First, there was the war on drugs. Then came the war on terrorism. Followed by the war on Christmas, women and religion. We seem to love waging wars.
And now a new war has broken out: the war on comedy.
This war started just a week ago by those defending Rush Limbaugh's infamous attack on Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law school student who simply offered an opinion Limbaugh didn't like. So, Limbaugh being the "entertainer" that he is, responded by calling this young woman a "slut" and "prostitute."
While I absolutely support freedom of speech, comedians deserve to suffer consequences if they make hateful jokes about race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation.
However, comedians must be afforded great leeway when the joke is about a political issue. Lampooning people in power like our president, Congress and political candidates is nearly a cornerstone to our democracy. Even our libel laws provide a higher degree of protection for private citizens than for public figures.
American comedians have a proud tradition of raising awareness on important political and social issues. Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Chris Rock and, of course, Jon Stewart, do more than simply make people laugh -- their comedy can shape public opinion.
The standard for acceptable political comedy cannot be whether the joke offended someone. Political jokes will always offend someone since they are inherently divisive. The reason we tell these jokes is not only to get a laugh, but also to challenge people's views. (Here's a little secret: We comedians enjoy the fact we sometimes rankle those in the audience who disagree with our political jokes.)
I don’t know how it happened. It could be higher levels of blue-rinse in the water. Maybe it’s a spike in the sales of model trains. Or a sudden surge in the demand for lamingtons. But 2009 is unofficially shaping up to be The Year Of The Wowser.
With almost German precision (if I am permitted to use nationality as the basis of my point), the chorus of shrill voices responding to controversy in comedy has been oscillating at a rock solid bi-weekly frequency in recent months.
While you have to admire the sheer energy these biddies have - you can’t grant them any real depth of understanding when it comes to the art form. (And yes. It is an art form.)
After all, the people that make the most noise about scandals in comedy are usually the ones that will tell you at the drop of a tweed hat that they would never have the indignity to consume such inappropriate media in the first place.
If it weren’t for their fevered scouring of the first few pages of the tabloids, or tuning into talkback for the latest controversy, most wouldn’t even be aware of the existence of such distasteful televisual sour-meats.
News editors know this, and push the buttons of those who are most likely to pipe up. And usually, before the offending vehicle is out of the starting blocks.
In the duration of the recent wowser-wars, I can’t count the amount of times I’ve read a story about a controversy that pre-empts the actual controversy.
“Fresh outrage has been sparked over a sketch in an upcoming episode of…” is the line journalists like to use to get the meaty fires of good old white-bread fury started.
Never mind the fact that most of the general public haven’t actually seen the show, or have any idea of its context – the most important thing to know is that it will shake the very fiber of your moral being.
Outrage! Now! Look at this filth! Scream! Scream damn you!
However, last week, it looks like the wowser’s precision timing was off by a couple of beats.
John Safran’s Race Relations copped the shock of pre-ambling pot-shots but missed the veritable tsunami of public fury. Maybe it was just luck on his part – the public are a fickle lot.
Only five registered complaints were taken by the ABC (at 10:30pm) for a show which was touted by pre-packaged outrage mob The Family First Party as “the lowest point in Australian television history”.
It’s hard to say if the rest of the series will pique the lynching interests of the fist shaking masses – but it’s going to be a fun ride to watch. After all, Safran himself said the first episode contained, in his opinion, the weakest material in the series.
Maybe it’s his self-deprecating and disarming style that cleverly masks the controversial aspects of his stunts – where as The Chaser’s fester openly - and really, taking aim at a Safran gag is like zooming in on the penis of a meticulously crafted nude sculpture and decrying it as filth.
In this case, the penis not so mighty. But somehow, I don’t think the war is over just yet.
But while you are tuning your screeching vocal chords and inking your typewriters in preparation for the next assault, Mr. and Mrs. Toenail of Nambucca Heads, there is one final thought that I’d like you to consider.
If you were to be quizzed about what defines the Australian character, I can bet my bottom dollar that amongst the plethora of beige answers like “fair go” and “mateship”, you would arrive at the embodiment of the Great Australian Larrikin.
And that’s the real kicker. The very thing you protest against is the very thing that defines you as an Australian. And, like it or not, the larrikin isn’t the cheeky, black and white heel clicker you imagine him or her to be.
It’s Graham Kennedy, it’s Bert Newton, it’s Paul Hogan and it’s John Blackman. It’s Tony Martin, it’s Magda Szubanski and it’s Glenn Robins. But also, it’s Chas Licciardello, it’s Heath Franklin, it’s Chris Lilley, and it’s John Saffran.
It’s every stand up comedy show that you don’t go to. It’s taking the piss, it’s having a dig, it’s being cheeky, but it’s also eviscerating the darker aspects of our nature.
The Australian T.V Larrikin is an amorphous beast. It’s continually evolving and reflecting the culture of the time. Yes, it’s spiky. At times, it will cause you to cringe. It might even offend you.
But it’s this very edge that makes us who we are as a nation. This edge is a vital part of our unique, laconic character. If you plane off the edge, you squeeze out the lifeblood.
God forbid you have any real success in your quest to rub a black mark over every swear word, controversy or sketch that does not fit into your easily digestible, homogenized, bland boundaries.
So before you start screaming and shouting at what you perceive to be the next comedic aberration, just relax. Take a breath.
Leave comedy to the comedians, and to those who appreciate comedians of all shades. We’re enjoying it. If it offends us, our skin is thick enough to deal with it. How about yours?
Besides, if you snub out every spiky moment in television, what clips will Richard Wilkins respond to on 20-1 in 10 year’s time?
That is what you watch, right?
Are there any niggers here tonight? Could you turn on the house lights, please, and could the waiters and waitresses just stop serving, just for a second? And turn off this spot. Now what did he say? "Are there any niggers here tonight?" I know there's one nigger, because I see him back there working. Let's see, there's two niggers. And between those two niggers sits a kyke. And there's another kyke— that's two kykes and three niggers. And there's a spic. Right? Hmm? There's another spic. Ooh, there's a wop; there's a polack; and, oh, a couple of greaseballs. And there's three lace-curtain Irish micks. And there's one, hip, thick, hunky, funky, boogie. Boogie boogie. Mm-hmm. I got three kykes here, do I hear five kykes? I got five kykes, do I hear six spics, I got six spics, do I hear seven niggers? I got seven niggers. Sold American. I pass with seven niggers, six spics, five micks, four kykes, three guineas, and one wop. Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: if President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, "I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet," and if he'd just say "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" to every nigger he saw, "boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie," "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" 'til nigger didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.