The Logies are never a particularly happy time to be a fan of Australian comedy. And not just because the days of comedians hosting the show instead of just turning up once an hour to make a few snarky comments seem to be long gone. The history of the Logies is a history of the long slow decline of satire on Australian television.
In 1966, The Mavis Bramston Show, Australia’s first satirical program, won three Logies – “Best Live Show”, “Best Female Personality” (Carol Raye) and the Gold Logie for “Most Popular Personality on Australian Television” (Gordon Chater). In 1986, The Gillies Report won a Logie for “best light entertainment series”. In 2006, the only remotely satirical show nominated was The Glass House, which failed to win an award; in the “Most Popular Light Entertainment or Comedy Program” category it was beaten by Dancing With The Stars. Put another way, Rove McManus has 16 Logies, including three Gold; The Chaser team has none.
It’s easy to dismiss the Logies as a popularity contest, but comedy is meant to be popular - if nobody’s laughing, then it’s not working. This year, both Gruen and Mad as Hell won Logies – in the “Most Outstanding” categories, which are peer-voted. There isn’t even a comedy category in the public-voted categories. In the closest the Logies get – the “Best Entertainment” category – Gruen was the only even remotely satirical entrant. It was beaten by Family Feud. Whatever happened to the days when Australian satire was something Australians actually watched?
To be fair, Australian satire has always been something of a rare flower. The Mavis Bramston Show was a massive hit in the '60s, but nothing on the commercial networks really followed its lead. The ABC’s comedy output in the '70s and early '80s often had a streak of satire running through programs like The Aunty Jack Show, The Norman Gunston Show and Australia: You’re Standing In It, but it wasn’t until 1984’s The Gillies Report that fully-fledged political comedy was back on our screens.
It was a hit. Gillies would front various satirical shows for much of the '80s, while co-star John Clarke would team up with Bryan Dawe for a weekly interview segment on Nine’s A Current Affair that – after a shift to the ABC – continues to this day. Even mainstream comedy took a swipe at politicians - the puppet-based Rubbery Figures were a mainstay of early '90s series Fast Forward, though it was their John Elliot parody (with his catchphrase of “pig's arse”) that really took off.
It’s a sign of how far satire has fallen on our television screens that The Chaser are still the young guns of ABC comedy 15 years after they first appeared on our screens. They’ve soldiered on while other ABC satires like BackBerner, Good News Week and The Glass House were either axed or moved to commercial networks (where they were axed).
Over the last few years, the ABC’s focus has shifted more toward infotainment, covering advertising (the Gruen series of shows) or consumer affairs (The Checkout), while The Chaser have gone from their earlier heavily scripted material to the couch-based improv of The Chaser’s Media Circus. As for ABC2’s five-minute news satire show The Roast, it was axed in 2014.
Presumably The Weekly was meant to be the ABC’s big return to topical political satire, but its focus on social justice issues rather than direct swipes at politicians has meant it’s failed to make much of an impression there. Which leaves it up to Shaun Micallef and the Mad as Hell team, who, by identifying and ruthlessly mocking Bill Shorten’s consistently sub-par “zingers”, proved that comedy can still have an impact on our political scene.
One show on 10 weeks a year isn’t enough to keep satire alive, however. Politicians are doing silly things every day of the week, yet Australian television has put making fun of them in the too-hard basket. Partly that’s because television comedy as a whole is a struggling market here. When the obvious career path for local talent leads directly overseas, why build up a portfolio based on jokes about politicians and references no-one overseas will get? And editorial guidelines at the ABC that mandate “balance” in political coverage makes satire harder to pull off - when only one party is in power, how can you find enough jokes about the other side to provide balanced coverage?
The Roast’s host Mark Humphries now does the political coverage on SBS’s The Feed, which shows the way that traditional current affairs and comedy have become blurred in recent years. The Feed is certainly funny, but they cover serious news seriously, and while you wouldn’t call Ten’s The Project satire they make jokes about the news too. With local television shows needing to bring in as many viewers as they can, it’s possible that the old-fashioned idea of non-stop jokes about the issues might be seen by some executives as too abrasive to win a wide audience if a combination of news and comedy is a more appealing mix.
There’s still a hunger out there for political comedy. Online outlets are constantly running snarky opinion pieces mocking our leaders’ foolish decisions and heartless choices. So there’s always a chance political comedy could make a comeback on our screens. Just keep your fingers crossed that someone with a string of sharply satirical songs wins The Voice.