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.