Film, News & Commentary

Where is Australia's Colbert?

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With parliament set to relax rules on the use of parliamentary footage for satire and ridicule, an opportunity presents itself that we can’t afford to miss.
Let’s use this opportunity to kick start political satire on Australian TV.
Let’s be clear, this is not the same thing as not taking political news seriously or pouring scorn on politicians, which I believe we’ve pretty much got covered. Good political satire delivers serious analysis in a way that is accessible to a large audience, and unlike traditional media coverage of politics, this audience gets bigger when satire gets better. Before you write me off for suggesting that there is no merit in high-quality political news, allow me to illustrate the alienating powers of undiluted political coverage:
ABC’s 7.30 for example is objectively better and more interesting as political news than the commercial ‘news’ broadcasts it competes with. Media Watch keeps more journalists accountable than the federal agency set up for that purpose. Four Corners regularly breaks stories that have a lasting impact on federal politics, if not international politics (in the case of live export). All these shows are out-rated by the trash they compete with on commercial TV, because serious political news, no matter how good it is, and often because of how good it is, excludes people who aren’t already on the inside.
What I want is political analysis delivered in a manner that not only informs but argues a case with and for reason and balance. I want media that makes me laugh at the absurdity of the situation rather than making me want to hug my knees in the shower. I want some middle ground between media aimed at Southern Cross tattoo flaunting, XXXX swilling pit bull owners and the middle aged, café latte sipping inner metropolitan intelligentsia. I want coverage that takes an intelligent position, then looks at both sides of the seemingly intractable political divide and laughs, but not before illustrating how the system should and could work to serve us all better. I want my political media to be the bastard love child of Jonathan Holmes, Michelle Grattan, John Clarke and Bryan Dawe, Tim Minchin, Leigh Sales, Kerry O’Brien and Chas Licciardello.
But it’s not for me, and chances are that if that last paragraph resonated with you on a deeply felt, personal level then it’s not really for you either.
If you’re a politics nerd, you already read The Conversation, you’re probably on Crikey’s mailing list, you probably hide your love for Q&A behind a mask of haughty derision, and as much as you might enjoy it, you don’t need satire. Satire brings political content to the huge portion of the electorate that for whatever reason can’t be bothered sitting through hours of what is, if we’re honest, intensely boring programming just to get their heads around the national debate. To paraphrase 2010 New York Gubernatorial Candidate Jimmy McMillian; the price for understanding Australian politics right now is too damn high for a huge number of people.
It seems absurd that we would ever be outpaced by America in this area. We are a nation known the world over for an inability or at least reluctance to take ourselves seriously. They are a country full of people who famously can’t discern drooling sarcasm from deadpan statements of fact. How has it come to pass then that American audiences get The Colbert Report and the satirist factory that is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on a nightly basis, and we have to make do with a couple of minutes of Clarke and Dawe each week? Is it not our national duty to defend our reputation as a state that tends to deal with its problems by laughing at them?
It’s not just quantity where the Americans have us beaten either. The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are the best at what they do. They take each issue on its merits, never spare the rod on other side of politics and somehow manage to inform huge swathes of the American population while being hilarious. They represent what satire can achieve when ballsy management, excellent writing and fearless presenters all collide in a shiny studio on a late-night timeslot.
Let’s not pretend that The Chaser coming back once every three years for an election special or Shaun Micallef valiantly fighting the good fight in a dark corner of the ABC is good enough for us. We need shows can do what Jon Stewart does; bring complex political discussion down to an accessible level without simplifying or polarizing it.
So I guess the question is, if political lampoonery is the solution to all our apathetic problems, why doesn’t it exist already?
It has before. It’s medically possible there are still people alive who remember The Gillies Report, which had a brief moment of brilliance between 1984 and 1985, winning the coveted “Best Light Entertainment Series” Logie in 1986 before being re-launched as The Gillies Republic and disappearing by the end of that year. Clarke and Dawe, Micallef’s Mad As Hell and The Chaser have all done their bit before fading into fondly recalled obscurity. There are institutional reasons why shows don’t last here. The lack of independently minded networks that are not beholden to the government of the day for funding being the main one.
The Chaser is a case study in the conflict between the Australian audiences need for this content and our media’s inability to deliver it for more than a couple of years in every decade.
This is how the story goes:
Shows like The Chaser only really exist on the ABC. This is because the ABC stands relatively alone in the media landscape, and certainly alone on free-to-air TV (excluding SBS for lack of mainstream appeal) in trying to remain impartial and look at the debate down the middle. It’s also the only network that can tends to take chances with political interesting shows that are unlikely to make huge amounts of money.
However, shows of this nature tend to be seen as a sign of the ABC’s imagined left-wing bias. It’s a problem that all satirists tend to run into regardless of the network they’re on, and Jon Stewart and Colbert certainly have over the years, but given the ABC’s government funded position it tends to be harder for it to resist this criticism than it is for The Comedy Channel, which hosts Stewart and Colbert.
Eventually, forced to diversify their subject matter and lose focus, shows like The Chaser eventually become a kind of low-budget Jackass rip-off and die a slow death at the hands of morally outraged talk-back callers.
It seems like an insurmountable problem, and it’s one that has run its course unsuccessfully enough times before for there to be little hope of triumph even if some ABC executive is brave or drunk enough to go once more unto the breach, but the ability to laugh at our problems and spread understanding though piss-taking is something that we sorely need.
So all I’m really asking for is the ABC to go up against a hostile conservative government, not to mention conservative media, find someone willing to front a show that will be a magnet for criticism who is willing to look at every issue on its merits, find a way to make us laugh, and stick at it for years until we learn to respect and appreciate that feat of journalistic and comedic flair. One of the lads from The Chaser is probably the default option but you can’t really look past Clarke and Dawe when you need someone to save a nation’s political discourse with relentless but intelligent piss taking. Help us John and Bryan, you’re our only hope.

50 responses to “Where is Australia's Colbert?

  1. It’s called “The Roast” on ABC2. Started off as that one minute between the end of the Dr Who repeats and whatever came next. Then it went to 5mins. Then 15mins, which is where we are now. I presume you can watch it on iView. Watch it, and tell me I’m wrong …

    1. Na, it’s called Mad as Hell and it needs to be daily/different format. If Australia’s idea of clever political satire is the Roast I think we’re in a bit of trouble. Colbert and the Daily show have jokes where the Roast has improv situations and sarcastic grins 😀 whoa! bonkers!

  2. “So I guess the question is, if political lampoonery is the solution to all our apathetic problems, why doesn’t it exist already?”
    Have you seen The Roast on ABC2? It was on five nights a week this year and was on fire during the election. Sure, the host is no Colbert/Stewart, but it can be pretty sharp.

  3. Yes, Australia’s offerings look weak up against the likes of Colbert and Stewart, but it’s not quite as bleak here as Peter Green would have it. As others note, he ignores the laudable efforts of ‘The Roast’ on ABC2. To which I would add Channel Ten’s ‘The Project’, a lively, often funny, usually intelligent and certainly honorable exception to the rule of utter pap masquerading as current affairs on Australian commercial television.

    1. ‘The Project’ is not satire. It covers serious subjects entirely seriously, for the most part, then crosses to the comic relief du jour on the far left of screen to play a one second clip of someone tripping over their words. Granted, it’s a cut above the other commercial pap.
      More Micallef is the answer.

      1. More Micallef is always, always the answer.
        Him at the helm of a five-day-a-week political review show would be the very, very best.

        1. Micallef’s show is brilliant. It is unique and would have broad appeal to people unaware of our politics whilst skewering the theatre of it all the same.
          The reality is, American politics is so grandiose, absurd and theatrical that we could never have a show as lofty as Colbert and the Daily Show. Micallef is awesome at closing the gap with his own brand of absurdity.

  4. I’ll add my voice to the support for The Roast – they’re pretty good, and getting better with tie. But two qualifiers – firstly, America has the advantage of 300 million people, so they can draw on a pretty big pool of writing talent to keep a show like Colbert/Daily running for years. All the Australian efforts (except Clarke and Dawe) suffer from flagging energy from a small team, after a while.
    Second thing – ABC2! If the only place to see your satire is sandwiched into the 7:20 slot on ABC2, then you know you’re only talking to the converted. It needs to be like the Project, on commercial TV. Or on FoxTel…. now there’s a joke just in the suggestion. What sort of satire would Rupert condone?

    1. One might suggest that his Twits are insensible satire, apparent only to those with at least double digit IQ – thus excluding his immediate circle of men without navels & columnists.

  5. The Daily Show and Colbert are graced with excellent researchers who delve into risible political etc pronouncements, to be blasted by witty commentary from J. Stewart and S. Colbert. I imagine this process is expensive. Could be done by an army of volunteers ? But somehow or other it must be done.

    1. It’s done by a small number of incredibly talented people. 15-20 people. It’s not impossible for Australia to have their own show. In fact, I reckon we can do it better. We don’t have to be bogged down by celebrities and fame, we can focus on quality parody. Possibly, a team of writers from the US might have to come over to teach Australians how to do it. Sad by true.

      1. It all comes down to the quality of the writing. American shows have a huge population to draw talent from, and they have bigger budgets, too.
        I would have said that if Micallef had a better writing team he could be the equal of Stewart (nobody is the equal of Colbert). But I think he’s gradually had the stuffing knocked out of him, and he’s losing his timing. Or perhaps he’s just rushing through the really poor material in embarrassment. Either way, Micallef was better at delivering bad comedy writing when he was younger.
        You know what I’d love? If some of these billionaires putting money into newspapers and websites would put money into comedy instead. It would have more impact on the politics of the nation than yet another ‘progressive’ publication.

  6. Yeah but the roast does not cut it,(yes a pun). The roast does not motivate ordinary people to form a super pac or to silently, noisily or actively cause change by cornering the market on taking on blatantly partisan pox news, msnbc or any of the other rubbish right wing nut weeklys and sundays, and make them look as stupid as they really are. e.g. a program called spanner control to counter the bolt report, should write its own script and piss all over them at channel x. The problem is all the FTA are one side and the ABC is supposed to be in the middle.

  7. I’d back Sean Micallef for anything like this. But even he should not agree to do it without a LOT of writing support and a crew with access to exotic places like outside the studio. (Imbecilic comments from the general public are always a scream). Colbert and Stewart are really well-supported by quality research and writing and they have mainstream interview guests to soak up time.

    1. I keep hearing about ‘A Rational Fear’ and it sounds like something that might appeal to me but I don’t quite get what it is. Even after perusing the site. Do I watch it, listen to it or buy tickets to it? Maybe I’m a lazy consumer but I feel like it could increase its market share with a little informative promotion. “Tune in Tuesdays at 7.30 on KLBLAH” or whatever.

  8. I feel like, given the editorial freedom to do so, the Project’s Charlie Pickering could easily become Australia’s Jon Stewart. Otherwise, for Colbert, I’d back Shaun Micallef all the way. The Roast also hit its straps during the election campaign and has never looked back.

    1. I’m a huge Stewart and Colbert fan, but these guys have got nothing on Shaun Micallef, he is much quicker, wittier and sharper while the others, although great, seem to pander to the audience too much

  9. I too was wondering when The Roast was going to be mentioned in this article. It may not be in the same league as Colbert but it is definitely political satire, and IMO it’s very funny.

  10. Denton could have a crack. Or at least be a writer. Join up with Micallef, the Chaser and The Roast, and Clarke and Dawe as the entire writing team, with a few newbies to add extra freshness. You need that level of talent to make it a nightly show.
    And import a few americans and brits to help us out.
    We need to abandon our cultural cringe … that’s a huge stepping stone.
    Oh – as a final thought, bring Andrew Bolt into the fray. We need someone to laugh at.

    1. Denton seems to have withdrawn from the fray (no longer willing”.. to fill the breach with any dead… and why would he?).
      Good News Week” when on the ABC was OK as a rip-off of the BBC’s “Have I Got News for You!” (itself the TV response – like “Question Time” was of R4’s “Any Questions” from just after WWII if historical memory serves – of the venerable [gotta be 20+yrs] R4 News Quiz) but then it was snaffled by the bigbuck$ of commercial TV and turned to shite, though still better than anything else then available.
      This is always the problem with ABC – they produce the best which then often is seduced by $$ (even C&D went to TCN when ABC inexplicably dropped them and didn’t the 9 audience geddit?) and turns to pap.
      Face it – Colbert (who grew from Stewart’s show) & Stewart exist only on cable which in OZ is in Mudorc’s grasp.
      I have nothing to suggest as my brain shuts down when I think of the many millions of (compelled) voters who watch, listen to and read Mudorc’s evil sludge.

      1. That’s exactly it AR. It’s up to us to use the wonderful thing that is the net and discover the world of satire online. I think Clarke gets it as he’s set up his own YouTube and website so no matter what we can always find C&D.
        I think next step is rounding up the best podcasts and online youtube channels that are produced by the best and brightest and then we’ll have our pick of satirical outlet without the producers of network telly etc..

  11. Australian political satire is weak in magnitude but often very powerful in content. It is the stage on which to stand, is what is lacking in Australia..

  12. America and Aus have different political markets: in America you only vote if you care enough to register and then turn up on the day – so political discussion is already pitched at people who care enough to vote. In Australia attendance at polling booths is compulsory – the polititians know that and so have to pitch the discussion to make sure they get as many votes is they can, including from people who couldn’t care less. The discussion is dumbed down; diluted and pre-masticated so it can be swallowed as easily by the unthinking masses as the politically conscientious.
    That is what affects the political discourse, and the reason shows like Colbert and the Daily Show get traction in the US and not here. Apart from that, shows like Sopranos actually rated well in the US – go figure.
    Different markets…

  13. I used to love and lap up Australian comedy – DGen, Gillies Report, AYSII – all ABC by the way – and growing up as a teenage wonk, I loved it.
    Either I am getting older or I see something that didn’t seem to exist back in the 80s, and it is something that seems to define regular culture in Australia now. Something like, when average Australian couples fight each other and heap crap on each other … that as the main culture. Using ‘funny’ lines to put someone else down. It is as if ‘bogan’ culture has gone mainstream and sits in centre space.
    I watched quite a few clips of The Project – mostly online – and the standard of writing and cross overs to comedians, compared to the Daily Show, lack something. It’s not laughingly funny but ha-ha-check-them-out funny. Another great one we seem to excel at is, after saying something racist to someone, follow up with “just kidding! what, can’t ya take a joke?”. That is not a great pool to write global humour.
    It resonates with what I see in my workplace. Humour here is taking the piss out of someone, but had Monty Python, The Goons etc followed that script, very few would remember them. Would it be a pride in loving our non-interest in thinking beyond the back page of the Daily Telegraph?
    Look at the reaction to Chris Lilley’s last two offerings by Americans. I don’t see this shifting much, as it suits most people in Australia for this culture to be the main one. And it isn’t even conscious. It’s deep in the psyche of Australians (a long topic that one is, not for this forum).
    I’ll check out The Roast and see how it works. If it reaches the heights of The Daily Show, or even 75% of the way there, I’ll be watching often.

  14. Micallef is the closest we have to a Colbert or a Stewart. Don’t forget their shows are produced not by the USA’s commercial networks but by Comedy Central, though not exactly a small, hungry independent – it’s owned by Viacom.
    I have a lot of time for Micallef, he is intelligent and is a good writer, but suffers from his early association with his Milo character, something I’m sure he could kick into touch forever.

  15. Yes…yes…yes…
    We have sn irreverent sense of humour and seeing those annoying think tank snots regularly. ..I can come up with a comedy sketch already!!
    What are we waiting for people
    This government is Comedy Gold
    Get crackin and go and speak to an executive!!
    Save us from this shallow form of democracy…

  16. Have to agree with piece 100%. I’m a political animal who has learned more about American politics and its inadequaticies from Colbert than from any traditional news service.
    The inability of such services to deliver anything of worth to their audiences should concern everyone who believes that an informed public is the only way of successfully moving Australia forward.

    1. As a child of the 50s I learned about amerikan life from Mad magazine & Mickey Mouse Club. When I worked for the US Army as a civilian in Germany in the mid 60s it served me in good stead, the tropes were unchanged despite Stuttgart being a half way holding pen for Vietnam damaged grunts who were let loose on the legal brothels & alcoholic freedom of Europe – no surprise that so many took “European discharge” which gave them 2 years before the free flight back to ‘the World” expired and many never did return.
      Today, as Philip Adams sez, Doonesbury & Daily Show tell all that one needs to know about the state of the Union – in deep, deep doo-doo as the unlamented HW Shrub said.

  17. I’ve been thinking for quite some time that a fracturing of the smug intelligentsia and the rest of society does neither any good. Tribes united the smart and dumb: one doing the thinking and leading, the other the repetitive work. But thinking needs to be applied and tested, it can’t just exist in blue sky theory. To apply thought, thinkers need people to trust and listen to them. Perhaps Stephen Colbert represents a leader who has figured out how to both think and apply in our modern, celebrity obsessed, fragmented, short-attention-span world?

  18. Australia’s Jon Stewart is called Mathew Kenneally, and he and his troupe pack them in once a month at a comedy room called Political Asylum in Brunswick (of course), Melbourne. It’s not all politically one-way either. Team them up with Dan Ilic & co at A Rational Fear, chuck in some Brown Planet, back them up with the talented writers currently bashing their heads against concrete walls writing links for reality shows just to pay the rent, and have the operation overseen by a producer savvy enough to beat the smugness out of them and keep them accessible to the average bogan family while fighting the good fight against the frightened suits who run TV networks in this country, beholden to sponsors and major shareholders. And for the sake of all that is holy, don’t entrust the on-air promos to network promo producers. Love, Gra-Gra x

  19. VIVA Clarke & Dawe!
    I’ve been asking this question for some time, not the exact same question, but I am left concerned that we’re not encouraging these voices, cos I need to hear them.
    What I love about the Daily Show / Clarke & Dawe is the incense and the outrage. The incredulousness of “did anyone else see/hear that!?” Highly satisfying and validating. Sweet sweet vitriol. (just me?).
    There’s bias, left wing, rightwing, doesn’t matter, as long as there’s a blunt honesty, a send up of the absurdities of humanity, a shaken fist at the powers that be and a sharp, biting wit, it’s something to relish.
    Give me a show in the vein of Clarke & Dawe, Frontline, The New Statesman, The Thick of It , Good News Week (back in the ABC days) or heck even Seth Meyers at the White House Correspondents dinner (he and his writing staff were fearless – if ‘the roast’ is anything like that i’ll have to make a point of watching it, but from descriptions I’m not sure it will be.)
    I just want something smart, biting and wily, otherwise, I just feel I’m hitting my head against a wall .. repeatedly. At least with a bit of satire I can laugh at the black heart of it all rather than just blowing raspberries at the news.
    God speed to the writers and researchers who get through. Let us hope it don’t turn into light entertainment pap.

    1. Ah, Frontline. Of course the genius of Frontline was that it was graced by one of the world’s great straight men, Bruno Lawrence. I loved that show.

  20. gawd … seriously …
    The fact that people are comparing MICALLEF and THE ROAST to the COLBERT REPORT just reiterates what a sad and incredibly low bar for comedy we have in this country.
    If they got on air at all in the US, MICALLEF and THE ROAST might get a time slot on one of those distant cable networks way back in the pack, whereas COLBERT is universally acknowledged as the par excellence for satire in the world’s most competitive market.
    By all means, enjoy MICALLEF and THE ROAST if that’s your thing, but comparing them to the COLBERT REPORT is like comparing 30 ODD FOOT OF GRUNTS with BEETHOVEN.
    BTW : John Oliver had to leave England to deliver his brand of comedic barbs …

  21. Well, there you go … THE ROAST got axed.
    For all the criticism about how unfunny the show was, it should not be overlooked that the show was produced by and for a young generation which the Abbott Government (and thus the current ABC management) doesn’t give a toss about.
    With the viewer demographics skewing much older for MICALLEF, the ABC is much less likely to give it the chop and thus cause the Abbott Government embarrassment.
    PS : an ironic epitaph for THE ROAST in terms of this article seeing as THE COLBERT REPORT also announced its final show this week.

  22. Micallef is not in the league of Colbert and Stewart. Stewart is a brilliant and clever satirist, and shows to perfection that comedy is a serious business..
    The Chasers latest effort is really second rate – not worth the time.
    Can we revive Max Gillies…truly our best mimic and impersonator.
    Lets face it, Australians aren’t that good at TV humour…something about our cringe and the legacy of the Yarns of Billy Borker, Frank Hardy’s masterpiece which no one has yet approached.

  23. Mad as Hell is much better than Colbert these days. There’s been nothing this good since Max Gillies.
    I don’t know how they do it. The writing and acting is better than most Australian TV satire, usually ruined by hyperbole.

  24. If I didn’t know any better I’d say ABC News 24 already is political satire…or close to it…Tony Abbott’s Colbert-style parody of an idiotic, inept and out of touch ultra conservative Prime Minister leading a ministry of morons is nothing if not comedy genius…

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