Sam Simmons must be kicking himself. If only he’d done The Urban Monkey with Murray Foote in blackface, people might be actually talking about it now. Instead… well, pretty much nothing. Which, let’s be fair, it what it deserves: it’s not all that good. But even if it was the most amazingly hysterical comedy made in this country to date, chances are you wouldn’t hear much about it in the media. Because in 2009 in Australia, comedy no longer equals funny: it equals OUTRAGE.
How do I know this? Because comedy shows told me so. Hungry Beast crapped on about the nature of OUTRAGE just last week. Ryan Shelton’s latest segment on Rove had a bunch of jokes about the dangers of stirring up OUTRAGE, followed up by Rove hosting an OUTRAGE segment titled “PC or not PC”. And The Jesters – which is about a Chasers War on Everything-style show, making OUTRAGE it’s bread and butter – has made plenty of gags about the need to stir up OUTRAGE to get press.
Even if I wasn’t foolishly watching every Australian comedy show I could lay my hands on, a brief flick through the papers or listen to talkback radio over the last few months would have provided me with a steady stream of comedy-related OUTRAGE, from minor flutters like the Hungry Beast “netball rape” promo and the Double Take school bullying sketch to flow-blown shoutfests like The Chaser’s “Make a Realistic Wish Foundation” sketch and John Safran’s African-American impersonation. And yeah, I guess that Hey Hey blackface act counts too.
Whatever happened to comedy having to be funny? The one thing that unites every single skit or segment running on OUTRAGE is that they’re not that funny – even the Safran one, which is actually more of an social experiment than a non-stop gagfest. OUTRAGE is the cheap option you go for when you can’t figure out how to get a reaction any other way: no-one in their right mind thinks the OUTRAGE-heavy episodes of The Chaser’s War on Everything were funnier than CNNNN or that the Double Take school bully sketch wasn’t just a collection of tabloid taking points turned on their head. As for the the Hey Hey skit, there should have been a public OUTRAGE simply because it was completely pointless and laugh-free on every level. Unless you find blackface funny in and of itself, in which case I believe Channel Nine is currently hiring.
But in 2009, for whatever reason – slow news year, a lack of political power forcing conservatives to strike out in other areas, The Chaser pissing in the pool and ruining it for everyone else, the ABC press department thinking that stirring shit up is the only way to get people tuning in – it’s increasingly assumed that comedy is setting out to OUTRAGE. Which is bad news for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, as previously mentioned, OUTRAGE makes for crap comedy. It’s possible to laugh because something has gone too far, but if you’re just trying to go too far chances are you’re not going to make people laugh. It’s hard enough to get our television writers and producers to do one thing right; distract them from the goal of getting laughs and chances are they’re not going to even come close to raising a chuckle. Or put another way, rating-wise the biggest comedy hits of this year – Talkin’ ‘bout Your Generation and the most recent series of Thank God You’re Here – didn’t OUTRAGE anyone. Though TGYH’s increasing tiredness should have.
More importantly, with comedy now well established as a breeding ground for OUTRAGE, it’s that much more difficult for decent comedians to mine sensitive areas for laughs. It’s perfectly possible to get laughs from putting a white person in blackface – Bean is a Carrot has mentioned here that getting comedy writers to perform their own material where possible is the best way to make it work, and doing impressions of specific individuals shouldn’t be confined by race (amongst other things, blackface is a generic insult to all people of colour, dismissing an entire race as identical figures of fun) – but with fingers constantly hovering over the OUTRAGE button even a clearly well-thought out and justifiable effort like Safran’s is going to bring down a media shitstorm.
[that said, the tabloids’ interest in Safran’s new show might actually help him. After all the build-up to how outraged we’ll all be once we see it, anything less than riots in the streets will be an anti-climax for The Herald Sun and its ilk. And even if people do complain en masse, the ABC can turn around and say “hey, it’s not like you didn’t know what you were in for after three weeks of wall-to-wall coverage – why should we take you seriously when you clearly just tuned in to piss yourself off?”]
Sadly, it seems increasingly clear that even as shit comedians push harder and harder for bigger and bigger doses of OUTRAGE (and who could forget The Ronnie Johns Half-Hour actually sending out press releases complaining that their “Jesus” character wasn’t causing enough OUTRAGE in the community during their second season? Clearly we all had some perspective on things back then), the comedians who just want to make people laugh – AKA the good ones – will shy away from controversial topics. Partly because OUTRAGE isn’t what they do, and partly because when people are full of OUTRAGE, they’re usually not laughing. And once upon a time, laughing was what comedy was all about.