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Randle with care: ABC's tragic night of comedy

By Peter West - posted Friday, 25 May 2012


Watching commercial TV is painful. Endless advertisements, many pitched at high volume and intensity. Endless promotion of the channel's own shows. Shows about celebrities, cooking shows, cooking shows with celebrities. And on 7, all served up with the breathless voice that suggests "you must look at this, it's really exciting".

ABC should be an intelligent alternative to all this. Some programs that make us think: perhaps some intelligent period dramas or history, some science and so on. Frankly, I get much more of this on SBS, despite its many faults, than on ABC.

It's an old habit of totalitarian states to tell us how we should think of something. In my many years of studying socialism I often read something like "Comrade Bukhovsky is incorrect when he says ...". Totalitarians of the Left and the Right always want us to see some issue their way. And somehow, we get the same 'correctness' on ABC.

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Two examples must suffice. First, ABC producers want us to see religion in acceptable ways. We must see certain religions as benevolent and misunderstood. And we hear far more about Muslims than any equivalent minority religion. In a program about people offered cheap rent in a dying country town, surprise! We find a pleasant Muslim family. And we often see attractive young Muslim women on Q and A. Why always Muslims, and yet we hardly ever hear of Buddhists, Hindus, and others? It starts to look like someone's agenda being pushed down our throats.

Second, we often hear that somebody or other is "breaking down barriers". Or "getting rid of stereotypes". But there will nearly always be generalizations made of one kind or another. This is an irregular verb: I compare, you generalise, they stereotype. Although ABC doesn't like stereotypes about women, it is acceptable to stereotype men. Men are dumb, are constantly looking for sex, and lack sophistication: these ideas can be seen endlessly on TV, as I argued in another article.

Where does comedy fit into all this? To be funny, a show must be fresh and original. There must be some element of surprise. Much comedy has a dangerous and provocative edge, and does not push correct views. Unless it's Seinfeld, it should address matters of general importance. And it must be performed with talent and cleverness.

ABC have given us The Chaser and Kath & Kim. They tended to be over-the-top, cheeky and at times almost dangerous.

Summer Heights Hightook one's breath away with the over-the-top performances of Chris Lilley. There were many clever supporting actors, with a totally convincing high school principal, well-meaning welfare teachers, and so on. The writing was clever. And the whole piece was authentic enough, yet far too outrageous to be even faintly politically correct.

There is similar provocativeness in some black American comedies (black in more ways than one) such as the Wayans Brothers' White Chicks. Or in Jason Lewis' attempts on BBC TV to portray Didier Drogba and Winston Churchill (yes, Lewis is black). But the points made about the explosive issue of race are made with fun and cleverness.

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What isn't funny? Think of Uncle Arthur or some other person, who gets up to speak at a wedding. There will be tasteless stories and much repetition. But if you want to be funny, don't labour the point; don't repeat something over and over; don't be too serious; and don't try to correct people's thinking.

And so we get to ABC's main Wednesday night line-up: Randling, Agony Aunts, and Laid.

Some of the comments on Randling made me laugh, such as the discussion on whether "rowels" were on a cowboy's spurs or his leg. Some of the quirky categories raised a smile. I've enjoyed watching some of these contestants before. But programs like Thank God You're Here allowed them more scope for inventiveness. Randling does have some funny moments, but it's a long half hour.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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