The Daily Show changed the face of political comedy. Thanks largely to the American left’s powerlessness against George W Bush in the wake of 9/11, in the early 00’s the old even-handed model of satire went out the window and a more savagely partisan model replaced it. The system itself was still laughed at, but the main focus was those running it: right-wing politicians and their lackies in the media (or was it the other way around?). Tapping into the resentment and anger of a generation, it became a massive force in comedy, spawning a whole range of imitators in the US. Here in Australia? Not so much.
There’s plenty of obvious reasons why Australia doesn’t have its own version of The Daily Show. Most of them don’t hold up under close inspection. There’s no shortage of funny people here who could host; making it daily (well, four nights a week) would actually make it easier to gather material, as weekly shows often find their best material is out-of-date by the time they air. Money would be an issue – writers would have to be paid, along with researchers to gather the news clips that are at the heart of the format – but let’s pretend for a moment that wasn’t a problem. In a world where The Bolt Report can get on the air, what’s really stopping Australia from having its own Daily Show?
One of the nuances that’s sometimes lost in a more left-leaning country like Australia is that these shows are actively mocking a large section of the US. They’re niche viewing, not middle of the road programming. That’s why these shows have a big impact online; they’re preaching to the choir, and that’s always fun when you’re one of the ones wearing the white robes.
But that’s also why they’re not big ratings winners; even at the best of times, The Daily Show brought in a relatively small audience, rating 3.5 million viewers in the US at its peak, and now that Jon Stewart’s gone it’s even smaller. On US cable television, that doesn’t really matter. Thanks to their subscription model, they actually want shows that polarise audiences because the bland middle ground isn’t going to pay money to watch a show.
But in Australia, the opposite applies. Our networks are losing viewers on a daily basis to the internet; they want as many viewers to watch their shows as possible. Getting them to adopt a format that deliberately alienates half the audiences? Good luck. Which is a shame, because back in the late 80s we had shows like Channel Nine’s Graham Kennedy’s Coast to Coast, on which Kennedy tore the news – and everything else – to shreds:
That tradition of “news coverage – with a twist” is being kept alive by SBS’s The Feed, which brings the sass of online op-eds to television while still providing actual information. But while The Feed occasionally reaches over into the realm of political satire, it’s still a news show at heart, albeit one where the hosts get to say what they think."
So what about the ABC? The Weekly was sold to audiences as being an Australian version of The Daily Show, but that was never going to happen. It’s easy to take pot-shots at the show itself, but the real problem was always going to be that the ABC demands all its satire be “balanced”.
Decades ago, when first-rate political comedy was represented by shows like The Gillies Report, being balanced meant you made fun of the big stories of the day. But after a string of accusations about ABC bias from the Howard Government and its supporters during the start of the 00s, new editorial guidelines were brought in. Exit The Glass House, which had been at the centre of one of the controversies when host Wil Anderson called then-senator Richard Alston a “right-wing pig-rooter”; enter The Chaser bringing Julie Bishop on board to make her “death stare” seem funny.
Under those conditions, The Daily Show format simply doesn’t work. The whole appeal of the show is that it’s making fun of one side of politics; once you have to take an equal swing at the other side, the show falls apart. One side of politics is actually running the country and making decisions that affect our lives; unless you’re Shaun Micallef and are lucky enough to have Bill Shorten running around making zingers, the opposition just isn’t that funny (or relevant) enough.
No wonder The Weekly has largely focused on bland social justice reports where there’s no doubt at all about which side is right or wrong. Getting Tara Brown to interview herself is certainly funny stuff:
But it’s comedy that takes the easy, obvious stand. Is anyone out there really thinking “lay off Tara Brown, paying someone to kidnap those kids off the street was the right call for a journalist to make?” The Daily Show and the shows it’s inspired might be funny, but they also take a stand on issues where at least some people disagree with them. That’s what makes them funny, and that’s what the local attempt lacks: if you think Tara Brown really needs defending, Channel Nine has a publicity department that would like to hire you quick smart.
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