On JJJ a few weeks back, while talking up his upcoming ABC television series, John Safran described it as being full of pranks and making fun of people – basically, “everything people don’t want in comedy anymore”. And he has a point: according to various opinion-makers, gone is our former love for all things “shocking” and “confrontational”, replaced in 2009 by a kinder, gentler laff-riot. The proof? The barrage of hate directed at The Chaser for their Make-A-Realistic-Wish sketch, followed by the howls of outrage directed at Kyle and Jackie O (but mostly Kyle) for the duo’s teen rape lie detector stunt. Actually, on the other side of the ledger there’s the rise of Talkin’ ‘bout Your Generation, which supposedly signals the dawning of a new age of “fun” comedy, but around these parts we like to call that kind of show by its proper name: good comedy.
What’s actually interesting about this new wave of superfun happy slide comedy – let’s not forget the halfway decent Laurence Leung’s Choose Your Own Adventure as another example of this new wave, even if pretty much everyone else already has – is that the supposedly positive side of this trend has barely made a ripple in the media. Remember when the “shocking” and “controversial” comedies like The Chaser’s War on Everything and Summer Heights High were all the rage? The press wouldn’t shut the hell up about them, to such an extent that The Chaser might as well have been working for A Current Affair and Today Tonight they appeared on both so often. Talkin’ ‘bout Your Generation might be hitting similar rating highs, but Shaun Micallef is going to have to out himself as a sex pest if he wants to make it onto A Current Affair in this lifetime.
In contrast, the negative side of this latest comedy trend has been front page news for days on end. Part of that – a large part – is that neither The Chaser or Kyle appear on Seven and Nine, the networks who do have attack dog current affairs shows ready to take down anyone who doesn’t conform to their idea of social values. Another part is that Melbourne’s Herald-Sun has, over the last year or so (roughly since, if my memory serves me correctly, a particularly well-respected Editor-in-Chief was given the arse after falling foul of Rupert Murdoch’s sister) gone downmarket in a rapid way to the point where pretty much every front page is given over to some kind of moral outrage campaign. With The Chaser having built their careers on being “shocking”, and Kyle being so damn easy to hate (and working out of Sydney, so with no Melbourne advertisers to offend), they were both dead in the tabloid media’s sights, just waiting for them to do… well, whatever it was that had earned them so much praise a few years ago.
The point of all this is that out in the real world there has been no change in what kinds of comedy Australians actually want to watch. The Chaser’s ratings were soft, but the show had been hit-and-miss for a long time. Kyle was hated by many for acting like an arrogant prick every single chance he could grab, but his radio show still rated well and it’s not as if tacky, offensive stunts were anything new on their show (as Media Watch pointed out) or in the Australian media in general.
Make no mistake, Kyle and Jackie O’s show was a flaming bag of FM-friendly turds dumped daily on the doorstep of radio listeners. But Current Affairs shows have been turning up on (for example) the doorsteps of “the tenants from hell” and hounding them down the street before cutting back to the studio to start stage two of a targeted hate campaign since at least the early 1990s and all we ever heard from the rest of the media was the occasional heavy sigh. Why then was this arguably equally moronic and only mildly more evil radio segment enough to have people calling for the sacking of everyone who even owns a radio capable of being tuned to Kyle and Jackie O? What’s really going on here?
To make one thing clear, it’s not like there was a massive ground-swell of serious community anger over Kyle and Jackie O’s crap. By which I mean, we didn’t see any staged protests and active consumer boycotts: emails, talkback radio, letters to the editor and blogs don’t count – it takes more effort to collect your mail. Remember when Get This was axed? They actually had people physically protesting outside Austereo stations nationwide (tho’ mostly in Melbourne) demanding it be re-instated and… nothing happened.
So if that level of public commitment to a cause can’t change anything, what makes anyone think that limp internet-based “community outrage” got Kyle and Jackie O taken off the air? All that we’re seeing with The Chaser and with Kyle (tho’ it’d be a lot more obvious if the order had been reversed) is an increased willingness on the part of the crappier end of the mainstream media to go in fast and hard over even the slightest transgression of what they believe to be “community values” until employers and advertisers cave in. The public doesn’t get a look in.
But so what if it’s just the media pressuring other parts of the media: we’ve had a good few years of “shocking” comedies pushing society’s limits, so it’s not really much of a surprise that the pendulum has started to swing back. It’s how far it’s going to swing back that’s the worry: what if these increasingly rabid sections of the media suddenly decide that a radio or TV personality that is actually funny has “gone too far”? Judging by the fates of both Kyle and The Chaser we can expect yet another rapid cave-in on behalf of their employers whoever they may be.
To draw an example from real life, remember the various scandals they tried to whip up about Summer Heights High involving that real-life teen who died from a drug overdose in much the same way as the one Mr. G was calling “a slut”? Back in 2007 no-one gave a shit and the story died out fast: I have a sneaking suspicion that if something similar happened today we’d see the front of the Herald-Sun screaming “Lilley spat in the face of a dead teen”. Whatever you might think of Lilley’s work, that’d be a bad thing for comedy. Because this new trend in Australian comedy isn’t about a kinder, gentler laff-riot: it’s about slapping down hard anyone who steps out of line. And isn’t stepping out of line what comedy is supposed to be all about?