Just before 9/11, America’s Comedy Network briefly produced a sitcom called That’s My Bush!, set in the White House, about the domestic and political life of the then-President and his wife, providing such wacky antics as the anti-drug president accidentally taking acid because he thought it was aspirin, or getting his cable wires crossed with an anti-missile system. It screened here on SBS, so you probably never saw it.
Though it couldn’t last, the concept was too good to waste. Now the ABC is making At Home with Julia, a sitcom set in the Lodge, based around the life of the PM and ‘first bloke’ Tim Mathieson. This could be fun. Amanda Bishop’s Julia Gillard impersonation, revealed in the short-lived but oft-brilliant sketch show Double Take, has since been perfected in radio and theatre. Bishop has been compared to Tina Fey, whose impression of Sarah Palin made the US media hail her as a great mimic. But while Fey has some resemblance to Palin (so her impersonation was perhaps just as easy is it seemed), Bishop is usually nothing like Gillard. Her imitation is even more impressive.
At Home with Julia would seem like the basis for a great political satire… except… well, Bishop (who co-writes as well as stars) speaks admiringly of Gillard. Though she has never met the PM, she would love to do so. Executive producer Rick Kalowski says that people from all sides of politics will be attached, ‘but not in a mean way’. He describes it as ‘a romantic comedy with political undertones’. Aw, how sweet.
Bishop is perfectly entitled to love her character, but even though it is co-written by and co-starring Phil Lloyd (who previously co-created the pointed satire Review with Myles Barlow), At Home with Julia looks set to be an affectionate tease rather than a biting satire. Bishop can already get laughs out of Gillard’s voice and favourite phrases (no doubt she’ll be ‘moving forward’), and suitable actors can doubtless be found to impersonate Abbott, Rudd, Brown and other supporting players. But what about the policies? What about the campaigns? Dammit, why not rip these pollies to shreds on the issues that actually matter?
Over the years, Australian television satire has usually been toothless. Impersonators seem to seek approval from their targets, occasionally resorting to the old phrase: ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ It’s like a cartoonist being more concerned with his likenesses than his punchline. Other political satire is equally soft-hearted. At
a journalists’ function some years ago, Jonathan Biggins (star of numerous sketch shows) and The Chaser’s Chris Taylor agreed that it was pointless trying to effect change. Instead, they aim solely for laughs.
Making people laugh is a noble profession, but our comics and satirists undersell themselves if they limit their work to doing so. Jonathan Swift, that great Irish literary satirist, changed government policy with his 1729 masterwork, A Modest Proposal. Since then, well-honed satire has changed opinions and laws, society and culture. British TV and radio maintains a tradition of cutting down tall poppies on sketch and standup comedy shows. US audiences watch political satire on shows like The Daily Show, which is more ‘trusted’ than many news programs — a situation that its host, Jon Stewart, finds almost as funny as the one-liners.
And what have Australia’s television comedians been doing? Well, occasionally, they’ve actually gone for the jugular. That popular 1960s revue show The Mavis Bramston Show was slyly political. Twenty years later, The Gillies Report showcased Max Gillies’ devastating impersonations of public figures. The Dingo Principle (1987) was less funny, but even more fearless. Why can’t Australia do more satire like that?
The results might provide an answer. Along with high ratings, Mavis Bramston brought screams of outrage. The Gillies Report was enjoyed by many of its ‘victims’ — Bob Hawke once appeared in public as a double-act with Gillies-as-Hawke — but also inspired the odd lawsuit. The Dingo Principle, attacking the Ayatollah Khomeini, caused Iran to expel two senior Australian officials from Tehran.
People easily take offence, and under Australian law they are legally encouraged to do so. Hence, local comedians can’t exhibit the edginess of the average British radio current affairs satire. More’s the pity. Whatever you thought of the stunts on The Chaser’s War on Everything, it was refreshing to see Australian comedians who were willing to cross the line. Their envelope-pushing opus ‘The Eulogy Song’ (‘Even pricks turn into top blokes after death’), for all the PM-endorsed outrage — as Kevin Rudd joined the chorus of finger-wavers — actually made some valid points. It’s not necessary for satire to be offensive, of course, but it can certainly be sharpened.
I liked I Love Lucy as much as anyone, but I hope that the latest sitcom about an exuberant redhead can provide some decent political commentary.
Then again, maybe we’d be too dumbed-down to appreciate it. Even back in 1994, Channel Seven made an anniversary special for Mavis Bramston, in which they ploughed the archives for scenes that might be appealing to the same audience that made Australia’s Funniest Home Videos so popular. New viewers, perhaps aware of the legend of Mavis but unfamiliar with the show itself, were treated to an hour of custard pie fights, cross-dressing and people cracking eggs on their scalps. So much for satire.
When asked why he had been so long retired, the legendary US satirist Tom Lehrer suggested that satire had been redundant since 1973. Every week, with every ludicrous political debate and every revered spiritual leader guest-judging MasterChef, we receive new evidence. On the BBC radio comedy series The Now Show, an actress recently played Gillard, and (using a passable Australian accent) uttered her message to the media, finishing with the famous line: ‘Don’t write crap.’ The studio audience roared with laughter, presumably unaware that it was a genuine quote, not the work of a comedy writer.
Perhaps Lehrer pinpointed the problem. Real-life politics is leaving satire for dead.