Australia Chases A Bad Joke

The nature of television is a double-edged sword. Some programs provoke while others delight, some educate while others infuriate. Yet, despite our country’s demand for the unique and interesting, one thing is unanimous – don’t mess with the sensibilities of the Australian TV audience.

Last week on ABC1, the new season of The Chaser’s War on Everything lived up to its famous (or infamous as some would argue) reputation by making a joke about a very serious issue. Unfortunately for the boys, the sketch pulled a little too hard on the emotional ties of the Australian public and they were subsequently suspended from the air. ABC Managing Director Mark Scott said The Chaser’s War on Everything would not screen for two weeks after the sketch because of the uproar it caused amongst its 1.5 million viewers.

What this event demonstrates is the ability for the slightest insult to project an entire nation into a morally driven defence against the provocative and offensive. However, when there is a general understanding amongst viewers that The Chaser is (and always has been) a provocative and politically incorrect program, why are people so furious?

The joke at the centre of this debacle was the “Make-A-Realistic-Wish Foundation” – a sketch that satirised the original “Make-A-Wish Foundation” and poked fun at the “selfish demands” of seriously ill children. As Chris Taylor (the main Chaser host at the centre of the skit) was quoted saying: “the ‘Make-A-Realistic-Wish Foundation’ is here to help thousands of kids to lower their extravagance and selfishness in the face of death”.

After the sketch aired on Wednesday 3rd June, it sparked a hugely heated debate both online and on talkback radio. For most the sketch had clearly crossed the line between black comedy and bad taste by satirising such a sensitive issue. The last line in particular – “why go to any trouble when they are going to die anyway?” – ignited furious responses from Australian viewers.

However, it wasn’t just the Australian public that was outraged, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also put in his view, saying that The Chaser team should “hang their heads in shame [because] having a go at kids with a terminal illness is really beyond the pale”.

The Chaser brand, first and foremost, is about upsetting, offending, satirising and stereotyping our society. However, should this be an excuse for the heartless offence caused by the sketch?

While I do not endorse what The Chaser has done, I do believe that people can be quite short-sighted when it comes to matters of controversy. As journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Idato put it, “we cannot applaud the Chaser crew for their mischief at the APEC Summit and the Vatican and then chastise them for crossing the line with our charitable and medical sensibilities”.

After having watched the sketch again and analysing both sides of the argument, my opinion remains unchanged. While I often find the nature of television program complaints to be utterly ridiculous (and even The Chaser satirise this), I can not find the humour in this particular sketch. Quite simply, it didn’t make me laugh. While I believe that failing to insult anybody would go against the nature of the programming, I also believe that insulting cheaply and humourlessly is just unacceptable.

However, while I don’t find this joke funny or acceptable, I also do not want to watch a polished and politically correct program that glorifies the ways in which our society functions. Let The Chaser review their material over the next two weeks but don’t let them change their delightfully provocative ways.




3 thoughts on “Australia Chases A Bad Joke

  1. Black humour and nothing more.

    It happens everywhere, everyone has been guilty at one point or another, and everyone has been the victim. This phenomenon is no less a part of human nature than the inherent self destructiveness that has led us into brutal conflict for thousands of years, or the indescribable passion and inspiration that impregnates the artistic soul, in turn giving birth to insurmountable beauty that redeems man his atrocities.

    What I’m ultimately arriving at here is that this innate behaviour cannot be sedated, censored or eliminated without choking our humanity itself. In this case we are only talking about a television show that crossed a societal line that is in no way a stranger to trespass, but the underpinning concepts which I have touched on here are all too often overlooked, unpopular as it is to admit less than scrupulous truths of oneself.

    That being said, one hand invariably washes the other. While those like myself decry the political correctness that pervades the free world (though one would argue how “free” the freedom on offer is when attached is the stringent condition that your freedom may not negatively impact another’s freedom, which again is at complete odds with inherent human nature, but that’s another rant), without the existence of a status quo to upset, so would be the non-existence of so many great jokes.

    However if comedy is to survive then a balance must exist. The TV show ‘South Park’ made some interesting points in an episode pertaining to the now famous caricature of Muhammed, the line that stuck with me was “either everything is ok to joke about, or nothing is”. I can’t say I disagree with this in theory, despite it being somewhat absolutist. One can certainly see a legitimate argument in the grey area being just as stifling to comedy as the black when you consider that by the time you have dissected the joke enough in your head to make sure it doesn’t damage the intricately woven web of socially acceptable humour, the window of opportunity for a pithy delivery of the joke (which any comedian who isn’t Dane Cook will tell you is paramount) has long since closed. The practice however would destroy the balance I mentioned earlier whether black or white. As I mentioned, offensive jokes don’t exist without offended people.

    To those reading, these are of course, only my opinions, you are more than welcome to yours and any offence you may feel by the Chaser’s actions or my potentially misunderstood callousness on this topic. It’s human nature after all.


  2. Nic,

    Firstly, thank you for your comment and for taking the time to read my post. I also want to commend you on your comment because I feel you’ve made a great point. I particularly like what you said about the ideology of censorship.

    You said: “what I’m ultimately arriving at here is that this innate behaviour cannot be sedated, censored or eliminated without choking our humanity itself”.

    This is something I strongly agree with and during my experiences studying censorship and media ethics at university, I believe that, while censorship can be imposed, it should not be strictly binding in what is essentially a democratic society. In Australia censorship is ultimately unavoidable – even The Chaser’s content is controlled and monitored by the ABC editorial team.

    In a global context, there is a tension between those who want to see more regulation and censorship of the media (in particular new media such as the Internet) and those who wish to maintain the ‘frontier’ mentality of freedom of expression.

    While those against censorship argue that to constrain freedom speech is to impoverish cultural life and hinder the practice of democracy, others argue that censorship is imperative to the proper functioning of society. A common justification for the censorship of the media and to freedom of expression is that, in doing so, it will eventually lead to a ‘greater good’ that benefits the entire society which (in this case) is safeguarding the sensibilities of the Australian public in regards to terminally ill children.

    Yet I think that, despite our opinions about this sketch, it is evident that liberty can never be absolute and censorship can never be absent.

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