Thinking About Political Comedy?

Here’s a question: when exactly did Australian political comedy go soft? Put another way, when Shaun Micallef, cuddly game-show host and master of light-hearted surrealism, can moderately startle at least one of the hard-boiled Tumbleweeds team by confusing John Howard’s biography with Mein Kampf and making a Tony Abbott joke based on not quite calling him a cunt, then you know things have been off the boil for a very long time.

Micallef’s Mad as Hell has been getting more and more sure of itself with each passing week and it’s not like Micallef didn’t make political jokes with Newstopia a few years ago, so his removal of the gloves wasn’t perhaps as shocking as the opening paragraph may have suggested. But still, since the end of John Howard’s reign political comedy in this country has, Clarke & Dawe aside, been basically non-existent. Why?

It’s not like Australians actually like their current politicians. Both Abbott and Gillard have astoundingly high disapproval ratings, and the prospect of being led by either isn’t exactly filling the nation with joy. You’d think now would be the time to take a few hard swings at our leaders – and, as Mad as Hell has shown, you’d be right. But how did it get to this point?

For one thing, it’s been a very long time since the ABC was serious about political comedy.  Backberner was axed in 2002, and since then The Chaser have basically had the domain all to themselves (okay, there was The Glasshouse until 2006, but its political coverage largely consisted of Wil Anderson saying “look at me! C’mon guys… *crickets chirp*… um, hey, fuck John Howard! …are they looking now?”).

The Chaser’s approach to politics has always been a bit softer, more cynical  – even, dare we say it, more “insider”. The Chaser come across – or did back when they tackled politics in The Chaser’s War on Everything – like they think one side of politics is pretty much interchangeable with the other. Basically, everyone involved in politics is kind of a dickhead but no-one’s really all that bad. It’s a perfectly reasonable view to have; it’s just not a particularly funny one.

The Chaser’s kind of political comedy often revolved around stunts and pranks, which were easily co-opted by politicians as a way to seem in on the joke. We were scathing about their pranks at the time as being little more than pointless fluff, but at least they were engaging with politicians: nothing anyone’s done since has managed even that.

Of course, there was The Hollowmen in 2008, but that was about politics as process. It was also pretty much out-of-date as soon as it aired: the idea that politics was just a smokescreen for processes that ground on no matter what anyone involved did was a standard of the Howard years, but with Labor in power it became clear that the actual government of the day really did have some say in how the country was run. Sorry to startle you there.

One thing The Hollowmen had in common with The Chaser was a kind of over-view of politics: it didn’t matter who was in power, the system would grind on reguardless. Again, it’s a perfectly valid point of view. It’s also pretty much the only even remotely intelligent point of view that fits with the ABC’s long-time obsession with “balance” when it comes to covering politics. If neither side really matters, it’s fine to give equal time to attacking each – or in The Hollowmen‘s case, ignoring the idea of party politics all together.

Oddly*, it seems in recent years the ABC’s obsession with “balance” when it comes to political swipes seems to have lessened. At Home With Julia wasn’t At Home With Julia and Her Wacky Neighbour Tony Abbott, after all. Then again, once Labor got in at a Federal level The Chaser have basically sworn off politics entirely and despite occasional rumbles The Hollowmen is yet to return. While At Home With Julia had its moments, it also felt a lot like a last-ditch attempt to get in a swipe at Labor before they fell in a heap.

So now – finally – Mad as Hell is taking real swipes at federal politicians. Swipes the ABC are actually using in the promos. Micallef has little to lose by going for laughs by going hard – he can actually get work outside the ABC if the ABC’s political masters take a serious dislike to him. Not that anyone at the ABC would ever make programming decisions based on anything apart from a program’s quality. Of course not.

Micallef being the new comedy attack dog** on the block might work out well for The Chaser too.  The Chaser, despite having the “political comedy” brief largely to themselves at the ABC, have never seemed all that interested in going hard at politicians (two words: dodgy pranks). And as they’ve moved to put “The Chaser Boys” days behind them, they’ve put politics behind them too. No complaints there – their swipes at the media have often been their best work – but it has meant that for the last 6 or so years there’s been next to no political comedy*** on Australian televisions.

No wonder someone actually making a joke about Tony Abbott came as such a shock.


 *Not really – Under Abbott the Liberals are basically getting equal media time with the government, making it easier to attack them without looking like you’re kicking them when they’re down.

**Not even remotely true

*** Clarke & Dawe are great, but five minutes of 7.30 once a week isn’t exactly high profile

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  • Spoonhead says:

    Really?? Howard = Hitler? Abbott = a cunt? That’s the laziest brand of 101 student newspaper satire in the book, so if you think those jokes set some kind of new high watermark then heaven help us. I agree that political satire is increasingly moribund in this country – on television, at any rate – but I can’t share your enthusiasm for Mad as Hell. It’s an ok enough show, but politics has never been Micallef’s strong suit, nor indeed his interest, and I think that comes through pretty clearly on the program.

    As for The Chaser, well, they’ve been around for so long now that people probably take them for granted, which means their occasional moments of sharpness get lost in the fog. Far from putting politics behind them, I’d say that they’ve actually done their MOST political work in the last couple of years. The pieces on cold seam gas and pokie reforms in Hamster Wheel, as well as those Life at the Top skits in Yes We Canberra, were easily among the best things they’ve ever done – and, for a change, were genuinely satirical and pointed. But maybe they needed to hold up a copy of Mein Kampf for the joke to be clearer.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    We wouldn’t – and didn’t – say Howard = Hitler was some kind of high-water mark satire-wise (for one thing, that wasn’t the joke), more that after a good four years where even name-calling seemed off-limits, it was a surprise to have it back and from Micallef no less.

    To some extent it depends what direction you’re approaching Micallef from. We’re almost always surprised when he does anything overtly political or current-affairs based, even though it’s not like he never does that kind of material. He’s clearly interested in having a go at all kinds of comedy, but his more surreal / left-field / character-based material seems to be what sticks in the mind.

    The Chaser’s Life at the Top skits were excellent, no argument there. Perhaps we should have defined “political” more clearly – we’re talking about comedy directed at our politicans, not issues or the general state of Australia today. The Chaser have always been good on issues – but then again, so has Media Watch.

    The real difficulty, at least as far as we’re concerned, is finding the right balance between being funny and having something to say, and we’re always going to favour being funny over being lectured to. Micallef’s big strength is that even when his politics are superficial, he’s almost always funny.

    “Satirical” and “pointed” are good things, but you can get them from a newspaper op-ed page (if you look hard over a very long period of time); for us at least, “funny” and “surprising” are more valuable. Which, last week at least – and it’s interesting that this week’s Mad as Hell seemed to back off on the overt politics – Micallef was.

  • Thank you. Yes. Absolutely. Satire with teeth that rend and pierce is rare these days in Aus. Glad I’m not the only one who thinks it.