Down Down, Deeper & Down (redux)

Considering the track record of the people behind them, it’s safe to say that both Yes We Canberra! and Gruen Nation have proven to be pleasant surprises to us here at Tumbleweed HQ. For the most part they’ve been smart, funny programs that have done almost everything right as far as getting laughs without selling their audience short. Unfortunately, that “almost” is nowhere near good enough, because while they may only have one real flaw, it’s a doozy: they let their targets in on the joke.

It seems a small thing, and at least in the case of Gruen Nation, it’s seemingly easy to justify. If you’re talking about political advertising, who better to discuss it than (ex) politicians and advertising executives? Well sure, that makes sense. Then again, does this mean that if you’re talking about racism you really should staff your show with supporters of the White Australia policy?

There are plenty of experts in both advertising and politics clogging up our universities who could point out the flaws in both: by instead bringing in the people responsible, Gruen might be educating us, but they’re also making sure that nothing they say against advertising has any real bite. I mean, unless you happen to think people who work in advertising are really going to have real, root-and-branch criticisms of the industry that pays their wages and shapes their thinking, or that ex-politicians can say anything bad about the system that never quite carried them to the top without having it dismissed as sour grapes.

Yes We Canberra! is less obvious about it, but that only makes it worse. If The Chaser were doing their jobs properly, no politician would want to go within a hundred miles of their studios – and they wouldn’t let them in even if they did. Because when they have politicians on the show, they’re showing them as being in on the joke. The politicians then are simply making fun of themselves, telling us that “hey, we’re just like you” – and then they go back to telling us how we should live our lives and we’re supposed to go back to letting them.

An oft-repeated story about the old Martin / Molloy radio show says that at one stage, when Tony Martin and Mick Molloy were riding the Liberal party hard over their attempts to de-unionise the docks, they were asked to have prime mover behind the anti-worker push Peter Reith on “for balance”. Supposedly, Mick said fine, but that he’d have only one question for Reith: “why are you such a cunt?”. And he was going to keep asking it until he got an answer.

That’s pretty funny: it’s also the level of respect our politicians all too often deserve. It’s worth noting that Martin / Molloy got a lot of mileage out of the politics of the time (as did Martin’s later radio show Get This) without ever having major politicians from either side on as guests. Why would you? Politicians aren’t exactly short of venues where they can speak to the public; worse, it would blunt the comedy and humanize the butt of the joke.

Make no mistake: no politician can seriously survive sustained ridicule. And sustained ridicule is what most of them deserve. But for every joke The Chaser makes about our crap politicians, there’s usually one about the crap attitudes of the general public not far behind. Yeah, we all know large sections of the Australia public are largely ignorant and openly racist. But when The Chaser are out there doing vox pops getting knee-jerk responses from a manipulated and lied-to general public, then getting Julie Bishop – one of the leaders of a party that’s repeatedly proven itself eager to whip up and manipulate racist feelings through blatant lies (two words: Children Overboard) for cheap political gain – on to outstare a garden gnome and look like a good sort simply for turning up… well, maybe they’ve forgotten who the real bad guys are.

So what, you might say. What’s wrong with giving ad men and politicians a chance to reply to the shows that mock them – it’s only fair? Fuck fair. Advertising has a billion dollar industry backing it up: politicians literally control our daily lives. Why should one of the few ways ordinary, average folks can take back a tiny amount of the control these massively powerful organisations have over our lives – by making fun of them – be handed over to them as well?

Good comedy should resist these forces. It should mock and humiliate them – not invite them in for a cuppa tea. Shit, it’s not like the ABC doesn’t know how it should be done. It’s not like Media Watch gives Andrew Bolt a quarter of every episode to playfully mess around with Jonathan Holmes and prove he’s human too, or has a panel of current newspaper editors on to chuckle and go “yes, under the pressures of deadline, sometimes you do have to steal entire articles from the internet and stick a staff reporters name on it.” It points out and makes fun of the media without giving the media a “fair go”, because the media (like advertising and politicians) is a massively powerful force in our society; Media Watch could run four hours a day every single day of the year and it still wouldn’t begin to balance out.

Whether the real blame lies with the ABC’s slavish devotion to an insane “equal time for every side” idea of balance, or in Gruen and The Chaser’s long-held traditions of allowing themselves to be captured by the people they’re supposed to be mocking, it doesn’t matter. Comedy should be the weapon of the weak against the strong. Without that, all we’re getting from the ABC’s “comedy” election coverage is one massive vote for the status quo.

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  • lumberjack says:

    Nice, a very interesting read. And while I don’t totally disagree with you about the softness of the pollie segments, I think in the case of The Chaser a bit of perspective is needed. The pollie guests are no more than a 3 minute segment in a 30 minute show. Other sketches in the show still go in pretty hard, and this week’s needling of Rudd with the Mal Award was pretty spot on and cheeky. I also reckon those Life at the Top skits are the best bits of satire I’ve seen in a long time. So I feel like your blog comments are a bit unfairly slanted towards a very small part of the show.

    As someone who was tiring of the predictable Chaser street ambushes, I’ve actually preferred seeing them react with the pollies in the studio, if only for the refreshing change of scene. At least it gives us a set-piece of structured comedy, rather than the messy, half-arsed interactions that they usually got in the street.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    You’re right that they’re only a small slice of the show – but then, why have them at all? The only reason I can really see for them is to blunt the edge of their attacks in the rest of the show: “sure, some pollies are crap, but this one here can take a joke!”. Their presence taints the rest of the show, giving “balance” to a subject that doesn’t deserve it.

    That said, humour-wise they’ve improved a lot this time around, and the in-studio work with the politicians are a huge improvement over the street stunts. Of course, Latham’s stealing their thunder there – I’m guessing come the next election the ABC will be ordering them back on the streets…

  • Pete Hill says:

    Well said!. I am always astounded at the indignation and ‘how dare you, that hurt!’ reactions from journos and editors regarding Media Watch. Its like an elephant bursting into tears when it gets stung by a mosquito. Considering the massive amounts of self-promotion and self-congratulation that most of the Aussie (and world’s) media indulge in, you would be forgiven for thinking that criticisms from a short, modestly-rating show on public TV would be easily shrugged off.
    Back in the 1950s in Britain, during the early days of the Goon Show, or ‘Crazy People’ as the early episodes were called, Michael Bentine was gearing the show towards topical, satirical humour. The commonly-accepted version of why he later left the show was that it was due to a power-struggle with Spike Milligan. The BBC sound-stage was simply not big enough to accomodate both their ample egos and ambitions. I have always wondered if it was also because Bentine’s sketches featured some pretty sharp barbs directed at well-known pollies and officials of the day, only thinly disguised beneath the mad-cap surreal humour. It would certainly have not been far-fetched to speculate if some Whitehall officials had put pressure on the Beeb to tone down Bentine’s satire.
    Like you, I always get a somewhat uncomfortable feeling when I see well-known comedians in suit and tie rubbing shoulders comfortably with the wealthy and powerful. Too see the likes of Billy Connolly, John Cleese, Spike Milligan & Ben Elton chatting politely with Queen Elizabeth immediately waters down whatever satire or insight much of their comedy once had. Disagree with me if you like but I have always felt that good comedians were never meant to be part of the establishment. Its like seeing a sheepishly grinning Lenin and Trotsky standing next to Tsar Nicholas II and having the latter playfully run his fingers through the two men’s hair, saying, ‘Oh, these lovable young rascals, whatever will they do next?!’
    Politicians, like today’s military PR and seasoned celebrities and their managers, have become experts at spinning and manipulating the media to suit their own agendas and purposes. God help us if comedians fall into the trap of being used by pollies to merely paint themselves as lovable ordinary folk who have a sense of humour.

  • TBONE says:

    Well Said
    Can’t stand those smug cunts on the Gruen Transfer getting opinionated about the best way to sell shit to people as if they are doing us all a favour. In the words of Chris Cunnginham “Making commercials, is the dustbin of film-making. It sucks you dry.”