Remember prank phone calls? A relic of the pre-caller ID era, they – in their “is your refrigerator running?” form – were the kind of prank comedy mostly performed by bored teens and idiots. Yes, some people managed to elevate them to something above the moronic norm (the “Red” calls, The Jerky Boys‘ early work), but that didn’t make the prank call a serious art form that anyone in their right mind would defend. Like all pranks, they walked a fine line between worthwhile comedy and mindless annoyance… which brings us to the work of Melbourne’s Jalal Brothers.
You’ve most likely seen one of the Jalals’ viral videos on your Facebook news feed. Grainy shots of night-time suburbia. Three men in Arab dress cruise slowly down the street in a 4WD. One lifts an AK-47 rifle and takes aim at a man and his young daughter using a payphone, causing them to flee. The sound of tinny gunshots echo through the car’s speakers.
The man bolts, leaving his terrified daughter in his wake. In earlier clips, a man in Arab dress and beard appears, toting a suspicious bag. He tosses it into donut shops, car windows, the open doors of a lift. He throws it over the door of a closed toilet cubicle. He throws it at basketballers, kids playing on wharves, tradies on a lunch break, at a man descending an escalator.
Then the Arab man runs. The result: animal fear. The tradie bounds into a lake, a basketballer flees in panic, kids plummet into the sea, drivers abandon their cars and run for their lives. And for the millions of us watching safely on our screens, it’s either darkly hilarious – or utterly thoughtless and cruel. How you respond is a good predictor of your age. The Jalals’ fans are overwhelmingly young – and their haters middle-aged or older.
So it’s a case of stuffy old farts versus “the kids”? Gee, we’re really going to miss Fairfax’s nuanced news coverage when they shut up shop in a year or two.
(We did laugh at “The result: animal fear”, but only because we read it in a Ted Maul voice.)
That said, it’s not difficult to understand why three youngsters who have no memory of the pre-9/11 world, and who have probably been the subject of a lifetime of racist abuse and stereotyping because of their Middle Eastern appearance, would find it funny to make videos of mock drive-by shootings, bombings, and other terrorist-style incidents.
While older, whiter Australians worry about the terrorists on their doorstep, younger, less white teenagers are finding a way to laugh at it. (Perhaps they’ve realised that the chances of actually being killed or injured by terrorism in Australia are so vanishingly low that ladders are more of a serious threat?)
As such, we find it hard to differentiate this urge/desire/whatever to make prank videos about terror-style incidents, from the way in which youngsters in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s shocked their parents by taking the piss out of the establishment (the church, politicians, the military), the prevailing social order of the day (heteronormativity, traditional gender roles), and the laws that tried to get them to stop it.
Famously, the editors of Oz Magazine went through two obscenity trials in two separate countries (one in 1964 in Australia and one in 1971 in the UK), both trying to shut them down. Now we see the Jalal Brothers being ordered to stop making their videos by the police, and facing a possible jail sentence.
From what we’ve seen of these videos, they’re hard to defend as comedy or art – which is where our prank call comparison finally makes sense. And unlike Oz magazine, there’s no real message behind what they’re up to, which makes them hard to defend as satire (unless you count “people are afraid of being shot in the street” as a satirical message). Which we guess leaves us with the right to free speech.
Part of the reason why this is such a big deal (well, it’s not really a big deal, but you know what we mean) is that Australia has next to no tradition of paying attention to young people unless they’re playing sport. Our arts scene, in general, is so small that anyone who does make it big tends to stick around for decades, blocking the path for those behind them. So Australian comedy, like the arts in general, tends to see anyone under 40 as “young”, so when the kinds of things actual teenagers find funny get wider attention it seems even more shocking because as a culture we’re not used to it.
Case in point: Julian Morrow says some of the videos made him wince. And fair enough too. For older generations, who remember 9/11 and are generally speaking scared of terrorism, they are shocking and hard to take.
Morrow argues, though, that you can defend these videos as satire even though they’re not making any obvious point, and that shutting down the Jalals is anti-free speech. Trouble is, the brothers haven’t been arrested for speaking; they’ve been arrested for possession of an illegal weapon, being a public nuisance and behaving offensively in a public space. None of which involve free speech. The whole free speech thing, and whether the videos they’ve made are acceptable or not, is the media’s angle and the public’s concern. The brothers are on trial for rather different reasons.
(Though yeah, we’re well aware that when society wants to shut someone up, it often finds a way that doesn’t involve attacking free speech directly – “behaving offensively in a public place” sounds like something that could be used to wipe out pretty much any outdoor prank-based comedy. And much as we weren’t fans of The Chaser’s pranks, they were the kind of comedy that most Australians would support.)
Whether or not the pranks were real or not doesn’t really matter to us either; if your comedy bit relies on seemingly pissing off or scaring real people to get laughs, it’s probably not going to be funny to us. Unless, of course, you’re pissing off someone with actual power in our society, and even then chances are they’re going to laugh along to show they’re “in on the joke” and whoops, you’ve accidentally improved the image of the person you were going after (which is what pretty much every Chaser show has done).
All we’re seeing in the case of the Jalals, is a couple of guys messing around and filming it, and people with no clue defending it because they say it’s satire or anti-free speech. Free speech we can run with, but here’s how Wikipedia defines satire – feel free to tell us how it relates to what the Jalals are doing.
Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement.
If they want good Islamic satire, there’s always Four Lions.