Election 2010: Rise of the Impressionists

Imagine how relieved Gabby Millgate must be right now – three years of guaranteed breakfast radio appearances as “Julia Spillard” await. As for her fellow Julia Gillard impersonators, Veronica Milsom, Jackie Loeb, Lynne Cazaly and Amanda Bishop, they’ll presumably be called on to don the red bob wig again soon. And look, Millgate’s already uploaded a new video celebrating the Gillard win. Hooray!

The comedic story of Election 2010, which we can now finally close the book on, was this: while the ABC broadcast the “official” election comedies, Gruen Nation and Yes We Canberra!, online venues, such as YouTube, were full to bursting with impressionists. So much so, that there came a point towards to end of the election campaign when the joke switched from being about Julia Gillard, to about the people impersonating Julia Gillard.

Witness the last episode of Good News Week to air before polling day, which descended into a massed Gillard-ing involving all the female panellists. Or the event in Sydney where most of the above-named impersonators got together for a debate. Presumably those involved were thinking along the lines of the Monty Python sketch “Alan Whicker Island”, that it would be really funny to get heaps of people who all dressed and sounded the same together. Unfortunately the coming together of the Gillards just highlighted how very similar they all were, not just in look and in voice, but in material and approach – and quality.

Towards the end of the campaign – when it was starting to become clear that large numbers of voters weren’t going to vote for either of the main parties, and that even larger numbers of people were planning to vote on the basis of whoever had the best policy on issues such as climate change and the NBN – jokes about Tim Mathieson’s career as a hairdresser, or the way Kevin Rudd had been ousted, became irrelevant. Yet, the Gillard impersonators kept them coming. The reason? They’d put all their time into developing and focusing on a character, rather than letting the issues and the events guide what they did. Set yourself up as a Julia Gillard impersonator and everything you do has to be through the prism of the Julia Gillard character you’ve established; set yourself up as stand-up comedian, or as an interviewer/interviewee double act, or as a comedy team, and there are instantly many more things you can do – and changing focus as the focus shifts is just one of them.

This is not to say that any stand-up, double act or team who aren’t tied to a character or concept is going to be brilliant. The videos made by The Great Big New, an “online political satire and sketch comedy show” written and performed by Paul McCarthy (Comedy Inc), Julie Eckersley (Newstopia) and Andrew Maj (Comedy Inc), were miles better than the average Julia Spillard video – if only because McCarthy can impersonate Tony Abbott as well as Julia Gillard – but they also suffered from weak scripts that veered off into well worn clichés. Such as Tim Mathieson/hairdressing references.

The best of the online impressionists were probably Declan Fay and Nick Maxwell of The Sweetest Plum podcast. Ever since Kevin Rudd got his marching orders, they’ve been making short, topical bonus sketches in which Fay has interviewed Maxwell playing Rudd, Tony Abbott, Mark Latham and most recently Bob Katter. What worked about these interviews was that they were about the characters, the policies and the ideas, rather than just a series of crap gags. Even the inevitable jokes about Bob Katter’s hat, which in the hands of worse comedians would have been pointless repetitions of existing clichés, were funny – largely because Fay and Maxwell realised that to make a joke about a man and a hat funny, you have to have the man wearing a funny hat rather than hope the idea of the man wearing a hat will be automatically funny. It’s a lesson anyone contemplating a joke about Tim Mathieson’s hairdressing skills should consider.

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