Surprisingly – or not, depending on how closely you’ve been paying attention – for a news satire the final episode of Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell contained a lot of swipes at other comedy shows. And well deserved swipes at that, whether the targets were lazy ABC “comedy” panel shows (the ‘Blather’ sketch even contained a reference to the number of episodes pre-recorded by our old nemesis, Randling), the random chatty nature of shows like Media Circus, or Dave Hughes – though the impersonation there was more affectionate than the rest.
Like the previous paragraph said, this was only surprising if you’re one of the numerous lazy Australian television writers who keep wondering why Mad as Hell isn’t a clone of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. For one thing, Mad as Hell has never just been a political satire; for another, if you expect good comedy to come from people writing about stuff they’re interested in, then presumably comedians are going to be a little interested in other comedy shows (as are people who watch comedy). And Mad as Hell has always parodied other television shows – remember all those digs at Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries?
It’s important in comedy to provide a way for your audience to get their bearings. Are you making jokes about “stop the boats” because you think we need to stop the boats, or because you think “stop the boats” is a jingoistic catch cry used by unreconstructed racists? Usually this kind of thing is pretty obvious from the joke itself, but occasionally dodgy values – for your own personal value of “dodgy”, of course – can slip through.
For example, both The Chaser and Working Dog have spent much of the last decade or so basing a lot of their political comedy on the idea that “they’re all basically the same” – you know, “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, a politician always gets in” and so on. The trouble with jokes based on this kind of thinking is that while its a certainly a point of view, the only people who think Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are interchangeable are wealthy upper-middle class types who just want the government to get out of the way of them making money (unlike actual upper class types who know that government does make a difference to the tax breaks and handouts they get). Which means their whole “what’s the point of even having a government anyway” deal is less about fixing a broken system and more about not wanting the government bothering them because they’re getting along just fine without it. Unlike poor people.
So when Mad as Hell points out that ABC panel shows are a bit shit, it’s a massive relief here at Stately Tumbleweed Manor. Because as far as we’re concerned, they are a bit shit. After all, the best (inadvertent) joke in the Blather sketch was the way you could tell it was a parody because the panel was female-dominated. Zing! Then there was the throwaway gag about the low budget for The Chaser’s Media Circus in the penultimate episode of Mad As Hell, which wasn’t so much criticism of The Chaser as a subtle dig at declining ABC comedy budgets forcing comedians down the panel show route.
But the Blather and the Media Lounge Room panel show parodies in the final episode were all the more biting because a) they come during a time of budget cuts when presumably we’ll get more and more cheap panel shows and b) it was a pretty accurate pisstake of the sort of (and indeed actual) panelists these shows are littered with.
(On a similar theme, and worth checking out, is this sketch from a recent BBC mockumentary, which also takes the piss out of the repetitive and generic cheapness of panel shows. It’s all the more poignant in an Australian context given that Australian panel shows are usually less funnier than their British equivalents, but, judging from this sketch, even the British seem to think their panel shows aren’t good comedy!)
Perhaps what partly motivates this is a genuine fear in the writers room of Mad As Hell (and presumably also its audience) that quality topical sketch shows like this are unlikely to return in a public broadcasting climate that sees long-running current affairs shows and vital rural radio stations axed. And if sketch comedy does end up being gone for good, where else are we going to get our T.I.S.M cover versions from?