The Chaser's war on sick kids



In October 2007 I wrote an article in defence of the 'Eulogy' song, a controversial comic sequence that featured on ABC TV's The Chaser's War on Everything.

The song poked fun at dead celebs such as Peter Brock and Princess Di. But, as I wrote at the time, more important, it made a joke of the cult of celebrity in the West. 'Welcome to the world of satire', I wrote, a comic form that 'thrives on putting people offside' in its efforts to make a point.

'Putting people offside' is an occupational hazard for The Chaser, and they've exceeded themselves once again. Their now notorious 'Make a Realistic Wish Foundation' sketch last week had irate viewers switching off in droves and picking up their phones to lodge their objections.

In case you missed it, the skit, a mock infomercial, featured cast member Chris Taylor offering actors playing sick children 'realistic' alternatives to their dying wishes: a pencil case instead of a trip to Disneyland; a stick instead of a meeting with Zac Efron.

Responding to complaints, the ABC and The Chaser issued an apology, the segment was edited from Thursday night's ABC2 replay, and The Chaser's War on Everything was pulled from the air for two weeks to permit a review of 'editorial processes'. The verdict seemed unanimous: this time, the Chaser had gone too far.

But let's put all this back in its proper context.

'The Chaser's War on Everything is a satirical program aimed at provoking debate and providing social commentary on topical issues, current affairs and public life in general,' read the apology issued after the sketch was aired.

'The ABC and The Chaser did not intend to hurt those who have been affected by the terminal illness of a child. We acknowledge the distress this segment has caused and we apologise to anyone we have upset.'

Surely no one thinks Taylor is such a cad that he'd begrudge a dying child their final wish. The Make A Wish Foundation, lampooned in the skit, provides a valuable service. The sketch was not designed, nor was it likely, to bring the Foundation down, or to incite hatred against the kids or families who make use of this service.

Admittely, the true intention of the skit isn't immediately apparent. Perhaps it was meant to imply that our materialistic preoccupation is so great that it pervades the minds even of children on the brink of death. That's a defensible argument. Still, if that was the intended subtext, it was too subtle compared with the confronting nature of the skit itself. In which case the problem is with execution more than content.

But satire needs to be bold. It risks making people angry, or causing offence, or failing to provoke laughter, in order to achieve its purpose. Pushing boundaries is what The Chaser do. It seems like strange behaviour to want to see how far they'll go, then become upset when they are deemed to have gone 'too far'. That the ABC's head of comedy, Amanda Duthie, should be demoted over the stunt seems harsh in the extreme.

It's easy to see that this joke missed its mark — it isn't even very funny. By all means, feel offended. But let's take it for what it is — a bad joke — and move on.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: chaser, the chaser's war on everything, make a realistic wish, satire, eulogy, chris taylor



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Existing comments

Thank you Tim. I always enjoy your articles, thoughtful, perceptive and humane. Chris Taylor looked like he'd really taken a fright on TV the other night. Some of their skits have seemed off-par this year, perhaps they're going through a few internal challenges. It's possible that such discord is being reflected in their pieces, so it's good you are able to show us a different perspective.
James | 11 June 2009

If the raison d'ĂȘtre of the chaser is to spark debate then the sketch has been a resounding success. (Personally I thought it referred to Australia's slide into a more selfish society, the children were purely incidental.) ABC's decision to make Amanda Duthie walk the plank is nought but a cowardly action to appease complainents. Satire of this kind always runs the risk of toe treading. One recent advertiser promoted sending homeless people to the moon, no-one seemed to care. Perhaps most viewers thought it was a good idea...

I'm also calling for the Prime Minister to stay out of debates on the arts. Yes Kevin, we know you're conservative. Take your own advice and pick on someone your own size.
Tom | 11 June 2009

Finally, Tim, a voice of reason. I have read so much hate mail on the Chaser in the last few days! I didn't think the skit particularly funny, but neither did I view it as offensive (and yes, I have had a child who was desperately ill). Satire is to provoke thought on matters that are sometimes controversial. If you don't like the program's take on the subject, feel free to switch OFF, but please don't stand in the way of free speech and debate. The PM's intervention was inappropriate to his office. In a democracy, everyone has the right to an opinion, no matter how controversial.
Jacqui Smith | 12 June 2009

Well said, Tim. My sentiments precisely, though I hadn't been articulating them as well as you did. I was a little shocked at the skit but I was more shocked and more alarmed at the reaction. I agree that, if the point was about the materialism even at such a point as a child's imminent death, it was largely missed, but I think we expect too much to be handed to us on a platter these days and should try a little harder at analysis. Thinking about the skit after the show (and before I knew about the bombshell to explode around the skit), it did have me reflecting a little on that materialism. I wondered if Disney gave the families of these sick kids free entry to Disneyland, by any chance? Anybody know? Just a curiosity and an aside. But I would hate to see (as it now seems) hoops that Chaser has to jump through and more censorship and screening for offence. A sanitised Chaser is an oxymoron.
Wendy | 12 June 2009

Stop the spin. The skit was in very bad taste and inappropriate. This is not humour it is downright bad manners. Humour can be challenging but it needs to be aware of the sacred.
Dennis B | 12 June 2009

I'm a chaser fan but if that's the best they can come up with to satirise commercialism then I'm sorry boys it's time to chuck in the towel. That skit wasn't satire and it definately wasn't funny.
Terry Flanagan | 12 June 2009

Oh boy! We've just gone through the same thing over here with Jonathan Ross and Russel Brand, but compared to that prank, I think the Chaser skit is totally harmless. We have to stand up to the d***heads that represent the vocal minority who try to punish creative people for pushing the envelope with shows like The Chaser. Politicians should never be allowed to get involved.

Just seen the Aussie PM wade into the Gordon Ramsay furore as well. Maybe if politicians spent more time managing the economy and less time weighing into meaningless media debates we'd all be in a better state.
Jerome In London | 12 June 2009

This was an astonishing commentary -- wherever it appeared, but especially for being in 'Eureka Street' -- but the responses to it have been even more astonishing. I would urge those contributors to reflect on what they understand by 'satire'.

I'd consider that it's a mocking or ridiculing exercise directed at those -- whether politicians, business people, self-important academics -- who seek to influence our society, exploit our gullibility, make unworthy fortunes and so on. People who already have a forum of some kind and are capable of defending themselves, or laughing it off (if they can) or even reflecting on the satire.

Mortally ill children and their grieving families come into NONE of those categories. There is NOTHING remotely funny about fatal illness and premature death in children: believe me, I have experienced it and it is simply AWFUL, not the slightest diverting or amusing.

That fact -- not to mention that the children have done nothing to 'deserve' being lampooned -- is the core. They were TOTALLY undeserving of this ridicule. And people who cannot understand that need to reflect on their values and their own sensitivities.

Dr John Carmody | 13 June 2009

Thanks Dr Carmody 12th June post. The rest is a justification of people losing just a plain sense of decency and if we don't get it or dare to question it, we're silly or losers or not allowing free speech or something equally pc. Decency its just decency
Jane | 16 June 2009

I was sent the link and thought it utterly disgusting and offensive that somebody would say such horrible things about dying kids "why go to all the trouble" and "they're going to die anyway". Thank goodness I'm not Australian - that is just terrible. If you want to see why kids who are desperately ill is not funny - go check out here:

They are cowards who target innocent and little people who are not man enough to stand up to people who would be prepared to stand up to them.
Lea White | 03 July 2009

I'm reminded of Jonathan Swift's 'A Modest Proposal FOR PREVENTING THE CHILDREN OF POOR PEOPLE IN IRELAND FROM BEING A BURDEN TO THEIR PARENTS OR COUNTRY, AND FOR MAKING THEM BENEFICIAL TO THE PUBLIC' (1729), in which he proposes eating the children. This is a particularly gruesome satire, from the pen of a Dean of the Anglican Church, on the inhumane treatment of poor Irish catholics by the English. It has justifiably taken its place in the canon of satirical English prose, showing perhaps that today's public is less able to interpret satire than that of earlier times.

The critics of 'The Chaser's War on Everything' completely miss the point when they kerfuffle on about the sick children being lampooned. They were clearly not the targets at all. Personally, I find the sentimentalisation & commercialisation of such kids in extreme circumstances by people ostentatiously posing as Do-Gooders hideously repugnant. What a lot of Dull Ploddies these critics are! Let's have more "bad jokes," say I, and sharpen up the sluggish intellect, so that social evils can be targeted.

Tim, I think your final paragraph is a cop-out. Did the 'joke' miss its mark, or was the audience too dysfunctional to see it?
Michael Wansbrough | 12 July 2009


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