Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I'm Mad As Hell And Will Only Take It For A Little While Longer

OK, so The Chaser. Everyone knows about it. They'll be back next week, and hopefully the experience will not turn them tame and insipid in any way, but drive them on to more inspired feats of comedy.

Below is something I wrote in the aftermath of the infamous sketch, because every bit of commentary I saw seemed to miss the point by some distance. Some pieces made some good points - I agree with those sticking up for the Chaser's right to make bad-taste jokes, I agree with those who said it's the show's job to push boundaries and test the limits and so forth - but even those mostly missed the point of what the sketch was actually about. And as for those blasting the show for crossing lines, destroying lives, spitting in faces etc, I found it unbearable. Those who claimed the problem is that the show was no longer funny may or may not be right, but it was irrelevant to the issue at hand - which was the only good point contained in what I thought was one of the most ridiculously wrongheaded articles, by Shaun Carney and I'm not in the slightest bit interested in debating whether something's funny or not). And even now, two weeks later, all commentary continues to miss the point, to my mind.

Everyone must make up their own minds, but I honestly think the media hysteria has blinded people to what the sketch actually was, and I also think I'm at least as well-qualified to comment on it as the political analysts and shock jocks that have dominated the debate. And since the piece below was not wanted by a variety of media outlets, I'm having my say here. If you hate The Chaser and all it stands for and always will, you probably won't get much out of it. If not, do read on:


Making fun of sick children? Disgusting. Outrageous. Disgraceful. Unacceptable. For doing such a revolting thing, those terrible Chaser boys should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. For mocking those poor kids, they should be sacked. Blackballed. The ABC should lose its funding. How could they do such a thing?

The only trouble, of course, is that they did no such thing. They never made fun of sick kids. Not in the slightest. And no reasonable person making up their mind based on the actual sketch – as opposed to having their mind made up for them by squawking tabloid headlines – would come to the conclusion that they had.

Now, I admit I do not know any Chaser members personally – as the 800 pound gorillas of Australian comedy to my pygmy shrew, we move in different circles – and so it is, I concede, possible that they sat down and thought, “Bloody sick kids, let’s take them down a peg or two”. However, I consider it susbtantially more likely they sat down and thought, “You know the Make A Wish Foundation? Wouldn’t it be funny if there was an organisation like that, but one that was really, really bad at its job?” I think this is more likey for the simple reason that that is precisely what they did in the sketch.

Contrary to those who saw it as a vicious attack on sick kids, or on the real Make A Wish Foundation, it wasn’t an attack on anyone. It was actually a conventional piece of sketch comedy based on the classic premise of taking a well-known character, situation or institution, and coming up with an absurd, grotesque or incompetent version. The Make A Realistic Wish Foundation is, in fact, nothing more than The Chaser’s version of Monty Python’s Silly Olympics, Saturday Night Live’s male, talentless synchronised swimmers, or even bumbling Maxwell Smart. The humour lies not in laughing at sick kids, but in the very fact that we know how appalling the “Make A Realistic Wish Foundation” is. The fictitious foundation itself is the butt of the joke – in essence, the point is not to mock the sick kids, but to side with them against the dreadful fools at their bedsides. To suggest that the fact that terrible fictional characters do terrible things to others means the creators are mocking the victims is just silly. The Chaser was no more mocking sick kids than John Cleese mocked Germans by making Basil fawlty a racist, or that Ricky Gervais mocked the disabled when his David Brent showed his utter insensivity to a wheelchair-bound colleague. Comedic characters are often terrible people – this is what makes them comedic. We’re laughing at them, not the innocent folk who have to suffer their obnoxiousness.

Please note, this is not in any way attempt to convince those who didn’t find the sketch funny that it was; comedy is utterly subjective, and to try to claim that one’s own opinion on what’s funny is in any way objective or definitive is ridiculous. That, of course, does not stop people trying, and a hundred comedic experts have sprung up since The Chaser aired to claimed that the “real problem” is that the sketch just wasn’t funny. Patently untrue – people don’t call for sackings and funding cuts just because things aren’t funny. Thousands of hours of unfunny material is broadcast every year without a furore. Commentators like to claim that unfunniness is the problem in order to dodge the quite accurate accusation that they are joining a herd of confected moral outrage and self-righteousness. The fact is, whether it was funny or not is completely irrelevant to the question of whether The Chaser was mocking sick kids. If they were, making every last person on earth bust a gut wouldn’t change the fact, and if they’re not, stony silence from every viewer does not give reason for moral condemnation.

I don’t doubt that some were upset by the sketch. That’s unfortunate, but as any comedian or comedy writer knows, if you want any hope of amusing people, you have to risk giving offence. I’ve seen comedy deal with subjects including racism, Nazism, incest, bestiality, sexual assault, domestic violence, murder, war, disease and famine. Any of these and a hundred other apparently tamer topics could cause distress – there’s practically no subject that has no chance of offending anyone. That’s the nature of comedy, and any comedian worth their salt takes that chance all the time. But the fact that a piece of work can strike a nerve with you doesn’t mean it was targeted at you, and the fact a TV show upset someone – however worthy and genuinely long-suffering that someone is – doesn’t mean that they are right and the makers of the show deserve to be cast into the outer darkness. Especially when, one suspects, much of the outrage and offence being expressed comes less from genuine spontaneous reaction and more from the efforts of media hypocrites desperate to whip up a new moral panic to reinforce their self-assumed position as guardians of the public good. After all, sketch show The Mansion did a similar gag last year. America’s The Onion and Australia’s Shaun Micallef have both in the past given their own spin to “make-a-wish comedy”. No howls of outrage there, because they weren’t The Chaser, the enemy that Murdoch papers and “current affairs” programmes alike are just itching to snipe at. The Chaser could act out verbatim re-enactments of Mother and Son, and the Herald Sun would scream about their tasteless assault on Alzheimer’s sufferers.

So it’s a shame if you were offended, especially if you have suffered the trauma of ill children. But be assured, The Chaser wasn’t having a go at you, or your kids, or anyone. And if you are the sensitive type, perhaps you shouldn’t be watching the show (and nor should children, sick or otherwise). Personally, I’m going to go on watching. Because even if it’s not perfect, I know that it’s comedy. If you don’t understand that, maybe you should go look for the remote.


Unknown said...

Hi Ben. I pretty much agree with you, and I have been very much a fan of the Chaser, and in awe of what they manage to do every week. I think you miss one point though. The Chaser is meant to be SATIRE. Now as someone who is constantly under attack, especially from the lovely Jacqueline, for not being satirical, I'm sure you will understand the problem. The "make a realistic wish" skit was satire without a target , and I think that is a contradiction in terms. I thought the same was true of the Pritzl sketch, which was equally offensive and pointless.

And I think, more generally, the first two episodes this series have seemed aimless and pointless. The boys are going through the motions, using the old formula, but they have run out of targets to have a go at, and so the show falls flat. And there is also room for the wowsers, and the Chaser haters (ACA etc seeking revenge for the many times when they were the target) are left with an easy target. The obvious defence of such a sketch was - "but it is satirical, didn't you get it?" If there is no satire then the sketch is left only with its shock value and unpleasantness, and away we go.

I hope they get back to the old days where, while not uniformly on target, they nevertheless always had a target in mind.

Ben Pobjie said...

But the sketch was not satirical. The Chaser is KNOWN for satire, but not everything it does is satire. Because the Chaser is known for its satire, it has been assumed that this sketch is "satire without a target", or that its target was something terrible, when in fact it didn't have a target because it was not, in fact, a satirical sketch. That's what my response was all about.

Nobody ever said the sketch was meant to be satire, there was no "satire" label on it, it was, as I said, conventional sketch comedy. It didn't have a target because it never meant to have one, and comedy doesn't need a target, it just needs a joke.

This is not unique, by the way. The Chaser has done many pieces that were "straight" comedy, not satire. Their "if life were a musical" sketches were some such.

Anonymous said...


Desh said...

Hi Ben,

I'm a recent convert to your blog and look forward to reading more articles.

As a self style satrical stand up comic punching through the Australian comedy circut, there is simple rule I've learned, that is, if you have to explain a joke, its not funny.

The tag line for the Chaser's sketch was just mean. I've seen comics assaulted for less offensive remarks and the fact it made it to television showed appalling judgement.

I found your comments refreshing and insightful, but I think it is impossible to defend the Chaser's actions. A mean joke is a mean joke.

It got what it deserved.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was satirical - and I also thought it was funny.

What dying kids wish for is not to die - make a realistic wish is apt.

I thought what the sketch was highlighting is that no matter what you give them you cant give them what they really want.

The fact that kids wish for unrealistic things like disneyland, which wouldnt be an option health-wise for many, further highlights the tragedy of children having a terminal illness. They aren't old enough to make realistic wishes - they still dream big.

I wonder if it would have been less offensive if they used child actors instead. But I understand that the last line of 'they're only going to die anyway' was probably too much for people anyway.

Unknown said...

Well, if it wasn't satire, what the hell was it, cos it sure wasn't humour. I can, just, imagine a skit involving dying kids in which they were being given too many wishes and were being overwhelmed, killed with kindness, perhaps, but I can only just get there, even overburdened as I am with a far too vivid imagination. If they thought this was a similar sort of humour then they all need to step back for a moment. They seem to have lost the ability to be self-critical.

And I say this, I repeat, as a great fan, and one who hopes they will burst back on to our television screens with some of their old joie de vivre and irreverence. The guys who crashed the APEC conference dressed as Osama bin Laden built up a great deal of comedy capital, but giving a kid a stick who was about to die anyway pretty much squandered it all. Some hard work is needed around the Chaser idea's conference table.

alliewonder said...

I think most of you still don't get what Ben means.
It's not a real sick child. He isn't really getting a stick. Wouldn't it be awful if there was such a foundation?! They would really be doing a bad job. Such a bad job it's almost funny...Gee, lucky it's a joke.
And once again, Ben isn't telling you to find it funny. Just to see they aren't attacking the sick kids, or the foundation.

David Prater said...

Hi Ben,

Interesting rant ... I'm a bit ambivalent about the whole thing, even after having seen the piece.

You mentioned in the comment above that it wasn't satire - just plain old sketch comedy - but I didn't see an explanation of this in your post ... why wasn't it satire?

Surely the 'Make A Realistic Wish Foundation' is a satire on the actual 'Make A Wish Foundation'?

Not to mention a satire on the Mike Willessee style of TV 'sick kid' journalism - I thought that was pretty apparent, and basically the only reason to find it funny.

Maybe this is why 'the media' is so outraged by it? Like they always are, when it comes to 'The Chaser'? I mean, isn't the media really their special target, on a lot of occasions? A legitimate target, to be sure, but not as simple or one-dimensional as 'sketch comedy' ... as Python's Race For People With No Sense of Direction clearly was.

In another sense, I fail to see what The Chaser have actually lost out of this - I mean, they weren't sacked. Someone else took the hit for that. Their show will presumably go on. They might have lost a few audience members ... but who cares, this is the ABC. Do you think they're actually in a lot of pain about all this?

Face it, they'd prefer confected outrage to stony silence, any day.

Ben Pobjie said...

Natalie, they did use child actors - those weren't real sick kids.

David P, I guess there are different definitions of the word "satire". It wasn't satire in the sense of an attack on, or mockery of, the subject. Obviously it was a play on the real foundation - a parody, you could call it, and some may term that "satire", but the main point is, whatever you call it, it wasn't "making fun of sick kids", or "attacking the Make A Wish Foundation".

Now, a genuine satire on the media of the type you describe would be legitimate, but I honestly do not believe this is what the sketch was.

As to what they lost, well not much, I suppose. I mean, unless this cows them and makes them lose their mojo. But yeah, they haven't been sacked or anything. I still don't like people being accused of things they didn't do.

David H, again, I would never argue with you about whether it was funny or not; my point was that the idea is a sketch about a "foundation" that is terrible at its job, not about "how funny sick kids are". If you didn't think it was very good, then fine. If you found it offensive, fine again. And if you think they'd be better off sticking to actual satire, with actual targets, that's fair enough. All I say is that if people are to be offended, be offended by what's actually happening, and that it's not fair to accuse people of mocking dying children if they haven't actually done that.

David Prater said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks for clarifying - and of course I don't want to descend into a technical argument about parody vs satire or whatever. I'm trying to think of another way they could have done it - if they had a foundation called the Limelight Foundation (as opposed to the Starlight Foundation), and sent up the whole 'media personality meets dying kids to boost personal ratings' thing ... but then I'm not sure that's funny at all. Best to leave it to the experts, I suppose.

Ben Pobjie said...

I know you David - you are the experts!