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Getting personal in At Home With Julia: The tradition of satire

At Home With Julia follows the tradition of poking fun at politicians’ personal lives. ABC Television publicity

I was waiting for her to say “he touched me in nooks and in unexplored crannies I never knew I had” but it was not to be.

For the rest of the episode, however, the lead in At Home With Julia sounded like our First Lady of Suburbia Kath Day-Knight with her talk of “the desert tray” and her “perves” on the garden tradie, a sexual theme the actress Amanda Bishop has continued from her parody of the song 9 to 5.

The reviews

The reception to the first episode has ranged from those who start with the word lame to spiral downwards to “appalling television”; to those who liked the wry “sly and warm-hearted comedy exploring the humanity that exists within the identities of the political arena”; to one critic who was ready to chew her own arm off to get some intelligent satire because this show was “a symptom of the relentless drive towards trivialising politics and politicians”.

It all depends on your point of view is one response but that doesn’t get us very far beyond personal likes and dislikes. But we can pursue this so-called trivialisation, the important point that satire is always read against a context, and what traditional avenues of political satire the show didn’t pursue.

The executive producer was quoted as saying the show was a comedy “love story” and would not be mean-spirited.

Of course this show is against a background of spite against Gillard that may play to the Billy Tea Partiers in the stalls of the Colosseum.

This is one part of the difficulty of dealing with an audience that will read with a context. And the show may please many who are dismayed by the vitriol.

But when a producer announces a comedy about a politician people expect a satire involving all the traditional tropes about politicians that have been employed in Australia since the 19th century, and go further back to England.

This show mostly fails to deliver those expectations, regardless of their fairness.

Satire and politics

“Mean-spirited” is a tricky term in satire and comedy. Denouncing satirists for being “mean-spirited” has been a traditional counter-attack by the victims of satire against their tormentors. That satire is, well, just not nice, damn it!

For their part, satirists have often wanted to portray their work as a public service against the wicked, ever since Alexander Pope said in the eighteenth century the aim of satire was to cut an animal from the herd as an example to others.

So there has always been a battle between satirists and targets for reputation and position on the moral high ground.

History of satire

In February 1843 the editor of the newspaper The Satirist and Sporting Chronicle declared in the first edition that his purpose was: to expose and repress “humbug, either judicial, magisterial or political… and though satire is to be the weapon which we shall fearlessly yield – let it be remembered we shall at all times strive to steer clear of PERSONAL SCURRILITY (sic). Our pages shall never be made the channel of private resentment [but]… whatever we deem prejudice to the public weal.”

He called it humbug but we know it as hypocrisy. Evidently the editor’s first target thought he was scurrilous and mean-spirited for writing that the pockmarked face of this politician was due to “the commission of sin in early life and the effects of mercury”. The editor was jailed in our first libel case brought by an elected politician and the paper folded.

Whatever the fairness of the verdict, it demonstrates that politicians have always been targeted for the same vices of corruption, lies, hunger for power, ambition and self-interest.

Now all these vices have been contrasted to the virtues of democracy in which the ideal politician looks after the people’s interests before their own, are self-effacing and have little interest in ambition, rewards and other sins of the flesh.

The ‘gap’ in democracy

In other words, there is always a gap between two ideas of politicians which satirists exploit, whether fairly or unfairly, and make the charge of hypocrisy.

Politicians must play a game in order to get elected: they must appear ordinary or like the people to get elected but they must have the qualities of ambition, thick-skin, a desire for power in order to succeed in politics. They must have the qualities most of us don’t have.

So the whole game reeks of hypocrisies, not just in politicians but also in us.

This is why we have seen cartoonists depict Malcolm Turnbull in a top hat; Tony Abbott as another Lord Nelson holding a telescope twisted to himself marked Vision for Australia to a bung eye; and Steve Bell depicting Tony Blair as the one-eyed Bambi Ballcrusher.

Now in At Home With Julia we get no hint of Gillard’s ambition that got her to the top, that deposed a prime minister, and that has ditched her left ALP ideology for pragmatism. The closest we get in the program is the phone conversation with “Keating” who is a windbag constantly telling Julia how great he is.

Satirical sex and domination

Spitting Image portrayed Margaret Thatcher as a dominatrix eager to dole out punishment to recalcitrant ministers. Flickr/Galaxy FM

As may be gleaned from the example of the pock-marked face and “sin”, sex and the trivial sells satire. Greed for sex and other basic needs become metaphors for overwhelming selfishness and domination that hint at what awful things they may do to us. However, exposure of our First Couple as our First Bonkers has no such dark overtones.

In 1992 a cross party group of ex-politicians-cum-authors portrayed a female prime minister who has nothing to learn from JFK and Henry Kissinger about sex as an aphrodisiacal by-product of power and who beds an ambitious admiral in Up The Greasy Pole. This was a gender egalitarian twist on an old theme and was a far cry from the suburban bonking in the TV show.

The sexual allure of Margaret Thatcher was a much discussed theme in the 1980s, with frequent recourse to Francois Mitterand’s famous description of her having “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe”.

Her ministers were often ridiculed as public schoolboys who subconsciously wanted a spanking from “nanny”, and so that theme of a shrill dominatrix PM satisfying salivating ministers was recurrent in Spitting Image.

Thatcher’s husband Denis was portrayed in Private Eye as a reactionary “duffer” who says in private all sorts of odious things at home and in private that he wouldn’t dare say in public. That is, he supposedly reveals the “true” Thatchers (“tearaway darkies”; “keeping the lower orders in their place”.

Now At Home With Julia holds no such threats. Nor is it like That’s My Bush of 2001 which parodies American family sitcoms like The Honeymooners of the 1950s. In such sitcoms the males were always idiots rescued by the women. So in the parody there is a complete contrast between the idiocies of George Dubya at home and the expectations of him as president. For example he is a frat boy who farts at a prisoner to be executed in a gas chamber (get it?).

Get personal

Such examples demonstrate there is no better way to get even through satire than to get personal and trivial. In 1993 Jeff Kennett was immune to all sorts of attacks and mockery but he unleashed the inner boofhead when a Good Weekend article photo-shopped his head on a nude body.

The same tactic so annoyed a Toronto mayor that his office tried to remove all copies of the newspaper from city facilities.

Also in the 90s, an artist deposited a statue of a nude Liz and Phil in all their sagging glory on a bench by Lake Burley Griffin. An enraged monarchist knocked the heads off. The perceived nudity of the powerful strips away more than their clothes.

Apart from last night, when the proxy Julia apologies for her dressing gown slipping open to give the taxi driver “an eyeful” there is no pursuit of the personal.

In this show there are only a few of the traditional themes we expect in comedies about politicians and these few are little explored.

At Home With Julia says Gillard is another Kath in love with her Kel, but from Werribee not Fountain Lakes, although the McMansions are not that different on the western shores of Port Phillip Bay.

At Home With Julia airs on Wednesday nights at 9.30 on ABC1.

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