It’s been a grim few days for comedy in Australia. Okay, it’s been a grim few years. But this last week has been especially bad for those who think that comedy is an area best left up to comedians. First there was the long-awaited verdict in the Mick Molloy / Before the Game trial, in which a one-time political candidate sued Channel Ten over a comment – we’d call it a joke, but clearly the court didn’t agree – that Molloy made on the show. Short version: the plaintiff won, comedy lost.
Whatever you think of the content of the comment (Mick unsurprisingly seems somewhat contrite), it’s hard to put a positive spin on the result if you’re on the side of comedy. Having a politician sue and win over a joke can’t help but have a cooling effect on the kind of jokes that get made, and if you think our politicians (as the AAP report said, “she told the court she still had political ambitions”) should be made less fun of, well, move along folks, nothing to see here.
At the other end of the scale this week came a story on The Vine.com where a writer showed clips of Chris Lilley’s S.mouse character to various US-based hip hop artists for their opinion. News flash: they weren’t impressed.
This story’s been getting some fairly serious coverage in the last few days – it was on the cover of Melbourne’s free commuter newspaper MX, and The Age (owned by Fairfax, who also own The Vine) gave it a run in their print edition. While the story itself is certainly interesting reading, the wider coverage has tended to be focused more on the fact that the artists who responded weren’t impressed. To which all we can say is “Duh”.
Is anyone impressed with S.mouse? Do we really need hip hop artists to tell us S.mouse is a two dimensional, superficial character taking broad and inaccurate swipes at a form of music generally dismissed by mainstream culture – in short, a dull character taking swings at an easy target?
If the targets of Lilley’s kak-handed efforts are to be the new judges of his work, why not speak to Japanese single mothers and ask them if Jen Okasaki is accurate? Or call up a few Bra Boys and see what they think of Blake Oldfield? Lilley’s attempted “satire” is no less pointed in their direction. What about We Can Be Heroes’ Ricky Wong? Surely it wouldn’t have been too hard to find some Asians offended by him? Oh wait, he was funny, so it was okay.
This isn’t a defense of S.mouse. He’s probably the weakest character of a fairly weak bunch. But he’s not a racist blackface caricature either. He’s a specific individual that happens to be black, in the same way that Okasaki is a character, not a generic “Asian”. Of course, you could argue that ‘shit & clueless black rapper’ is itself a racist stereotype (surely if Lilley only wanted to make fun of hip-hop there’s been plenty of lame white rappers), but that’s what Lilley does. He works with stereotypes: whether you think he goes beyond that to find the truth in them is a matter of personal taste (we don’t).
The fact that The Vine has to go to the US to find someone offended by Lilley’s act pretty much says it all. While this whole thing seems the kind of development that once again closes off options to comedians (you can’t make fun of this particular group – look how offended they get!), the actual story shows that their offense is at least as much about how lazy and unfunny it is as it is about any offense caused.
More importantly, any publicity is good publicity when you’re sinking in the ratings. It seems doubtful that anyone at the ABC would be unhappy with this coverage – it’s getting Angry Boys in the papers and making it sound edgy and controversial on top of it. Which, come to think of it, may be a bad result for comedy after all…
Haven’t seen any of the news stories reporting on the Vine article, only the original piece, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re leaping on the least interesting but most easily digested element of the whole thing (21st-Century Americans In “Not a Big Fan of Blackface” Shocker).
Which is a shame, as beneath that obvious layer there are a lot of great points made by the various people they queried. The one that comes up a few times is that you need a deep knowledge and passion — love, hate, wild ambivalence — for a subject if your parody is going to be the least bit effective. That’s not great comedy scholars that are pointing this out, just people with a much deeper understanding of hip-hop than the guy doing the dumb, broad pastiche of an outdated element of a rich and complex art form.
And an art form characterised by (and often greatly reliant upon) a quick wit and an observant sense of humour, at that! I’d point to that rather than the makeup job as the appalling error in judgement. Into the bin!