Referral upwards. Aside from the “the colonoscopy department is fresh out of anesthetic” has any phrase ever struck more fear into those at the mercy of more powerful forces?

Referral upward got an airing on Media Watch last night, as it investigated just exactly who was responsible for The Chaser‘s “make a realistic wish” sketch actually getting to air. When the music stopped, head of arts, comedy and entertainment, m’esteemed former colleague Amanda Duthie fell on the proverbial, and admitted that she had OKed the material, and had not seen the material as sufficiently extreme (as per ABC guidelines on satire — yes there are guidelines on anything) to bring it to the attention of Content head Courtney Gibson— who would then have faced the choice of whether to OK it or in turn “refer upwards” to TV head Kim Dalton or ultimately Managing Director Mark Scott.

If one bad judgment by a comedy unit becomes a stick to beat the organisation with, or satire itself, then it will be a failure of will on the part of the ABC to stick by its talent, even when they make terrible mistakes. It’s obvious to this old sketch-comedy hack how The Chaser thing happened — a sketch-comedy show is part playground crap session, part last days in the Fuhrerbunker, and the relentless need to feed the monster that is the show can put you off balance. The “realistic wish” idea must have been hilarious in an ideas session, where rules of taste are officially suspended, and any creeping thoughts as the thing was being filmed, with actual child-actors pretending to be dying kids, would have been pushed to the back of one’s mind.

When the sketch was viewed it should have been clear that its execution was too cold and literal to really count as comedy. No-one powerful was being attacked — who is more vulnerable than a dying child — and no cogent political point about charities was being made. Others have got away with the same material — the Mansion doing the same idea as a cheap direct to camera single shot, and Micallef, in which a dying teenager expresses a wish to be wanked off by a nurse (or a female celebrity, I forget) which both gave the sick kid himself a role as a heroic ‘life springs eternal’ figure, while also portraying our uneasiness at the fact that dying teenager’s wishes are not the sort of happy jolly ribbons and rainbows stuff that make-a-wish etc likes.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

So what went wrong? The ABC actually has better content supervision processes than commercial TV, which — aside from ensuring that nudity, etc doesn’t go out in an early timeslot — has processes that are completely ad-hoc. Bad-taste sketches — such as a newsreader giving a woman whose son had died in a road accident a “meat tray” as a prize for writing the letter of the week to a local paper (a Full Frontal item) — go out all the time on commercial TV, and the only feedback is a phone call the next day to “pull it in a bit”.

But the difference is that in a commercial environment, producers have an internal censor, telling them that they’re making entertainment to amuse people who’ve had a hard day — and since everyone knows someone who’s died of cancer, in a car crash, etc etc, such material needs to be limited. What’s to be gained from ruining someone’s evening with material that is frankly, an admission that you’re out of funny ideas, and need the power of shock to keep going?

The Chaser‘s self-described “War on Everything” persuaded them and their immediate superiors that any challenge to viewer complacency was part of their mission. That was simply rolled over from satire to slightly-desperate black humour. To have everyone up to the ABC MD poring over scripts to decide whether an Air France flight from Brazil gag is “too soon”, or whether Chris Lilley can say “smegma” is going to kill comedy dead.

What’s needed is a more critical reflection by producers on how satire can slide into pointless nihilism when its main purpose — ridiculing power, received ideas, complacency etc — becomes confused with the idea of to quote Garrison Keiller on avant-garde theatre, “not so much performing plays as confronting the audience with its own inadequacies”. It’s part of a wider nihilism which has infected much TV in the years of reality television, and the disappearance of real political contestation.

Come to think of it, colonoscopy is kinda referral upwards.

Now stay tuned for Rwanda — The Musical!

Guy Rundle was Executive Producer of the ill-fated ABC arts production Vulture