Truth to Power

Mad as Hell is back! Yeah, there’s not a lot more to say about that really: they know what they’re doing and haven’t stuffed it up, so we can all sit back, relax and continue to enjoy the best Australian comedy series of the last decade. Case closed, mission accomplished, time to put the blog in hiatus until the next series of Housos.

Well okay, there was one thing maybe worth a quick mention: there’s a certain kind of satire best described as “telling it like it is”, where you take the structure of the thing you’re making fun of and make the hidden message obvious. You know, you make a fake Harvey Norman ad and you fill it with references to boss Gerry Harvey telling poor people to fuck off and so on. Hilarious!

This kind of thing can be hit and miss, mostly because it’s usually just cheap shots at obvious targets. The audience already knows both sides of the joke – who you’re talking about, and what you’re talking about – with the laughs coming from the fact you’re somehow exposing their real selves. Considering the increasing shamelessness of our politicians and pretty much everyone else in public life, good luck with that.

There’s not a whole lot of mileage to be had in repeatedly making fun of Gerry Harvey because it’s all out in the open. He says what he likes safe in the knowledge that his wealth and power will protect him from any real repercussions. He doesn’t really care that you’re making fun of him, which takes away the “fun” part of making fun of him.

Likewise, a lot of the time there’s not a lot of comedy to be mined from taking this approach to politicians because politicians themselves are often happy to have their political beliefs (if they have any) mocked – it’s a great way to advertise their beliefs to voters who actually agree with them. Not to mention this kind of thing usually leads to the actual politician wanting to get involved to show they’re a good sport, and we’re back to there being no fun in the making fun part of the joke.

A smarter way to go about it is to use the public’s familiarity with one aspect of what you’re parodying to bring another aspect into the light. This is what Clarke & Dawe did so well: more often than not the target of their comedy was as much how politicians say things as what they were saying, the roundabout way they refuse to go beyond a certain point but always seem frustrated that their message – which they can’t come out and say because it’s usually a variation on “fuck everyone else” – isn’t getting through. They didn’t have to be specific in their impersonations because what they were making fun of is something pretty much all public figures have in common; the comedy came from recognising the bullshit, spin-addled way they all speak.

And then there’s this:

Sure, the jokes are funny and as soon as our local library has a copy free we’ll totally get onto reviewing Tosh’s book, but a big part of why this works is because it’s giving the ABC a much deserved (in this case) kicking.

For one thing, even if you don’t have a problem with the content, the iView ad this sketch is parodying is shit. Charlie Pickering as “cool dude” is painfully try hard at the best of times. This ad? Not the best of times. Who’s it even aimed at? Old people (AKA “ABC viewers”) don’t trust Pickering because nobody trusts Pickering; young people are just going to make up a fake login if they don’t give up on iView entirely. So mocking him gets the thumbs up.

More importantly, the sketch works because it’s pointing out things the object of the satire would rather weren’t mentioned. Yes, maybe the ABC just wants our data to help them figure out what their viewers actually want to see (here’s a guess: more UK murder shows?). Still, pointing out that the government is shit at keeping data private and literally everyone else who wants this kind of information is planning to sell it to advertisers and other “interested bodies” is completely fair game.

There’s been a shift in recent years towards more thoughtful, reflective, insightful comedy and that’s all well and good, but if you’re doing satire a big part of what you’re doing is making fun of people in a mean way (the trick is to find people who deserve it and make fun of what they do not who they are). Long story short, if you’re going to make comedy where the joke is that you’re saying the quiet part out loud, it really helps if your target isn’t already going around loudly saying the quiet part.

So bad news there for anyone looking to make satire in Australia.

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  • Tosh Greenslade says:

    The book is only 16 bucks on Amazon. Buy it, you snails. It gets meaner as it goes along.

  • Stuart says:

    It’s interesting you write this, because I often feel cranky when good comedians just make a joke about appearance rather than their actions. eg. Clive Palmer or Trump being fat, when really that is irrelevant to the completely ridiculous things they do.
    The ad mentioned is a great example, making fun of what it means and Charlie’s attempts to be affable is better than just trying to caricature Charlie. Anyway, I’ve waffled too much