’s view, “and the issues are the same as always.” Except for a few lines, “Yes, Prime Minister” has not been updated or adapted for American audiences. “I hope that they will laugh a lot,” Lynn said, “and they will recognize the truth about government — not just the British, but American government, as well.”
Rex Weiner is the Forward’s West Coast correspondent.