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An Australian Colbert? We’re too cruelly irreverent for decent satire

People are crying out for satire — the local, homegrown kind. Senator Nick Xenophon has lamented the lack of anything like The Daily Show in Australia. In Crikey, Peter Green called for Australia’s own Stephen Colbert to show forth. For Green it’s a point of national honour not be beaten by the Americans, because “we are a nation known the world over for an inability or at least reluctance to take ourselves seriously”.

Not so fast. Jon Stewart and Colbert get such traction, along with a raft of other late-night hosts on American TV, precisely because they take their politics and themselves so seriously.

We Australians, on the other hand, take ourselves so unseriously that the dominant note in our comedy — what passes for political satire and much other humour — is ridicule. For this kind of derision, the audience has to recognise the butt of the joke and laugh because it feels superior to whatever is being mocked.

Clarke and Dawe often play this card. In a recent commentary they got stuck into the vacuous repetition of sports commentators. This sort of humour has a pedigree at least as far back as Alex Buzo’s Australian Indoor Tautology Pennant in the late 1970s. All that’s changed is that we now feel intellectually superior to Ian Chappell and Mark Taylor, not the late Rex Mossop.

The rugby league commentator was credited with such turns of phrase as “I don’t want to sound incredulous, but I don’t believe it” and “let me recapitulate what I said previously”. It’s only funny if you understand “incredulous” and “recapitulate”, which, of course, makes you smarter than Mossop.

The Shovel bills itself as “Australia’s second favourite source of satire after Today Tonight“ but it routinely resorts to ad hominem humour. In a recent piece on the failings of the broadband network, it notes that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has already convinced most Australians that “an inferior, underfunded broadband network is actually in their interests, simply by using a clever turn of phrase and a cheeky smile. We thought we should channel all that energy and charisma directly into Australian homes and save around $40 billion in the process.” Sure, it does knock Coalition policy but mostly it’s a smackdown on Turnbull’s stylish duplicity.

Australian comedy invariably attacks the messenger not the message, so humour by humiliation is a staple. Why was it funny for the ABC’s Chaser to beat the security cordon at APEC with a fake motorcade and counterfeit Osama bin Laden? It ripped into pompous politicians like John Howard and George W. Bush. But that was hardly the thing most in need of satire at APEC.

Or think of the comic antics of John Safran. In 1997, the Melbourne comic punctured the pretensions of Disneyland in ABC’s Race Around the World. He interrogated denizens of the Magic Kingdom like Snow White on how much they earned, knowing their jobs required them never to break from character. (Safran’s point: they were paid less than US$6 an hour while CEO Michael Eisner earned over US$200 million.)

Safran also mocked the Orthodox at prayer in Jersualem, wittily joining them to leave a prayer in the Western Wall seeking victory for St Kilda. Arguably, it jabbed at the zealotry of Saints’ fans, but in reality it mocked Jewish piety.

The studio audience found the jokes hilarious and one judge even dubbed Safran “a legend”. For what? For mocking the saccharine sappiness of Disneyland and ridiculing prayer customs?

It’s a message that just doesn’t have an Australian idiom because of our reluctance to, well, take ourselves very seriously.”

These jokes are peculiarly Australian. Think of Norman Gunston asking Ray Charles if he wore sunglasses to emulate Roy Orbison. Or asking Warren Beatty if Miss Carly Simon wrote that song about him … you know the one, “The Impossible Dream”.

This comedy is so mean-spirited, it cannot be exported. Kath and Kim, for example, made no sense to Americans, and the American version flopped in one season. Fountain Lakes is not just another suburban setting for a sit-com; it’s where the aspiring lower middle class exercises its nouveau riche vanity.

Kim finds lowbrow celebrity gossip in People magazine endlessly fascinating. When Kath declares that she had a “noice toime, a really noice toime”, Australians hear a stilted accent enthusing over the inconsequential. And we instantly know we’re much better than Day-Knight and her daughter.

Ja’mie: Private School Girl, which recently aired on cable in the US, earned very negative reviews. Americans did not get, in the words of Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever, “what [Chris] Lilley really gains by making fun of snooty teenage girls — fish in a barrel full of iPhones”.

Australia lacks a Stewart and a Colbert because we just cannot mock the message as they do. When Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly said that Jesus and Santa “just had to be white”, Colbert responded by noting that Jesus was “just your average, Aramaic-speaking, first century, Middle Eastern white guy”. In other words, he targeted Kelly’s argument, not Kelly.

Stewart and Colbert are such reliable news sources because their monologues are based on the news and mock how Americans understand that news. When the latest school rankings came out from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, American media reported the low rankings with stereotypical alarm. Stewart mocked that alarm by expressing sorrow for the country just above the US — the Slovak Republic. It was doomed to become the self-explanatory metric of American failure.

Australians love to cut down tall poppies. The subtext of our comedy is “these guys are wankers”. The kind of satire Colbert and Stewart do sends an entirely different message. It’s more akin to “is this really the best we can do?” It’s a message that just doesn’t have an Australian idiom because of our reluctance to, well, take ourselves very seriously.

*Ian Mylchreest is an Australian journalist and radio producer living in Las Vegas. This article was originally published at Daily Review.

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