With a comedy team as long-running as The Chaser, it’s important for us to stake out our positions before discussing their latest effort. It’s not simply enough to say “they peaked with The Hamster Wheel” (though that’s true): something like The Checkout may not be a 100% traditional Chaser product, but it’s a better show for what it is than The Chaser’s Media Circus, which is a lot more slap-dash and sloppy. And then there’s the way their election shows, while arguably the thing they’re best known for – they’ve certainly been doing them the longest – are usually some of their weaker efforts and… ah, screw it: The Chaser’s Election Desk was pretty disappointing.
Partly that’s because of the stunts. Look, we know some people find the stunts funny: if you’re one of them, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. For us, while it’s clear they add a bit of action to a show that would otherwise be 90% voice-over over news clips, they remain pretty pointless. “Let’s try to get Malcolm Turnbull to stand next to a cardboard Tony Abbott!” O-kaay… well, that didn’t really work. Nice joke about how the cardboard version is as animated as the real one though.
Oops, maybe keep on skipping down, stunt-lovers. The problem with the stunts even when they work is that these days they don’t really tell us much about the politicians involved. People who love to suspect the ABC of left-wing bias, rejoice! The stunt involving Bill Shorten and a rat seemed far less dangerous to his media image than the one where Malcolm Turnbull was meant to catch a toppling Chas. Sure, having your photo taken with a rat is bad; having a photo of someone falling on you is worse. And the cardboard Tony Abbott one wasn’t great for Turnbull either. So having him refuse to participate doesn’t mean he’s a spoilsport: it means he (and those around him) are media savvy – just as Shorten and Tanya Plibersek were media savvy when they did get involved.
Actually, that bias question is a good one – not because the show itself was biased, but because maybe it should have been. In today’s fragmented media landscape blah blah blah zzzzzz. Oh right: the days when everyone would watch a channel and so the channel had to be “fair and balanced” are pretty much over. There’s enough media diversity out there now that you can watch (or get your news from) a source that pretty much fits your personal preferences, which means that for most viewers a goodly chunk of The Chaser’s Media Desk was making jokes that were never going to work.
Just listen to the audience reactions. These aren’t political junkies looking to laugh at the craziness of it all: these are people with a point of view who expect the jokes to reflect their point of view. Exactly what the point of view is, remains a mystery… well, until a joke about Bill Shorten lands with a clunk while slagging off Tony Abbott gets the big laughs. It’s no wonder the best material was the stuff about the election coverage rather than the politicians; Chas and Andrew Hansen making fun of the media has been The Chaser’s strongest card for a number of years now, and it’s good to have them back doing it here.
But why have another election comedy series from The Chaser anyway? Through sheer good luck Mad as Hell has been on to give the election the respect it deserves – ten minutes or so of material a week on a show happily making jokes about loads of other stuff as well. And waiting in the wings are at least two more election-themed shows, John Safran’s The Goddam Election! and Sammy J’s Playground Politics. They might turn out to be crap, but with much of The Chaser’s election material looking a bit stale after 15 years of elections, well… even something a bit crap might look better.
Election comedy is bungled photo ops, bungled interviews and bungled policy statements: either those laughs are super-obvious (“ha, this politician is making a fool of themselves!”) or you’re in the very murky waters that are “having to explain the set-up for your joke”. And there was a lot of that in this. When you’re opening your show with jokes about how the media coverage has been calling this the most boring election ever, you know you’re not working a comedy goldmine.
Plus, okay, c’mon: “Can we bring up the seat of Lyons” followed by a picture of a lion? And then another picture? This is a joke for a shoddy-looking show full of comedy bungling: it isn’t a joke that’s going to work when your show is built around the fact you’ve been able to build and staff a massive desk. Also, it’s just not a very good joke.
Which brings us to yet another one of our hobby-horses as far as The Chaser goes: where are the characters? No, we don’t expect them to start bunging on funny voices and wearing nutty costumes (though come to think of it…). But for years now they’ve done perfectly serviceable yet somewhat flavourless jobs when it comes to hosting: they say scripted jokes, they do pranks, and they’re all – with the exceptions of Chas and Hansen – basically interchangeable. There’s no such thing as a “Julian Morrow” line on The Chaser: everything they say can pretty much be said by anyone else on the team.
That’s always been, if not a problem, then at least a failing with The Chaser; personality is one of the things that makes a joke funnier. But they could at least counter it in the past by being “The Chaser”: five (occasionally six) guys who were an on-air comedy team. They may have all had the one voice, but it was their voice. The personality they lacked in their individual on-air performances came through in the show as a whole.
But increasingly now The Chaser have brought in a bunch of fresh faces, all of which present on-air with the same lack of personality as the core team. Instead of a show built around a tight core (yes, we know they’ve always had behind-the-scenes writers and there’s eight people listed under “additional writing and research” here: still, it’s the people on-air are the ones who are meant to give life to the lines that are written) that were “The Chaser”, now we have the five – well, four – core members plus another seven people giving the same identically snarky line-readings to the same jokes.
The performances lack individuality; the show itself feels like a product where they could plug anyone in to read the gags. We’re not saying they’re bad performers; we’re saying they’re not actually giving a performance. Worse, every time someone new starts talking, there’s a second or two of confusion: “wait, this guy’s a host as well?”. It really drains the show of energy for no real gain… unless they’re trying to make a joke (“So many experts! All sounding the same!”), in which case it’s not really worth the effort.
The result is a show where it seems anyone could be a member of The Chaser on-air, because whatever their behind-the-scenes contributions, being a member of The Chaser on-air only seems to involve the ability to read an autocue. Own a suit? You could be a member of The Chaser!
Which is the joke behind the big desk. Did anyone really find that big desk funny? They sure won’t after weeks of it being there and not getting any funnier!