A recent article which appeared in the Herald-Sun and various other Murdoch-owned newspapers and websites argued that The Chaser had “gone soft”, “looked tentative” and was now taking “aim at some easy targets”. “Like all episodes of The Chaser, there was just as many misses as bullseyes” said authors Colin Vickery and Patrick Horan. They concluded:
In the current environment The Chaser seems a bit old hat – a sort of comedy version of Gordon Ramsay, whose foul-mouthed tirades seem so 2007. Who knows whether they can get their mojo back, and even if they do, whether anyone will care.
It’s hard to not ask where Vickery and Horan were during the first two series of The Chaser’s War on Everything, or even the first two episodes of the current series. Looking tentative and taking aim at easy targets has been the CWOE’s stock in trade throughout its entire run, with large numbers of their sketches being neither funny, satirical, topical, well-judged or original. Last Wednesday’s episode, by contrast, was an improvement, at least in the first half of the show.
The episode started with a quick mention of the “Make A Realistic Wish” scandal before swiftly turning to Kevin ‘I didn’t see the sketch, but I was told it wasn’t very nice’ Rudd, the government’s media management style (making it hard for journalists to cover events; arranging for minders to stand behind spokespeople and nod at what they say) and Rudd’s notorious temper. This section was funny and made some good satirical points. A sketch which appeared a little later in the programme, where Julian Morrow asked a priest to join him in a prayer that the Catholic church, having committed the modern mortal sin of “accumulating excess wealth”, would be saved, was similarly praiseworthy. But thereafter, the quality dipped to what, sadly, has been the CWOE’s usual level.
There was the weak sketch which wondered what would happen if sports-style commentaries were applied to shows like Lateline, followed by a long and dull attempt to get free travel around the UK by dressing up as The Stig. The show ended with another “what would happen if…” sketch, although this one asked boxers not to fight by punching each other, but by using modern counselling techniques. Even the punchline to this, where the boxers realised the counsellor was the guy from the “Make A Realistic Wish” sketch and decided to go him with a chair, fell a little flat.
But the good sketches from this episode had their problems too. The press has been talking about Rudd’s anger management issues for months, the Catholic church’s list of modern mortal sins was first reported in the media more than a year ago, and that cameraman are now interviewing politicians in place of journalists was first reported by Media Watch weeks ago. Even if they were amusing and well made good points, is there much point in airing them well after their topicality has passed? And more to the point, why weren’t The Chaser striving to make different observations about what’s happening in the news, rather than taking relatively recent news stories and re-tooling them into a lame pranks?
Originality and daring have never been their strong point in the CWOE, though. Compare the stilted, been-through-so-many-lawyers-it’s-not-funny-anymore linking material in any episode of the CWOE to the often shambolic, but always funny interludes on The Late Show. And speaking of The Late Show, it’s one of the many series keen-eyed comedy fans have accused The Chaser of ripping off. Others include:
In more recent allegations of ripping-off other comedians, Media Watch (among others) have pointed out that Foxtel’s The Mansion did a similar sketch to “Make A Realistic Wish” last year. And the other day Shaun Micallef reminded readers of the Sydney Morning Herald that he and Gary McCaffrie had written a sketch for The Micallef Programme in which a dying child had contacted the Make A Wish Foundation and requested to be masturbated by Lisa McCune.
Micallef added that The Chaser’s Chris Taylor had offered Newstopia the “Make Realistic A Wish” sketch last year, but:
Micallef turned the sketch down but not because it wasn’t funny. “It makes you laugh; it is funny.” He turned it down because he didn’t want to repeat himself and he’d decided his character “wasn’t going to be that nasty any more”. He also admits he “couldn’t really think of a way to justify it”.
What Micallef seemed to hinting at was that the major problem with the “Make A Realistic Wish” sketch was that it was misfocused. It certainly seems unlikely that The Chaser team hate children or think dying kids are selfish as the tabloid press and current affairs show have hinted, poor writing is far more likely. My theory is that the sketch was based on the notion that it would be amusing if the Make A Wish Foundation ran out of cash and could only afford to give dying kids cheap gifts. Unfortunately, what appeared on the screen was not, say, a Make A Wish representative going up to a dying child and trying to fob them off with a stick or a pencil case (thus making the baddie in the sketch the cheapskate Make A Wish representative, rather than the dying kid), but a spoof ad with a voice-over man saying lines like “…curbing their extravagance and greed…”, which made it look like The Chaser were saying that sick and dying kids who wanted to meet celebrities or go on overseas trips are nasty little takers milking people’s sympathy.
Shaun Micallef also told the SMH: “Self-censorship is a really insidious thing and I hope it doesn’t affect their writing”, a very generous statement given that self-censorship (as well as lack of focus) have always been the biggest problems in the CWOE. During the later part of the Howard years, when the show was supposedly in its prime, The Chaser spent far more time making sketches involving the Surprise Spruiker, the Citizen’s Infringement Officer or the Crazy Rug Warehouse Guy, than they did satirising politicians or government policy. And when they did satirise government policy it always seemed toothless, like they were more interested in the fact that John Howard went power walking every morning and that was kinda goofy, rather than that he was trying to reduce the earnings of the average Australian, had engaged the country in two unjustified wars, was doing bugger all about global warming and wouldn’t apologise to the Stolen Generation.
And yet it has only been during the current series, when the quality of the show has been about the same as ever, and it’s been kinda clear that this would be the final series of the show anyway, that commentators and fans have tentatively suggested that The Chaser are past their prime. Whether this is part of the same “neutrality and balance/please don’t sue us” trend that seems to prevent The Chaser from doing any decent satire at all, or just that they can’t see the wood for the trees I’ll leave you to judge, but one thing’s for sure – as the Herald-Sun, Shaun Micallef and everyone else has noted, they still rate and that’s, seemingly, all that matters.