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Now you’re laughing: the unhappy state of Australia’s political satire

Our political system might lend itself to mockery, but are satirists stepping up? The Chaser's Election Desk/ABC

Now you’re laughing: the unhappy state of Australia’s political satire

I’m willing to bet The Chaser team are disappointed that last night’s episode of the Election Desk was the last of the series. So much fruit for comedic picking has ripened over the last week they could probably run new episodes every day for the next month and not run out of material.

Then again it has been many years since The Chaser was in peak form, so it’s questionable as to whether they – or any other Australian satirists, for that matter – would do anything truly worthwhile with it.

It’s a real shame, because we are in the middle (or perhaps, more worryingly, just at the start) of another tumultuous period in Australian politics, and we need a good laugh more than ever.

The rise of satire-journalism

Over the last 20 years, satire has played an increasingly significant role in the political sphere. Apart from providing catharsis for disillusioned voters, it’s more and more shaping public perceptions of events.

Many observers argue satire has become important because traditional forms of journalism have fallen into a state of crisis, no longer fulfilling its role of holding powerful people and institutions to account.

In his excellent book From Cronkite to Colbert (2009), Geoffrey Baym described satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as “neomodern”. They, and others like them, are actually attending to some fundamental concerns of journalism (searching for truth, a desire for accountability), even as they depart radically from many of its norms (objectivity, balance) at the same time.

Of course, another reason why satire has grown in significance in recent years is because it’s far more entertaining – and therefore so much more shareable – than most forms of political news.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014-) has been outrageously successful in this way, with the long, informative, passionate segments about issues that matter that have become its hallmark. As it happens, its recent segment about the Brexit was not shown in the UK before the referendum, because it was considered to be too one-sided.

Another satirical format that has become popular in recent years (perhaps also thanks to its shareability) is the “fake news” story. Historically, The Onion has set the global standard.

The Chaser (in its original published format) was mostly alone in this space domestically, but has been joined by sites like The Shovel, The Backburner and The Betoota Advocate. Some of the most enjoyable moments during the Liberal leadership coup last year came from websites like these.

Indeed, it is becoming harder and harder to distinguish between real news and fake news, so ludicrous has so much of modern politics become. Websites like Literally Unbelievable, which collates satire along with the reactions of people who believed it, and Facebook’s decision in 2014 to (temporarily) flag links to The Onion as “Satire”, demonstrate this all too clearly.

It’s not just un-media-savvy audiences being fooled. A litany of prominent public figures and media sources have been taken in by fake news, perhaps most notably when in 2012 Chinese newspaper The People’s Daily picked up an Onion report that Kim Jong-un had been voted “Sexiest Man Alive”.

Australian satire today

Australia does have a rich satirical history, as I’ve noted before, but its more recent output has arguably been somewhat second-rate. Most of the satirical websites I’ve mentioned follow a path well-trodden by The Onion.

The ABC’s The Weekly with Charlie Pickering (2015-) was criticised from the start for being highly derivative of Last Week Tonight. Pickering’s style was arguably better suited to The Project, which was looser and less scripted.

At the risk of invoking the dreaded “I like your old stuff better than your new stuff”, The Chaser – although still popular – has lacked originality in recent years. Their presence at press conferences and photo-ops was once daring, catching politicians off-guard.

There was perhaps no better demonstration that the Coalition’s crusade on interest rates during the 2004 election was a scare campaign than Craig Reucassel asking Philip Ruddock (echoing the 2001 scare campaign on refugees) whether they alone would “decide what interest rates come to this country, and the circumstances in which they come?”

The Chaser Decides (2004)

Now, too many of their cheap one-liners fall flat, and politicians have become wise to their antics (and often agree to guest appearances).

The one stand-out exception to this was Zoe Norton Lodge and Kirsten Drysdale’s wonderful stunt with David Leyonhjelm, which highlighted the senator’s hypocrisy when “free speech” is directed towards him, rather than an entire gender. It was The Chaser getting back to its edgy best.

I’ve never particularly enjoyed Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell, perhaps because, as one reviewer noted last year, “Micallef’s well-oiled machine is all shtick: a comedy show that just happens to use the news as a delivery mechanism for punchlines”. His 2007 program NEWStopia (which, crucially, was not filmed in front of a live studio audience) was a much better vehicle for that kind of comedy.

If there was one interesting thing thrown up by the media during the election period, it’s Sammy J’s Playground Politics, an off-the-wall blend of political humour in a style scarily reminiscent of Playschool. It gets us back to what Australian satirists have done so well in the past: being original, rather than blindly following the example set by others overseas.