The Chaser's War on Nothing Much: Is This Australian Political Satire?

Originally published (with some alterations) in The Weekend Australian Review, 13 October 2007

Kit MacFarlane

The Chaser seems to have been elevated, or has elevated itself, into a socially relevant phenomenon. Temporarily suspending the show in order to coincide with the upcoming election is a bold statement of purpose, but while it sells itself as satire, there's really very little underlying political content. The Chaser's increased stature seems to have come from just getting out there and irritating famous people, but these stunts lack the self-supporting drive that derives from any clear sense of focus, and instead seem to hope desperately for the goodwill of their targets in order to make the joke work. 

Witness the lame joke where one of the team goes onto a bus to try to recreate an ad for The Rich List, in which the passengers all unite to 'make a list', as part of the 'wouldn't it be funny if ads were real'-type segment (what insight!). The first attempt generates minimal response. The segment flounders on for a while until one bus finally has a passenger willing to play along. The Chaser member seems almost thrown by an actual response and awkwardly fumbles his way towards a second. He tries to feed the response he wants to the bus, and eventually a passenger gives him the right answer. 

I've received that kind of answer many times while teaching grammar to first-year students: it's an answer thrown out in pity towards someone who isn't allowed to acknowledge that what they're trying to do is overwhelmingly dull. The segment ends, but we have just enough time to see the comedian give an awkward smile and feel like an idiot.

The other public pranks are equally as flimsy. Asking to be Hillary Clinton's intern is not only out of date, it hasn't even been constructed or thought out. Like those prank calls that simply rely on shouting out obscenities and hanging up, it's the equivalent of running up to Hillary Clinton, yelling 'Intern!', and then running away. The joke is old, and its style is non-existent. 

Usually these targets simply walk away unperturbed. Sometimes they respond and the Chasers look, it must be said, grateful. They lack the ludicrously intriguing presence of a Norman Gunston or the aggressive wit and persistence of a Barry Humphries. Their jokes are not weighty enough to support themselves, and, sadly, the perpetrators remain in awe of their targets. They seem half-baked when they're ignored, and inspire pathos when they fumble to cope with a target who actually responds. A comedic and chaotic impulse can't even be created in staged events. 

The Three Stooges would run into a scenario, cause chaos, and then run away. The Chasers run in, and then run away. Where's the chaos?

Like Rove, sketches are presented within the context of recurring segments with names that bluntly explain the joke, presumably so that the audience doesn't have to think about why something is supposed to be funny. A parody of Mrs Doubtfire (only fifteen years out of date) featuring Hitler, essentially explains the entire joke before it's even begun. 

This sketch caused some controversy due to complaints by the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission, but the complaints are no big deal; this kind of comedy is supposed to provoke, and these kinds of organisations are supposed to respond. But it was The Chaser's immediate apology that caused concern. Why did they give in so easily? 

But a glance back at the segment makes it clear that they were out of their league invoking a volatile image like Hitler, even sixty years after his death (and after famous satirical portrayals by Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and Mel Brooks). The introductory explanation of the sketch simply relies on the 'surprise' that there were propaganda films in Nazi Germany. This is as far as it goes: films in Nazi Germany - who woulda thunk it? 

What's really upsetting about the incident is the fact that many saw the ADL as (over)reacting to some serious satire. Perhaps even the ADL thinks so. In fact, we can't even console ourselves by thinking that there was some substance in the middle of this brouhaha.

Even the recent APEC controversy was something The Chaser seemed to blunder into despite their best efforts to skirt about the edges. Driving a fake motorcade into a restricted area, and clearly counting on being kicked out after a checkpoint or two, the team was suddenly thrown into a spotlight they weren't expecting. 

While the media might have gone into overdrive and the ratings soared, The Chaser can hardly be accused of overperforming. With international cameras watching, The Chaser had nothing to fall back on but a silly costume. The stunt might have unintentionally revealed to the world the gaping holes in APEC security, but it also revealed a gaping void in Australian satirical content. A stunt like this relies on the unexpected imposition of a disruptive and disquieting image, but, however radical they may believe it to be, the image of Osama Bin Laden has none of this impact. 

In fact, if this was supposed to be a comment on the 'war on terror', then it plays right into the hands of the perpetrators, keeping the focus on Bin Laden and away from the actual turmoil in Iraq (where Bin Laden is nowhere to be found). In comparison to, say, a representative of the growing number of dead Iraqi civilians or even the hanged body of Saddam Hussein demanding a place at the table, a caricature of Bin Laden is a welcome sight. 

Far from being radical, it's practically government propaganda.

As with the response to the Hitler gag, as well as being accused of staging some of their public stunts, The Chaser fell back on the 'it's just a silly joke' defence. They're quite happy to promote their anarchic image until forced to defend it; as soon as that happens they run a mile.

Now, I should be The Chaser's core audience. I don't mind humiliation of public figures, have no problem with alleged ABC left-wing bias, don't think the APEC stunt should land them in jail, and don't mind if much of their comedy is pointless and disposable. But how did The Chaser come to occupy a socially relevant position? Simply being current isn't the same as being cutting edge. Annoying a prime target like John Howard with a total lack of substance, such as asking for a hug while carrying a giant fake battle axe, doesn't do anything but make him look better and the state of Australian comedy look worse. 

In the midst of a turbulent political climate, The Chaser is giving us cheap gags and wrapping them up in lukewarm current events.