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Possums, What’s Next For Satire?

The most unlikely satirical success of our generation, Dame Edna, is kicking off her heels. How will aspiring social and political satirists fill her shoes?


Dame Edna Everage — bespectacled, bedazzled and incorrigible — is about to hang up her lilac wig. By July, she’ll be kicking up her heels and doubling entendres at the local retirement home. When Barry Humphries takes his final curtain call he will leave a stout, Edna-shaped hole in the Australian comedy scene. What next for Aussie satire?

Humphries, in his several incarnations, has been an ambassador for Australian larrikinism for more than 50 years. He will retire all his alter-egos — Sir Les Patterson, the slovenly misogynist whose hobbies include groping and burping, and Sandy Stone, the veteran with a thousand rambling stories. His legacy, as he puts it, “will linger in people’s minds like a virus”.

“There’s such a great comic sensibility in this country, but TV is not like sitting in a room, where you have control over your content... so much can go wrong between the page and the screen. We can’t afford to bet on that.”

Dr Anne Pender, an associate professor at the School of Arts at the University of New England,  calls Humphries “the most significant theatrical figure of our time... the most significant comedian to emerge since Charlie Chaplin.”

She argues that academics have underestimated Humphries’ contribution to Australian culture over the past half-century. She sees Humphries as part popular entertainer, part erudite social commentator, who “has delivered Dadaist and absurdist humour — once only enjoyed by artists and undergraduates — into the lives of millions of people.”

Yet Humphries has spent his career parading as a caricature of his intended audience, the ditzy suburban housewife. As it turned out, the Victorian suburb of Moonee Ponds was a microcosm of the societies he would mimic elsewhere — conservative and self-conscious about their own mediocrity. He had a peculiar talent for ridiculing and celebrating the people who adored him, with a cheeky tenderness that endeared him to millions.

Where do we get our reputation for casual irreverence, if not from the comedians who embody it?

Think of Graham Kennedy, whose death seven years ago caused nationwide nostalgia for the days of simpler, slapstick comedy he did so well. John Meillon’s velvet-and-gravel voice in the VB ads. Roy and HG’s Olympic dreamMagda Szubanski’s chameleon-like versatility. Mary Coustas’s “amazement” ethnicity. Glenn Robbins. Paul Hogan. Eric Bana. Shaun Micallef.

<p>Photo courtesy of Channel Seven</p>

Photo courtesy of Channel Seven

Kath & Kim.

And of course Toni Collette found fame as the hapless, hopeless Muriel in Muriel’s Wedding. Like Collette’s Muriel, Jane Turner and Gina Riley’s Kath & Kim are pitch-perfect parodies of suburban women. The show has Humphries’ brand of humour in every kitsch flower arrangement and mispronunciation. Thankfully, the film Kath & Kimderella comes out later this year — just in time to ease the mourning of Dame Edna’s departure from comedy.

So Dame Edna’s character comedy will live on, but what of her sharp political commentary?

Political satire in Australia is sparse. The ratings war between stations is fierce; the Seven, Nine and Ten networks tussle for supremacy with My Kitchen Rules, The Voice and MasterChef. What time is there for quality political satire, when all energy is expended plotting ratings victories in tried-and-tested formats?

Chris Taylor, writer and cast member of The Chaser’s War on Everything, CNNNN, The Chaser Decides and The Hamster Wheel, says he’s always surprised by how little satire there is on TV.

“There’s no question we’re living in an era, in Australia at least, of very safe and conservative programming,” Taylor says. “The big three commercial networks don’t want to stray too far from the franchised reality and lifestyle formats that arrive here with an established proof of concept having  succeeded first overseas.”

This attitude remains, despite the fact that satirical programs, by their very spontaneous nature, would be cheaper and easier to make than sitcoms. But is the inherent unpredictability of comedy the very thing that’s keeping it off our screens?

“Commercial networks have always been reluctant to invest in a program that has the potential to upset or ridicule their key sponsors,” Taylor says. “That leaves the ABC and SBS as the only viable outlet for TV satire, and since neither of them is flush with funds, they can only commission a very limited number of shows.”

In rebuttal, the Nine Network’s head of development, Adrian Swift, says that comedy — of any kind — is the riskiest investment for someone in his position, but if he found the right show, he’d commission it tomorrow.

“God bless us, we did try Ben Elton. We’ve licked our wounds and we’re moving on,” Swift says. “There’s such a great comic sensibility in this country, but TV is not like sitting in a room, where you have control over your content and its execution. There are cameras and boom microphones, and so much can go wrong between the page and the screen. We can’t afford to bet on that.”

He chuckles, and acknowledges what critics of commercial TV are thinking: “We can, as TV producers, fall into a category of being pompous, but we always need comedy to get through it ourselves. In everything we do, we look for humour. Comedies are the lifeblood of our station —  The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. We will try, in the next 12 months, to invest in an Australian comedy.”

The recklessness of comedy is its appeal and its burden, especially live or unscripted. When you consider how much trouble The Chaser boys have caused in the pursuit of satire, you can see Swift’s predicament. They snuck past security at the APEC summit dressed as terrorists, were suspended by the ABC for their ‘Make a realistic wish foundation’ skit and scorned for speaking ill of Steve Irwin and Princess Di in The Eulogy Song.

Dominic Knight was a founding member of The Chaser newspaper in 1999, a writer in all their TV series and is now the evening presenter on ABC 702 Radio in Sydney. He says that comedians take risks all the time.

“Whether targets of satirical humour laugh along or get bothered, though, is ultimately up to them.”

“It’s not our objective to cause trouble or make people uncomfortable,” he says. “We simply pursue the jokes that we find funny, in the hope our audience will too, and we’ve been willing to risk a few difficulties to do that. I guess it’s sometimes reassuring when the odd nose gets put of joint, because it can mean your satire is finding its mark. Whether targets of satirical humour laugh along or get bothered, though, is ultimately up to them.”

The gold standard in news-based satire at the moment is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report – both American shows. Jon Stewart is a short Jewish man with impeccable comic timing and a veritable army of sketch and joke writers. His quick wit and wicked social commentary is comparable only to one man’s — his former protégé, Stephen Colbert. Colbert cut his teeth working as a writer and reporter for The Daily Show, and often visits its set to bicker with       Stewart. His shtick is to pose as a faux-Republican, holding right-wing American politics to account by way of imitation.

Stewart and Colbert’s prerogative is to mock American politics and media from a familiar news desk, alternating between slick social commentary and very, very silly stunts.

Both shows are comedy powerhouses in the US with millions of viewers, rapt live audiences, celebrity guests and genuine political sway. President Obama filmed a skit with Colbert, in which he joked about the size of his ears. Just this week Michelle Obama was Colbert’s guest. In fact, she officially endorsed her husband’s re-election  campaign during their interview. President Obama has made several appearances on The Daily Show, chatting with Stewart like a confidant.

Stewart and Colbert command enough respect as political satirists to invite and befriend politicians on their sets. Where else in the world is the relationship between leader and clown so intimate? Such congenial interaction between politician and comedian is rarely, if ever, seen here in Australia.

What is holding back our political comedy?

<p>Photo courtesy of Giant Dwarf Productions</p>

Photo courtesy of Giant Dwarf Productions

The Chaser team.

It could be a lack of resources, moreover the reluctance of TV executives to invest what resources they do have in comedy. Comedy is not a safe bet for nervous producers. It could be that we don’t have anyone of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert calibre, or that we don’t provide young people with enough experience to reach that level of sophistication in their current affairs commentary. It could be the hegemony of reality TV franchises.

There are more arbitrary hindrances to astute satire, too.

It surprises most people to hear that it’s illegal to use parliamentary footage for satirical purposes in Australia. The Chaser boys, particularly Taylor and his comrade Craig Reucassel, have been lobbying to have this law changed, but Chris says politicians are reluctant to amend the legislation because they’re worried they’ll be caught on-camera off-guard.

Reucassel told the ABC’s Andrew Greene that the law “often pushes more satirical programs away from actual analysis of what’s being said in parliament, and more towards the lighter and fluffier stuff outside of parliament”.

The Chaser boys have seen this precious attitude about parliamentary footage elsewhere. Last year they had planned to do a royal wedding special, airing the BBC coverage of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s marriage with Chaser commentary over the top. The boys not only were denied permission to use the footage, but the ABC was not allowed to use it at all if The Chaser went anywhere near it.

They have similarly constrictive laws about satire in Britain, where nothing can be shown that undermines the dignity of the house. In fact recently, an episode of The Daily Show was banned in the UK because it included footage of the House of Commons. The point remains, though self-conscious politicians and timid producers continue to miss it, that laws such as this one undermine the capacity for humour to facilitate constructive discussion about important social issues.

[Humphries] has delivered Dadaist and absurdist humour — once only enjoyed by artists and undergraduates — into the lives of millions of people.

Melbourne-based comedian and Good News Week writer Courteney Hocking thinks political satire is particularly important for us because “we take our rights for granted a bit here and love our laid-back lifestyle a little too much. Political comedy is a way of creeping in under the radar and getting people to think about it when they’re least expecting it.”

She adds hopefully that “the internet is the perfect space for satire to flourish and I think that’s really promising”.

Hocking may be onto something there. Comedians can experiment with material, create and market their own web content, distribute it to potential fans and start a career, all on their own time and volition. Unless budgets swell and networks drastically alter their priorities, it may be the only place comedians can be both reckless and in control of their own material.

I’ll leave you with this riddle. A man walks into a network executive’s office in a red sequin dress, lavender wig, cat-eye glasses and surprisingly shapely, stockinged legs. He starts his pitch with a shrill greeting, “Hello, possums!"

Does he get his own TV show? Or do the network executives look at one another and say, “Bit risky, mate. How about you audition for The Voice?”

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