The Nightmare Out Of Time

Here’s a question: what makes the Hey Hey it’s Saturday blackface controversy different from the controversy over The Chaser’s “Make a Realistic Wish Foundation” sketch, or Hungry Beast’s promo for a fake story about netball rape, or the looming global horror that is John Safran’s Race Relations? It might not seem like an important question in the face of the far more obvious Hey Hey question WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING? (that one’s coming up), but as these kind of comedy controversies seem to be becoming a regular feature of the media landscape in 2009 it’s important to figure out exactly what we’re dealing with here.

See, various commentators have been pushing hard the idea that they’re all basically the same thing: well-meaning but misguided types going too far for a laugh. (others have claimed that Australians don’t know that blackface is offensive, or that other countries don’t understand the Aussie sense of humour: these people are wrong in every direction, and can be safely ignored). Occasionally comedy is going to step over the line, they argue – it’s a shame but we should all just pick ourselves up and move on. Sure, Daryl went too far, but don’t get too smug, leftie PC types: The Chaser also went too far and Safran no doubt will go too far as well. So don’t think you can make this more than it is – and anyway, our on-line / phone survey said that at least three quarters of Australians didn’t see any harm in the skit. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

This is, of course, complete bullshit. Here’s a fun fact: three quarters of Australians can be and often are clueless, ignorant twits. And if you think putting a blackface sketch on Australian television in 2009 is “just a bit of harmless fun”, then you sir or madam, are a clueless, ignorant twit, at least as far as this subject goes. Blackface is not making fun of a black individual: blackface is a shameful, disgusting act of cultural exploitation and denigration, treating an entire race as identical for the purposes of dehumanizing them and mocking them. End of story.

Yeah yeah, but but but. There are no buts here: blackface is indefensible in 2009 whichever way you slice it. “But Harry Connick Jr. did a comedy sketch in blackface in 1996”. Was he made up to look like a Golliwog? No? Then it’s not the same thing (and gee, there’s a real-life black man beside him in that sketch). “But Robert Downey Jr. was in blackface in Tropic Thunder”. Have you even watched that movie, ABC reporter who made the link in the story for the Melbourne news the night of October 8th? The joke in that mostly intelligent, nuanced film – made forcefully, clearly and repeatedly – is at the expense of self-obsessed white Hollywood actors who think something as appallingly racist as blackface is justifiable in their quest for “realism”. “But the Hey Hey skit was equally as intelligent and nuanced”. Oh, fuck off.

The fact that large sections of the Australian public – okay, large sections of the section of the Australian public who vote in phone / on-line news polls – are pretty much clueless in this area isn’t news. What is news – and what makes this controversy different – is that, for the first time in the recent history of Australian comedy controversies, the flames of this particular outrage weren’t fanned by the tabloids.

Many recent “controversies” have largely been tabloid beat-ups; even with The Chaser, where there was clear public anger over the sketch itself, the tabloids ran with it hard out the gate. But this time, for whatever reason – political leanings, commercial ties to Nine and Daryl, lack of interest in internet chatter on the topic – the Australian tabloids weren’t interested in throwing fuel on the fire.

It’s compare and contrast time: on Wednesday October 7th , Melbourne’s Herald-Sun ran a story taking up a third of page three claiming that when John Safran’s upcoming series Race Relations was aired on the ABC people would be outraged. No-one (apart from a rent-a-quote figure who, it was later revealed on ABC radio, hadn’t actually seen the show) was actually outraged yet – the Herald-Sun just figured they’d write up a story about something that might happen in the future. You know, just in case.

Then on Thursday October 8th, the day after the blackface skit went to air, The Herald-Sun ran a small story on page seven about the previous night’s episode of Hey Hey. Mostly consisting of a photo of the Hey Hey team, the short sidebar covered the impressive ratings for last night’s show, and in the final three sentences mentioned that Harry Connick Jr. hadn’t been impressed by a blackface skit on Red Faces. This wasn’t a case where a Herald-Sun reporter thought someone down the line might be offended: this was a case where someone ON THE ACTUAL SHOW ITSELF was clearly offended and with obvious good reason. Not to mention the internet pretty much exploded over it. Three sentences on page 7, huh?  If Daryl had shot someone live on air I’m guessing they would have run that story somewhere up the back under the tide times.

Of course, by Friday’s edition they were right on top of it all, trying to reassure many of their readers – no doubt unsettled by the revelation that laughing at people dressed as golliwogs wasn’t on any more – with polls saying most Aussies didn’t think a shameful act of blatant racism was all that bad. Not to mention a column from the newly returned Andrew Bolt saying Daryl et al were guilty of nothing worse than stupidity. Oddly, when The Chaser were guilty of “stupidity” they were supposed to quit public life forever in shame; Daryl’s punishment for the same crime was supposed to be understanding and hugs all ‘round. After all, he was just trying to make us laugh. No-one was supposed to get hurt.

Only thing is, anyone with even halfway clear memories of how Hey Hey operated during its’ final decade knows that someone always got hurt. How many poof jokes were made about Molly Meldrum? How many jokes were made against women by the Hey Hey boy’s club? Seriously, Jackie MacDonald was the only woman on the show and her theme song was “folks are dumb where I come from”? And then her replacement Denise Drysdale left because it was obvious to everyone watching that Daryl didn’t like her getting more laughs than he did. There’s a good reason why hardly any YouTube clips of the show come from the 1990s: the truly memorable moments of the final decade mostly involved Daryl glaring at anyone who got in his way.

Hey Hey it’s Saturday, which in its early years was a highly entertaining muck-up involving a bunch of people clearly having a good time doing what amused them, became a stale, humourless ritual humiliation long before the axe finally fell. That’s why – for anyone capable of looking past their own warm fuzzy memories to the reality of what actually went to air in the 1990s – the return of Hey Hey was always a disaster waiting to happen.

Beyond the silly segments and miming “live” bands, in its final years Hey Hey was a mean-spirited show that largely got its laughs from picking on groups seen as “weak”. Seeing it back on our screens was seeing some nightmare from a nastier age returned to remind us that some people are still getting cheap laughs from mocking others.

Kind of like tuning into Australian television in 2009 and seeing a blackface act on air.

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