Taking their rightful place

What with there being an election campaign on, politicians are everywhere trying to get us to vote for them. And what with there being a glut of topical comedies on at the moment, any politicians after the “youth vote” are beating down the doors trying to get on those shows.

Gone are the days when Paul Keating refused to go bowling with Andrew Denton and John Howard wouldn’t appear on The Panel. To take one example, it’s hard to keep Bob Katter away from comedy interview segments at the moment – in recent weeks he’s sat opposite Tom Gleeson for This Week Live’s I Hate You Change My Mind, and joined Julian Morrow for Question Time on The Hamster Decides. And why wouldn’t he? More people watch those shows than Insiders or 7.30, and he’ll get a far easier ride.

You could argue it was the Chaser team who made it okay for our politicians to appear in comedy shows. Because despite their reputation for hard-hitting satire the Chaser rarely go in hard on anyone, meaning any politician with a bit of savvy could take advantage of the situation. The famous Julie Bishop stare-off on Yes We Canberra! made her seem more like a good sport than a tough nut, as did Hugging the PM from The Chaser’s War on Everything for John Howard.

But while all this isn’t exactly great for politics or comedy, politicians throughout the ages have always manipulated the media…if the media’s let them. Clive Palmer’s appearance on the final episode of Wednesday Night Fever was a new low, in that several minutes of a (supposed) satire program was given over to an election candidate to deliver material he’d written himself. In the promotional articles published before the show aired Palmer claimed to really like Heath Franklin’s impression of him, suggesting he was trying to cash-in on the impression’s popularity.

This is something the makers of Wednesday Night Fever should have resisted as there’s clearly a conflict of interest here (and not just that Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd weren’t also given a few minutes to show us their original comedy stylings): if you’re making a topical comedy, aren’t you supposed to go hard on all sides on behalf of the nation, rather than hand the show over to the people you’re supposed to be satirising? Wednesday Night Fever didn’t exactly rate its pants off, but this was no way to end the series.

Jonathan Lynn, legendary comedy writer (of the British sitcoms Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister), wrote a book called Comedy Rules a couple of years ago, which should serve as the bible for any comedy writer or producer in this situation. Amongst Lynn’s comedy rules is “Try to resist if the Prime Minister asks to join your writing team”, a rule which may as well apply to politicians writing comedy in general.

The book describes how in the mid-1980s a right-wing, “keep filth off TV”-type organisation called the Viewers and Listeners Association announced it was giving an award to Yes Minister. Yes Minister was (and still is) one of the best political satire programs ever made. Its masterstroke was that it never revealed which party the protagonist Jim Hacker MP was a member of, allowing it to artfully and hilariously lift the lid on the inner workings of government.

So resonant was it with the politicians of the time that many declared that they loved it, including then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who agreed to present the award to Yes Minister at the Viewers and Listeners Association’s awards ceremony. Lynn describes what happened as follows:

Finally, two days before the event, a scarcely believable message arrived from Number 10: Mrs T had written a Yes Minister sketch, which she intended to perform with herself playing the PM, and Nigel [Hawthorne] as Sir Humphrey and Paul [Eddington] as the Minister for Administrative Affairs…. To say that it wasn’t funny would be something of an understatement…

The awful day dawned. We all went to the little church in Portland Place, beside [BBC] Broadcasting House. The ceremony was to take place in a big basement room, which was packed with journalists and cameramen. There was a battery of mics and video cameras, the sort of thing you would expect at the end of a summit conference. The whole thing had been expertly timed by Bernard Ingham [Thatcher’s Press Secretary] to be covered not only live on the radio but in the Evening Standard [newspaper], on the evening TV news and in the following morning’s papers. The sketch began, with everybody reading their lines rather badly: Mrs Thatcher couldn’t act, and Nigel and Paul were reading badly in what looked like a half-hearted attempt to dissociate themselves from the whole embarrassing event. Then a strange alchemy occurred: it started to be funny just because, like Mount Everest, it was there. It was so ludicrous that we started laughing.

The sketch over, Lynn was presented with the award, and famously quipped “I should like to thank Mrs Thatcher for finally taking her rightful place in the field of situation comedy”, a line which caused a “volcanic eruption of laughter” in the audience although none from Mrs Thatcher herself. The sketch in question is now on YouTube – judge for yourself if you think it’s funny – or indeed if Palmer’s effort were funny.

What’s most sad about the Palmer sketch is that it wasn’t followed by a line as spot-on as Jonathan Lynn’s. It did include an “OMG, what a car crash!” look from Sammy J in the middle of it, but that’s hardly the same thing. And anyway, car crashes are (in most instances) un-planned.


A few commenters on our recent blog on Gruen Nation took issue with Craig Emerson’s appearances on The Hamster Decides. On the surface these are quite similar to Palmer’s Wednesday Night Fever cameo, and while we agree that the Emerson appearances were crap there are several key differences: 1) He isn’t standing for election, 2) He technically didn’t write his own material – he just agreed to perform it, 3) Even if he is on the show every week we can live with it. To dredge up an ancient reference, it’s like Ian Turpie’s appearances on Club Buggery, a bit of harmless fluff.

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1 Comment

  • Urinal Cake says:

    I don’t know. I mean this is a good (understatement) example of a comedian that doesn’t curry favour with politicians even though they both use each others power/celebrity when it suits them http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/08/09/not-funny-joke-lands-comedian-in-north-korean-labor-camp/

    TTOI/TDS are the premier political satires of our time. Jon Stewart yeah whatever- as charged above. Iannucci is interesting however. I don’t think he’d ever let politicians in on the joke but happy to accept an OBE.

    I think a lot of comedians just lack the tenacity to go for the jugular and place their careers in jeopardy. Or worse being seen as sincere. While you’ve got comedians in dictatorships etc. willing to put their lives at stakes.