Satire’s hard problem

Clarke & Dawe returned to our screens last week and once again reminded us how satirists should be doing it: it’s about pointing out where things are going wrong.

Satire only achieves what it’s there to do if it leaves the audience laughing, better informed and angry for change. And this is something that’s only going to happen when the politicians being satirised aren’t present.

If John Clarke dressed up as Malcolm Turnbull and did his voice, it’s possible we might start to enjoy the character of Malcolm Turnbull – or even soften towards the actual Malcolm Turnbull. Remember how Julie Bishop’s “Death Stare” appearance on Yes We Canberra changed perceptions towards her? Made her seem like a good sport? Made her seem less hateable?

Remember the 90’s when politicians wouldn’t appear on The Panel because they didn’t want to be made to look foolish? These days, it’s the complete opposite; politicians worry about likability and want to look like a good sport.

This is why a never-ending stream of politicians are prepared to appear on Tom Gleeson’s Hard Chat segment on The Weekly. Sure, they cop a bit of abuse, but mainly they come out of it looking like the victim because the abuse is mostly in the form of cheap shots – satirical points that would make them genuinely uncomfortable or point out their flaws are few and far between.

One clue as to why involving politicians in the joke and/or going soft on them in satire seems to be a popular approach can perhaps be found in the most recent episode of I Love Green Guide Letters, in which Adam Zwar describes how worried the ABC are by anything that comments on the current government.

I would say with the ABC they do always worry about what the government is thinking at the time, so if you’ve got a right-wing government in that’s anti-environmental, it won’t lean as heavily as it should on the anti-environmentalists, i.e. people who just fish the shit out the waters…I know when I had something on the ABC and someone said something anti-Liberal party…one of the Agonys, one of the guests said something negative about Tony Abbott and I got a caution letter [from a senior executive]…saying “Do you really need this in?”. And I said, “Are you asking me this from the perspective that this makes the show worse or are you saying it from a partisan perspective?” No response, because then there’s an e-mail trail that makes it clear that it was a partisan thing.

(To listen to Adam Zwar speaking about the caution letter, start at 38:12)

In the end, Zwar says, he ignored the letter and the negative comments made it into the final cut of the show. They were, he says, Susan Carland saying things he feels were “pretty benign” about the Liberal party. But, he adds, The Agony of… series was not renewed. Guess he learnt what happens if you ignore the warnings.

We were no fans of The Agony of… series, but it’s shocking that the government are so worried about their image that they’re not above bullying the ABC to the extent that it worries about the contents of a lightweight talking heads show. And in this context, it’s a miracle that the genuinely “hard chat” of Clarke & Dawe is still allowed to be broadcast.

Mind you, in much the same way that subscriptions to quality news sources like the New York Times have soared in Trump’s USA, it’s notable that last week’s Clarke & Dawe has already been watched more than 20,000 times on YouTube compared to just over 2,500 for last week’s Hard Chat. Sure, that’s just YouTube (we don’t have access to the free-to-air or timeshifted figures) but it indicates that one section of the public knows what it wants: it wants real satire.

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1 Comment

  • David M says:

    It’s a bit of the beaten wife syndrome – the Coalition will keep cutting Aunty so Aunty dare not speak out or it will be worse.
    Although the hijinks at the moment make me yearn for the days of Howard stacking the ABC board and having a full culture war in the media…..good times……