If there was a running gag throughout this week’s Chaser, it was Andrew Hanson’s furious letter-writer character Phillip Harley of Adelaide complaining about how the the show wasn’t attacking enough religious groups. The Harley character has usually popped-up once or twice in each episode of the current series to complain about various non-issues, but it was only in this episode that there was a bit more to the story.
Of course, irate letter-writing wowsers of this ilk are not new in comedy, and were dotted throughout shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974) and the BBC radio comedy I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again (1964-1973). In some cases, such characters were not only easily identifiable characters guaranteed to generate laughs, but a useful device for attacking critics. So it was in the case of Phillip Harley this week; he wasn’t just any old irate letter-writing wowser – he was Gerard Henderson.
Henderson, Director of the right-wing think thank The Sydney Institute and a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, has been waging war against The Chaser for almost two years now, although it wasn’t always thus. The cover story of Issue #30 of the Sydney Institute Quarterly (February 2007), ABC Comedy – No Laughing Matter, saw Henderson attack “leftist” bias in The Glass House and Clarke & Dawe. In contrast, Henderson praised The Chaser’s War on Everything:
…there is no clear reason why comedy programs on the public broadcaster should be exempt from presenting a plurality of views. This is currently the case with the irreverent Chaser team as was evident in its recent The Chaser’s War on Everything series – which is happy to lambast conservatives and leftists, Christians and Muslims alike.
Presumably to test whether Henderson really thought an unbiased “plurality of views” should be represented in their programme, the Chaser team gate-crashed a gathering of The Sydney Institute a month or so later, although this prank never actually made it to air and its content has never been disclosed. Reasons for the decision not to air the prank, or include it as an extra on one of the CWOE DVDs, are unclear – insert your own conspiracy theory here – but in the furore following The Chaser’s APEC stunt, some six months later, Henderson wrote a furious article attacking the Chaser team in which he gave his side of the story:
Mark Scott is shaping up as one of the ABC’s best managing directors. Even so, he has made no formal statement about The Chaser’s APEC stunt. In the past, Scott has defended unlawful activities by The Chaser. I raised with Scott in March the fact that the troupe had unlawfully gatecrashed a booked-out Sydney Institute function and trespassed on private property. I was subsequently informed in writing by Scott in April that such stunts were approved by the ABC and to expect more of the same.
Presumably Henderson’s constant calling for an unbiased approach to satire did not apply to himself or his institution, and he appeared to have felt so betrayed by the Chaser team that he said in the same article that they had “moved to embrace fashionable leftist causes” (these presumably being such non-issues as a fence being erected around half of Sydney so that a few world leaders could meet up for a chin-wag), and took to e-mailing their fans in the media, as Mike Carlton reported in a column the following month:
…he [Henderson] has taken to sending me tetchy emails attacking my enthusiasm for The Chaser’s War on Everything.
“Perhaps this kind of adolescent humour appeals particularly to the likes of you and the so-called Chaser ‘boys’ who, as I understand it, were educated in the Sydney Protestant or non-denominational private school culture,” he barked last week.” I went to a Catholic school where we were encouraged not to kick down at those who are less educated or less well-off or recently departed.”
Nothing like a bit of sectarian gunfire in what the right so archly likes to think of as the culture wars. When I replied that Julian Morrow, the Chaser’s executive producer, had actually been educated by the Jesuits at St Aloysius, Gerard was unmoved.
“I doubt that there were many Jesuits teaching at St Aloysius when Julian Morrow went there,” he snapped back.
Henderson, if you’re not aware, is a rather staunch Catholic and has written extensively on the religion, but – again betraying his anti-bias doctrine – doesn’t seem to take too kindly to anyone mocking it. This is perhaps why he’s been hammering away about The Chaser’s recent blimp stunt at the Vatican ever since it was first reported in May (before the stunt had aired and before anyone – including Henderson – knew of its contents). He blasted the team for it on his Media Watch Dog blog and offered helpful suggestions for how the team could attack other religions, going so far as to start a campaign – his idea of a running joke, presumably – to raise money from his readership to “send The Boys to Mecca to mock the Prophet.” In his latest blog, Henderson reminds readers that “Body bags for the return trip home have already been secured”, with the sort of adolescent glee he likes to condemn The Chaser for displaying.
Which brings us back to this week’s episode of the CWOE and Gerard Henderson’s – sorry, Phillip Harley’s – constant complaints throughout the episode that the team weren’t attacking enough different religions. A sketch about the Israeli military over-reacting to everything led to complaints from Harley that The Chaser never attacked anyone apart from Christians and Jews, so the team responded with a segment in which they played clips of extremist Middle Eastern television. After more complaints from Harley that The Chaser never attacked the Hindus, they outsourced the rest of show to India, where an Indian version of Chris Taylor’s cracked pepper waiter offered people mango chutney, and a Citizen’s Infringement Officer handed-out fines for turbans in Mumbai. Harley ultimately remained unsatisfied, demanding The Chaser attack Jedi.
In terms of the quality of the satire and comedy, this was typical Chaser stuff: occasionally funny, a smattering of good satirical points, but ultimately poorly executed and reliant on too many pranks. It also did nothing that would ever satisfy Henderson; he’d made it quite clear on his blog that he wouldn’t be happy unless the team went to an undemocratic country, like Saudi Arabia, and did something genuinely dangerous, like attack the Prophet Mohammed. Of the extremist Middle Eastern TV item he said “the ABC studio in Ultimo is a much safer environment than, say, Mecca. So this didn’t take much courage.”
Of course, The Chaser will never go on Henderson’s mission to Mecca, and he knows it. He deliberately set them a challenge he knew they wouldn’t – and couldn’t – undertake. And apart from ignoring Henderson, or going directly for him (which they’d previously tried and failed), there was nothing The Chaser could do but try and placate him with this kind of compromise, which just ended up like looking like a win for Henderson. It’s ironic that Henderson spends so much time complaining about media bias against his viewpoint, when people in the media on his side of the fence can, and will, continue to force anyone who doesn’t agree with them into impossible corners. For him, slagging off The Chaser every week, and then watching them attempt to get one over him with their usual weak satire, was an easy win – one which doesn’t take much courage.