Short Thoughts

This week’s Hungry Beast proved to be more of the same: unfunny sketches and stuff we already knew. (Snack bars for kids are packed full of sugar, apparently. What next? They tell us the world’s round?!) But at least that netball group sex scandal sketch turned out to be a joke (and I don’t say that because I agree with The Daily Telegraph that the sketch was an “outrage” and “poor taste humour” that “raise[s] new questions about the judgement of senior ABC staff” – the only outrage and misjudgements here are that a sketch so unfunny could make it to air), and anyway, as the Hungry Beast team gleefully informed us during the opening to episode 2, the real joke wasn’t that netballers would get themselves caught in such a scandal, it was on us. Ha ha – fooled you! You thought we’d actually do a longer version next week! You idiot! Sucked-in!

Anyone feeling bullied by the show, or patronised by the screaming claxons the team used at several points during episode 2 to indicate that a joke had just been made isn’t alone. There was no indication that the netball group sex sketch might be fake, and with it appearing during the first episode of the show, viewers were not familiar with the style or format of the show and couldn’t reasonably be expected to have spotted that it was a fake. It’s a bit like telling someone from a different culture that in Australia we all take shits in the gutter, and then laughing at them as they do it. And the even bigger crime: the claxons gag wasn’t funny. Still, at least we know the team’s smug arrogance isn’t confined to its better known members, and with said arrogance and smugness on display only seconds in to episode 2, I think we know more than enough about the Hungry Beast team to switch off.

* * *

Another arrogant TV berk who showed his true colours this week was Daryl Somers. My colleague 13 schoolyards has brilliantly picked-apart the blackface scandal, but the news just to hand is that singer Kamahl, so often the victim of racial taunts back in the show’s hey day, is supposedly threatening to sue the show for including an Andrew Fife cartoon of him during the Jackson Jive’s appearance.

“I used to laugh along when I was a guest but deep down I was thinking why are people so unkind? It’s just the same old rubbish.” Kamahl told The Daily Telegraph. “Hey Hey is devoid of any real wit…It’s desperate. It’s toilet humour and it should be flushed.”

* * *

Many Australian comedy fans have been debating the blackface saga online in recent days and one issue which has come up is the long list of comedians who have blacked-up in the past. The Fast Forward team are guilty of this in their parody of The Cosby Show (which isn’t on You Tube, but is in The Fast Forward Book, if you happen to own it); a more recent, and seemingly more obvious comparison to the Jackson Jive, is The Chaser’s ALP, a re-working of the Jackson 5’s ABC which sends-up the move to the right by Labor under Rudd.

Where the Fast Forward and Chaser sketches differ from The Jackson Jive, and what in my view makes them acceptable, however, is that these sketches were accurate and funny send-ups of complex human beings who happened to be Afro-American. The make-up artists took care to give the white performers the correct skin-tones (Steve Vizard as Bill Cosby had darker make-up than Marg Downey as Phylicia Rashad) and the performers impersonated the vocals of whoever they were playing as best they could. In contrast, the medicos involved in the Jackson Jive simply slapped on a bit of boot polish and put on the sort of “happy go-lucky darky” voices associated with the long-dead US theatrical tradition of blackface.

It’s important in my view to draw a very clear distinction between a white person impersonating a black person through the tradition of blackface (which is racist) and a white person impersonating a person who is black and in so doing applying appropriate make-up (which is valid). What makes blackface offensive is that the performance (the voice adopted, the physical mannerisms, the use of language and the mode of speaking) is a grossly-exaggerated stereotype which reflects the true nature of no real black person who has ever lived. The physical features of the stereotype are highlighted, by the performer applying jet-black make-up to their face and accentuating their lips and eyes with bright white make-up, making them look rather like gollywogs.

All blackface performers have this gollywog make-up, and all blackface performers adopt the same voice, physical mannerisms and so forth. Whereas Steve Vizard’s portrayal of Bill Cosby was an accurate parody of Cosby, a blackface performer’s act reflects nothing that it is real, lumping all blacks into one. The implication here is that the performer considers blacks to have so little value that they can’t even be bothered to acknowledge their complexities, their very human nature. This is highly insulting and the tradition of blackface is rightly a dead art. The reason the Jackson Jive caused such a furore throughout the English-speaking world is that they, ignorantly, revived this art.

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