The Chaser's Just War on celebrity worship

Star's Ironic End by Chris Johnston'Now my prayers have had an answer — and Delta Goodrem has got cancer.'

That night at Melbourne's Hi-Fi Bar, when the subversive vocalist uttered these words as part of a spoken-word diatribe against vacuous pop music, the tension in the air was palpable. A few louts cheered. Others laughed, but with a nervous edge.

On stage, the poet, clad head to toe in a ridiculous silver foil jumpsuit, continued his rant unabated. But there was no question he'd caused offence.

Noisome veterans of the Melbourne music underground, TISM (This is Serious Mum) have made a career out of poking ridicule at everyone from Adolf Hitler to Britney Spears. Many of those present at the gig would have discovered the band courtesy their controversial hit, 'He'll Never Be An Old Man River' (chorus: 'I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix'). Yet even the sympathetic audience seemed put out by the Delta slur.

A similar scenario played out on ABC TV last month. The national broadcaster's resident ratbags, the team from The Chaser's War on Everything, are renowned for their subversive stunts. But even given their track record, team member Andrew Hansen's on-air performance of the now-notorious song 'Eulogy' divided audiences, who seemed unsure whether this was gutsy subversive humour or merely bad taste.

The song, which parodied the fact that iconic Aussies Steve Irwin and Peter Brock, and international figures Princess Di and John Lennon, went from maligned in life to admired after death, was deemed by many to have crossed the line. A spark of anger was fanned into an inferno by overzealous talkback radio listeners.

Welcome to the world of satire — a cerebral comic form that by its nature thrives on putting people offside. Even when done well, satire is almost invariably taken too literally by some who are so busy taking offence that they often miss the point.

Admittedly, in extreme cases it's easy to miss the point. TISM's Delta quip trod precariously on the outer limits of acceptability — the 'Big C' being one of those subjects that's generally considered to be beyond joking. South Park genii Trey Parker and Matt Stone came close to crossing that same line during the all-singing, all-dancing musical number 'Everyone's Got AIDS' in their 2004 film Team America.

Bad taste for bad taste's sake is one thing, but it's evident both TISM and The Chaser (and, to a lesser extent, the South Park boys) have more on their agenda than just causing offence. Good satire is about provoking new ways of thinking, naming the proverbial 'elephant in the room' or directing a well-aimed kick at deserving tall poppies.

So TISM's comment about Delta was not about Delta at all, but rather was intended as a pinprick to deflate the bubble of celebrity worship. This is a recurring theme in TISM's work. 'Old Man River' imagines copycat groupies taking their emulation of their idols a step too far, and 'Thou Shalt Not Britney Spear' lampooned the then teenaged pop star's use of her much publicised virginity as a PR pitch.

Similarly, the Chaser's 'Eulogy' was less about the celebrities it referenced than it was about public perceptions of those celebrities. The desire to puncture the 'cult of celebrity' is a significant aspect of the Chaser's 'war on everything'. Understood in this context, the song, while distasteful, highlighted 'our' (society's collective) absurdly immoderate levels of veneration or disdain towards celebrities, and how fickle that relationship often is.

If celebrity worship is one of the serious foibles of Western civilisation — and I'd suggest that it is — then The Chaser's acerbic ditty provided an efficient response.

But satire is not always a vicious or intellectual exercise. Sometimes it's downright humane. Another Aussie television satirist who's copped his share of flak, Chris Lilley, has this aspect of the form down to a fine art.

The creator, writer and star of the sleeper hit We Can Be Heroes reached new heights (some might say depths) with his popular follow-up series Summer Heights High. Such is Lilley's insight into and compassion for humanity that one of his characters, a foul-mouthed, underachieving Tongan student named Jonah, evolved from a potential racial stereotype into the series' most sympathetic character.

However it was Lilley's portrayal of the narcissistic and obliviously bigoted teacher Mr G that seemed most prone to rubbing people the wrong way. But Mr G is not a celebration of deplorable humanity — quite the opposite. While he possesses questionable attitudes toward 'for example' students with disabilities, the show's 'black comedy' works because the audience is trusted to recognise how despicable his attitudes actually are.

In that respect Lilley, through his 'nudge-nudge, wink-wink' portrayal of a bigoted character, is both putting faith in and reinforcing the positive attitudes of his audience to recognise and reject that bigotry. While The Chaser wages caustic war on celebrity, Lilley's waging a subtler battle against prejudice in all its forms.

Tim Kroenert is the Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.




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Existing comments

I agree entirely with this writer. We need a big jolt out of our ridiculous veneration of celebrities on whom we can turn in an instant and, vice versa, our insatiable appetite for their immoral behaviour and then our veneration of their lives as if we had no judgement. The foibles of human nature epitomised in the weaknesses of 'stars' is understandable but not the unquestioning adoration which is so fickle and so insincere. Let's save it all for some real heroes.
carmel | 01 November 2007

I recall reading some time ago, in a Clive James essay, that it is really important to deny the very concept of celebrity. To me, this seems really basic in terms of one's own self-esteem. The alleged celebrities appear in general to lead far less satisfying lives than most of the rest of us, and it is disappointing to see people hanging on their every word and deed.
Peter Downie | 01 November 2007

Was the Chasers' song only about celebrity? I suggest that fear of plain speaking about the dead was a central issue explored, that this involves a fear of the dead themselves, and a superstitious belief in their power to retaliate when the boundaries of the death taboo are transgressed.
Gwynith Young | 02 November 2007

I welcome any opportunity to put the celebrities back in their boxes...the tall poppy syndrome in Australia is rapidly giving way to a more materialistic and socially regressive mindset of revering wealth, fame, excess, and self promotion. Egalitarianism is a cultural footprint in Australia, but celebrity worship seeks to undermine this.

Well done Chasers!
Anthony | 02 November 2007

I applaud Tim Kroenert for this perceptive and insightful review of 'Eulogy' (which, while it made me writhe to some extent, I found a brilliant comment - well worth hearing again because it was easy to miss key lines) and 'Summer Heights High'. You failed though to mention the key female role emulating teenage girls. The dialogue and characterisation was brilliant in this also - as a former high school principal I was bowled over by how brilliantly the script depicted what drives teenage girls and how fickle this can be. A true comment on the dilemma of the mid teen years for girls who identify more with their peer group than with adult role models.
Anne Fox | 02 November 2007

I agree in general with Tim's summation of the role of satire, especially as practised by TISM, the Chaser and Chris Lilley. However, what 'new way of thinking' was provoked by the Chaser's "seeing Christ in the poo" skit last week? Were we invited to laugh at the credulous and naive seekers after apparitions? A pretty soft target, I would have thought - they're hardly tall poppies! Or was it believers in general? Or Christ himself? Personally, I found myself seriously offended - for the first time - by the Chaser. I can't see what good their excremental 'images' of Jesus did for any of us!
Joan Seymour | 02 November 2007

The most useful thing I learned in all my years of study was, as a writer, to think about what the reader brings to the engagement. When you put something out there the reaction you get may not be the one you expect. Each one of us brings something quite different to the engagement so we need to be very careful of assumptions. If we never feel uncomfortable (and this did make me feel uncomfortable) we will never learn.
Margaret McDonald | 02 November 2007

I agree with Gwynith that it was as much about changing our entire opinion about someone after death as it was about celebrity. This is a common phenomenon amongst non-famous people as well although it is more pronounced in the case of "celebrities". Mike Carlton's recent comments about Stan Zemanak simply reflected his honest opinion of the man, whom he saw as bigotted and offensive. Were they necessary? Perhaps, in light of the sudden insincere praise Zemanak received. Remembering the humanity of a person is much more important than deifying the dead. Many of the people mentioned in "Eulogy" were not necessarily "bad" people, but nor were they exceptionally great (except perhaps at driving a car or hitting a ball). I would be interested to hear the thoughts of Eureka St readers (and the author) regarding the potential canonisation of Spanish "martyrs" who prior to their death were responsible for the torture of many Filipinos.
Brendan | 02 November 2007

While I agree with much The Chaser lampoons, like Joan Seymour I was mightily turned off by 'Seeing Christ in the Poo'. To me it was tasteless and offensive.
John Harte (SJ) | 05 November 2007

The Chaser falls down with its humour as it has a football club mentality by operating in a pack. Bully boys as their eyes dart to each other for support. Some good humour but I doubt very much that one of them could stand alone. Holding each others hands is important to their survial. Interview and mock the death of a Gypsy Joker boys?
Stephen | 06 November 2007

Having watched the episode last week of Chaser's, it seems that social commentary following the "death of celebrities" episode, has reached a new low with its depiction of Jesus Christ in lavatory humour. This is not in the tradition of satire, but rather schoolboy antics. It may well have been portrayed to achieve a reaction; however there are other ways of doing so.
Kathleen Baldini | 12 November 2007


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