Tuesday 9 June 2009

Censoring comedy: why Australia needs the Chaser's War on Everything

They’ve done it all. They breached security at the APEC summit in a fake motorcade. They flew a blimp over the Vatican, advertising “young boys”. They sold fake weapons to football fans before a game. They approached the prime minister with a running chainsaw. They did an infamous eulogy ridiculing the public mourning of deceased celebrities like Steve Irwin and Princess Diana.

But last week, Australia’s most popular comedy show – I’m talking, of course, about The Chaser’s War on Everything – last week, they finally went too far. The Chaser boys did a black comedy spoof of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, suggesting that terminally ill children should be invited to “Make a Realistic Wish” (instead of that trip to Disneyland, we’ll give you a pencil case). After all, the skit concluded: “Why go to any trouble, when they’re only gonna die anyway?”

Well, next morning the whole country seemed abuzz with outcries of complaint and condemnation. Everyone was talking about it. The Chasers were roundly condemned on the news media (if there’s one thing that really gets the media excited, it’s a good lynching!). Even the prime minister televised a public statement, condemning the skit as “absolutely beyond the pale”.

The Chaser boys themselves were forced – kicking and screaming, no doubt – to make a heartfelt public apology. And, as a “precautionary” measure, the show was censored: it has been pulled off the air for two weeks.

Now everyone agrees that the skit was tasteless. But it seems to me that the really interesting question here is not about the skit itself, but about the way our society reacts to a skit like this. Our public discourse in Australia gives so little thought to questions of virtue, the common good, the moral formation of society. So why all this public moral posturing all of a sudden? Why do we respond with such vehement moral outrage to a mere television show? Why do we cry for blood, demanding immediate censorship, intervention, retribution? In short, what does all this moral outrage tell us about ourselves?

My own hunch is that a society like ours – a society lacking any public discourse of virtue and the common good – actually needs moral outrage. It’s our compass: it’s all we have left to assure ourselves that our public life is not devoid of all moral shape. When the prime minister solemnly protests that a TV comedy skit is “beyond the pale”, he is appealing to our lingering intuition that there is some public “good”, that there must be more to life than the blank cheque of liberal “freedom”, that our society must be something more than a morally vacuous crowd of consumers governed by the neutral apparatus of democratic capitalism.

In short, when virtue disappears from public life, we fill the gap with moral outrage. And that’s why Australia needs the Chaser’s War on Everything. What else will we do on Wednesday nights, now that the show has been censored? Where else will we go to find our weekly dose of moral outrage? Who else can we blame and excoriate, in order to assert our own moral uprightness, in order to assure ourselves that all is well?

Late capitalist societies thrive on moral outrage: our public life demands it. But that is nothing to be proud of. All our pompous spluttering should remind us that we have lost something vital; that at the centre of our public life is a dark vacuum; that all our moral posturing is finally nothing else than a thin band-aid applied to a deep and festering wound.


Brad East said...

Excellent piece, Ben. It reminds me also of the rabid popularity of "reality shows" this decade, and their function for society as a whole. On the one hand, it is further sedentary voyeurism, through which we can live "crazy" or even "wrong" experiences by means of others (real people, no less), all the while sitting on our coach. On the other hand, we can eviscerate all of their stupidities, peccadilloes, mistakes, and sins. This combination of envy and moral outrage unites everyone around the water cooler or dinner table the next day as vital conversation fodder.

And the entire time, not only are we not sharing our own lives; we are enacting our own slow decomposition through the passive watching (and analyzing) of others'.

Anonymous said...

A post which clearly identifies the issues at stake, which resists the temptation to baptise or justify (which is the same thing) tastlessness, and which - at key points - keeps a continuity with Chaser humour; What more could we want? Thanks prophet Ben.

Anonymous said...

"Please, please cross the lines so I can be sure that they are still there."

Sort of the guilt/transgression cycle played out on a societal level. It feels good to be moral (cathartic rants) and it feels good to be immoral (pushing the limits)---but the distinction is critical either way.

The image of the vacuum is right on, we're looking for "fullness" and at a deep level we recognize that both being perfectly upright and being perfectly rotten leave an unfillable gap. Still we tend to vacillate back and forth.

Nathan Brown said...

Nice work and a worthwhile reflection. It is sad that contrived moral outrage is the stock in trade of so much of what passes for media.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Andrew Denton who said, 'All things are funny and some things are serious as well.'

kim fabricius said...

Alas, this phenomenon is to be observed beyond the world of bad-taste comedy and foul-mouthed telly chefs. In the recent European elections here in the UK, the sick joke and obscenity called the British National Party (BNP) has just performed the same function. Nationally reported cases of child abuse regularly trip the same switch of public fury. In a moral night in which all cows are black, it takes the horrendous to kindle a moral flicker.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is spot on.

Anonymous said...

"Why do we cry for blood, demanding immediate censorship, intervention, retribution?"

Sadly, this point was proved today when the ABC demoted the head of TV comedy, Amanda Duthie. Guess they needed a scapegoat.

Terry Wright said...

This reminds me of when the UK showed a similar mock documentary about paedophiles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NesjvRihbEg

The outrage was phenomenal, not least because several celebrities were duped into taking part.

The irony was that the programme produced the same mass moral indignation in the British media from which it was extracting the urine in the first place!

roger flyer said...

As an American (with our hair trigger hyper-morality buttons) I'm interested to know of this view of Australian morality.

As you Aussies (and Anglos) probably know, until recently, as American schoolchildren we learn 'American' history.

All we learn about Australia is that there are those cute kangaroos
and the whole place was once England's prison!

So...is this why virtue has disappeared from Australian public life? (My tongue is in my cheek.)

But I am wondering about 'virtue in public life', and how does a collective moral shape develop or devolve?

Halden over at Inhabatio Dei has an interesting post on The Patriot's Bible that comes at this from another angle...

saint egregious said...

I don't get it, Ben. You say the skit was in poor taste, but you then shift your analysis to talk about our addiction to moral outrage (true for sure). But what of the skit. Was it speaking some hard truths in a way that caused offense? Then, as a Christian, used to the truth coming in such a way, you might defend it in spite of the offense. Or was it utterly wrong headed and immoral? If the latter, than maybe moral outrage is precisely what is called for. No need to chastise the culture for moral outrage here in this instance if that is the case.
I am not sure, from your post, if I know which way you would go here. Option A, 2, or none of the above?

Anonymous said...

Your thesis amounts to something akin to saying (for example) that we should encourage children to start referring to black people as "boongs" again because the resultant moral outrage would prove we care.

What a ludicrous thesis.

The Chaser "boys" got to this point precisely because there is so little moral outrage about ANYTHING anymore - which is why they have to go on escalating. And the more they escalate the more course and desensitised people become to their "stunts".

Ben Myers said...

Egregious, thanks for your question. I actually don't think it's necessary to defend the skit. I agree that it was in poor taste: but that's comedy for you. Just watch any episode of Family Guy or South Park (or, for that matter, listen to an old Lenny Bruce act!). Comedy doesn't have to be "in good taste"; it's not the role of comedy to reinforce our refined moral sensibilities.

So I don't think there's any need to comment on the fact that the Chaser skit was tasteless. So what if it was? It's simply of no interest whether or not a comedy act is in good taste — the really interesting thing is the way our society reacts, the massive outpouring of public angst and righteous indignation.

I'm reminded of Bob Dylan's 1981 song about the death of the comedian Lenny Bruce: "Never robbed any churches, or cut off any babies' heads..." From the public reaction, you'd think Lenny Bruce had perpetrated crimes against humanity. Dylan's horribly exaggerated line ("cut off any babies' heads") simply highlights the absurdly disproportionate scale of public indignation.

Of course, Dylan goes on to say: "He just took the folks in high places and he shined a light in their beds..." This task of bringing uncomfortable truths to light is the basic function of comedy.

So although I think it's completely unnecessary to defend the Chaser skit (since I don't care whether or not comedy is "tasteless"), here's what one letter in The Age had to say in defence of the skit:

"A friend who worked for years at the Children's Hospital once told me there were times when it was difficult to get work done — the Good Friday television appeal and the period immediately before an election were particularly worrying. Corridors, waiting areas and bedsides would be crammed with politicians, AFL footballers and media celebrities, along with the inevitable TV cameras, sound equipment and the rest."

Some uncomfortable truths there, perhaps. But on the whole, I'd say it was still an unsuccessful skit. But then, as I said a moment ago, I don't think comedy can be judged according to whether it always succeeds. Half of any good comedy act will usually be sheer bad taste; it's the other half that matters, the part where someone "shines a light in our beds".

bruce hamill said...

Exactly Ben. Further confirmation of the Girardian thesis I say.

Joanna said...

I agree with you about the function of moral outrage, but I disagree that the function of shows like the Chaser is primarily to produce such outrage. Overall, people love the show, and their response week-to-week is not outrage but enthusiasm. I suspect late capitalist societies thrive on comedy of the Chaser variety primarily because they offer a kind of blandly repetitive cynicism about absolutely everything that allows us to feel that we are critiquing our society without actually ever doing anything counter-cultural. In this sense, I think the Chaser itself is more a sign of the moral vacuum you describe than the moral outrage it only very occasionally provokes.

Reg said...

Thanks Ben for highlighting the place of comedy in social critique and the lack of a decent ongoing public conversation about values and the common good in Australia.

At the Immanent Frame blog there is a continuing discussion about Barack Obama and civil religion in the USA and his articulation of a more inclusive civil religion. Australia has a different history and that conversation is not possible here. After Prime Minister Rudd wrote his piece about Bonhoeffer and raised some expectations about a public dialogue about deeper questions he has mostly resorted to the moral outrage you refer to.

Gary Bouma of Monash Uni plugs away at describing Australian spirituality in his "Australian Soul", some universities are teaching courses in Public Theology and Catholic social justice advocate Frank Brennan gets to head up the national Human Rights consultation.

If your post leads to a conversation about how to get a public conversation going in Australia about morality and values, their basis and the common good then I might believe in miracles again.

byron smith said...

I more or less agree with Ben, but also think it is worth reflecting on the specific issue that managed produce this level of outraged response. It was a skit that combined Western (at least Australian) society's deepest taboo (death) with one of our greatest idols (children). It was not a skit about terrorism or politicians or rich schoolboys or the many other areas of Australian life that drew the reaction. It was the fact that it was about dying children. Here, finally, we have something sacred.

Mark said...

The targets of the other mentioned skits (Vatican, PM, AEPC, football mob) are all in positions of power. Comedy aimed there is aimed at big-boys who can take it and need taken down a notch. Also, nobody really asscociates themselves with those people or groups. Picking on dying kids and the people who don't do anything...now you are aiming at us and its not funny. Unfortunately the moral outrage is at picking on the kids instead of those who do nothing. That would strike too close to home. Nobody likes hearing the law.

michael jensen said...

There was moral outrage at the whole Matthew Johns affair, too - that's worth remembering (a football star discovered to have engaged in group sex in New Zealand). That was, likewise, an interesting litmus test of the moral limits of Australian public discourse.

Halden said...

This post totally rules. Take that, moral outrage!

Saint Egregious said...

Best line of the entire Shot of Love Album:

Lenny Bruce was bad. He was the brother that you never had.

It seems most of Australia's been had by The Chasers.

Anonymous said...

Bill Hicks said it best 'Hitler had the right idea, he was just an under-achiever'. Seriously though Kim is right to say old Paedophilia gets them frothing in the UK, people who are quite insensible to any ethic feel themselves to be paragons of virtue by their keenness to slaughter them there kiddie fiddlers, to which I answer without the Christian God there's no morality possible only the play of power to which the usual response is 'I'd chop their bollocks off' (interesting how men still instinctively view men as the agents of evil) to which I reply 'you get my point then'. Oops got to offer Gordon Brown my suggestion for an election slogan in the current economic crisis 'do you really want be on the dole under the Tories'. Just Kidding.

roger flyer said...

Here's a current American morality tale from one of our 'Chasers' (David L) :

Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is insisting that comedian David Letterman "apologize to young women" for a joke he made on the air about one of her teen-age daughters.

Letterman admitted on his show that his wisecrack about a theoretical statutory rape of one of Palin's daughters was in bad taste, but didn't go further. Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate last year, said Friday that isn't good enough.

Letterman had joked that a Palin girl "was knocked up" by a player at a New York Yankees baseball game. He seemed to be referring to 18-year-old Bristol Palin, an unwed mother. But it was her 14-year-old sister Willow who was at the game with family members.

Interviewed on NBC's "Today" show, Sarah Palin said she thought it was "a degrading comment about a young woman. And I would hope that people would start really rising up and not accepting this."

Palin said "it's no wonder girls have such low self-esteem in America when a comedian can make a remark like this."

stanford said...

Really outstanding thoughts. You precisely articulated a vague idea I had been cultivating. The idea that we replace virtue with moral outrage is such a good synthesis of the phenomena.

Matt Stone said...

I'll tell you why it got the reaction it did. All those other figures you mentioned - APEC, the Vatican, the prime minister, Diana - they are all power figures. These kids, they were powerless. Cutting down tall poppies is a national sport for Australians, cutting down genuine battlers is not. The Chaser strayed from formula. Simple as that.

Fat said...

i've been mulling this one over for a while but Matt Stone has hit it square on. Well put.

Vikram Teva Raj said...

I don't think the chasers were actually making fun of terminally ill kids though... they were making fun of the psychology of charity... that by pushing money the way of terminally ill kids we're allowed to magic them away from our worldview. The moral outrage is more a function of the piece's success than anything else: it actually meant something to watchers. It wasn't just your regular Mclaugh. It seems to me that this is what comedy is about.

Vikram Teva Raj said...

You say today the west is desensitized to violence... yes, there's senseless violence on TV. But that's not really the fault of comedy per se, is it? How much intestines were spilled in this clip?

The point of comedy like this is to put the middle class on the rack. More particularly, for me at least, to put middle class teenagers on the rack. They need their nightmares. They're the ones with the resources to be our future.

That said, I think outrage is a part of what keeps comedy like this a vital agent of social change. Nothing like martyrdom to ram the message home.

rajasmasala said...

I do find it interesting that one of the commenters believes that the only morality possible involves the Christian God..

byron smith said...

I've just come across the 2009 Andrew Olle lecture, devliered by the Chaser's Julian Morrow. He has a number of very interesting things to say about satire and censorship.

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