*It’s Like a C….r

Note the 'Watch This Skit' option.

Really, I do not know why I persist in so eagerly devouring the opinion pages of major metropolitan dailies and reading other people’s tweets, given that I just find things with which I disagree violently, which then makes me rush into ‘print’ with my own pieces that, conceivably, will then merely cause irritation among my tiny readership, assuming, of course, that anyone is that emotionally invested in what I say, which I doubt. At any rate, a piece by Bruce Guthrie appeared in the Age on Sunday, 12 February, which vexed me, because it dealt with the-flogged-as-much-as-a-convict-doing-double-shifts-at-Old-Sydney-Town subject of what is acceptable fodder for humour. Frankly, this is a topic that I would like never to see addressed again, but here I am, back in the ring for another swing, like an old boxer fighting in a match the outcome of which no one is interested. Furthermore, and taking it as easily on myself as ever, I would like to make the point that this is a column about humour, rather than an attempt at humour, so sit back and prepare to be bored to death, everybody.

In essence, Guthrie kicked off with the fact that he was upset at the scene in Crazy, Stupid, Love in which someone, in response to hearing Steve Carell’s character crying in the toilet over his marital split, is laughing because ‘It could’ve been cancer, buddy! Hey, everyone, it’s just a divorce’. Guthrie was upset because he had the great misfortune of seeing the film with a friend who was a cancer patient and who has, very sadly, since died. As well, he tells a story of being with the same friend at the Presidents Cup golfing event and of hearing a group of people behind them laughing at the idea that a certain ‘prominent personality’ looked as though he had cancer and would shortly be dead. Naturally, the column eventually builds to a discussion of everyone’s favourite makes-Phar-Lap-look-young-and-vital dead horse, The Chaser’s Make-A-Wish foundation sketch. Basically, the point Guthrie is making is that cancer is never funny and that, with statistics indicating that one in three adults will be diagnosed with it, a person has a good chance of offending someone if he or she involves the disease in attempts at humour.

Now, putting the twats at the golf to one side for the moment, what bothers me about this sort of thing is the level of wilful misunderstanding of what is actually being joked about. Surely what’s being made fun of in Crazy, Stupid, Love isn’t the idea of someone having cancer but, rather, the daft things that people are capable of saying when faced with someone in despair. And regarding The Chaser skit, and as I’ve written before, I always thought it was obvious that what it was mocking was The Chaser team itself, given their depiction of themselves as heartless and venal. So, to anyone who would denounce the sketch on the basis that you, full stop, don’t laugh at sick kids, I would respond that, yes, that is absolutely correct, but that that isn’t what they were doing. As is obvious from the above, it seemed to me that the ensuing fuss was the equivalent of cramming the weather from The Perfect Storm into a cup made for Tinkerbell, so I found it a colossal Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me-level bummer to be reading about it once more.

Now, the issue, it seems to me, is that Bruce Guthrie found himself in an excruciating situation – that of his sadness for his friend being compounded by, I would imagine, awful embarrassment. This would especially be the case if – and I don’t intend this flippantly at all – it had been Guthrie’s idea that they see this particular film. For example, I recall a time during which a friend of mine was undergoing a breast-cancer scare and, for some reason, I thought the ideal remedy for her state of mind was a group expedition to the play Blackrock. I’d not realised that, the subject of gang rape and murder not being quite depressing enough, this work would also have a subplot regarding a breast-cancer scare. In consequence, I spent most of the performance wishing for my own death and trying to read my watch in the darkness so that I could know when the horror would end. Now, this, obviously, isn’t nearly as painful as watching a film with a friend who actually has cancer and then having a joke related to the illness crop up. However, while I am very sympathetic to the awful predicament that Guthrie was in, I still think that his argument is lacking in the water department.

To start with, I do feel it’s a mistake to lump the dopey remarks of people who see fit to attend golf tournaments in with the – even if, arguably, tasteless – humour that professional writers have devised. This is not because I’m being a James-Spader-in-PrettyinPink Snobby McSnob, railing against the common man and his pleasures, but because the professional writers do have, I assume, at least some kind of considered point of view behind their quips, given that these quips would surely have been made to jump through some hoops. Having said that, though, even in the case of the Presidents Cup ‘buffoon[s]’, I wonder if it’s precisely because cancer is so widespread, and because of the impression these days that everything will give it to us, that people feel the need, and entitlement, to make jokes about it.

Essentially, I feel uneasy at Guthrie trying to turn the fact that he happened to be in a very bad situation into ironclad evidence of what is or isn’t a suitable topic for humour. The fact is that going through something personally can cause heightened sensitivity to a particular issue and, while this can, I hear, lead to beneficial outcomes, I don’t believe it’s the ideal state of mind in which to be determining something as slippery as what constitutes acceptable subjects for comedy (of course, others might maintain that it’s exactly the right time to be doing so). For instance, I recall that after a schoolfriend of mine died, I was watching Australia You’re Standing In It and saw a sketch featuring the Dodgy Brothers’ cutprice funeral business, and that, for the first time in my life, I was quite shaken and upset that anyone could put funerals in any kind of humorous context. However, this feeling passed, and I’m extremely glad that I didn’t have a public platform to go around demanding that no one make comedy sketches that included the subject of funerals, as, if I had, I would have been an even more unpopular ‘teen’ than I was already.

Guthrie quotes approvingly an edict from Doug Aiton, ‘[o]ne of the ABC’s most successful radio hosts’, of the importance of remembering  that ‘…Hitler is never, ever funny’. Well, yes, clearly it is a mistake for a successful host on the ABC, or probably anywhere else, to be hurling around the Hitler gags, especially if they want their massive success to continue. But surely a difference in approach can be allowed between an ABC radio host and, for example, Mel Brooks. While I would, not being a psychopath, agree wholeheartedly that there’s nothing in the least funny about what Hitler did, that’s not to say there isn’t a comic element to the man himself, with all his ranting and raving. And, anyway, laughing at Hitler, would, surely, have been the Fuhrer’s worst nightmare, given the unlikelihood that he had a flair for self-deprecation.

A separate, but related topic, which is at the forefront of my mind due to the passing of Whitney Houston, is that of showing sensitivity towards those who have just died. While even I, and I am a deeply unkind person, find the instant breaking out of gags about dead celebrities to be a difficult impulse to understand, I simultaneously get a bit uptight when others put the old high horse through a spot of dressage, given that the dead, are, of course, the only variety of creature that don’t have any feelings. On the most recent occasion that I heard of the death of an acquaintance of mine, my first reaction, which I, furthermore, didn’t hesitate to vocalise, was to work out if I had ever made fun of her and, if so, how often and how many people would have overheard me doing me so. The thing is that would have been more to the point for me not to have been making jokes about her when she was alive, just as it would have been more to the point not to make jokes about Whitney Houston while she was alive. Of course, this fact would not have stopped me making such jokes, and it won’t stop me making fun of people in the future either, given that we’re all, except, apparently, for plucky ex-vaudevillian Mickey Rooney, going to die eventually and I simply would not be able to cope with everyone being off-limits for mockery; I just mean that after someone has passed away isn’t the time to start worrying about whether wisecracks about them are hurtful. And what exactly is the period of time that needs to elapse before it’s acceptable to crack wise about the deceased, anyway? I don’t believe this question has ever been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all mine.

Guthrie concludes his article with the words that ‘We should remember that one person’s joke is often someone else’s anguish’. Quite probably, but, as someone else once said, and I would love to credit them but I can’t remember who it was, good comedy never arises out of an overwhelming desire to be nice to people. In my own experience of people who are afflicted with cancer – and I do appreciate that is entirely anecdotal evidence as well – I can’t recall the topic of poor-taste-cancer-related humour ever being raised, and I don’t think that’s because, as Guthrie seems to be maintaining, society is more insensitive than it used to be. I think, rather, that it’s precisely because these people are dealing with the kind of problems that are at a level of gravity and genuineness that warrant maximum kindness, meaning that they simply have much bigger things with which to concern themselves.

16 Responses to “It’s Like a C….r”

  1. Richard Froard says:

    Humour and satire are amongst the greatest weapons yet devised to destroy pomposity and cant, and to reveal underlying tragedy. Those who shame and silence comedians and other truth tellers seek to close down truthful discussion of awkward topics, often citing ‘decency’ and ‘taste.’ Bruce Guthrie’s column belongs in a populist newspaper of complaint alongside those who decry Art as ‘a waste of taxpayers’ money better spent on schools and hospitals.’

  2. Andy says:

    Mum has very aggressive uterine cancer and has chemo and radio, basically the whole box and shitty dice. She looks like a broom with teeth shot into it, there’s no mistaking she’s ill. So she’s in the front yard just prior to Christmas picking up leaves or some other bullshit she’s not supposed to do and a guy slowly rides past on his bike, clocks her scarf and yells out “Nice head scarf, grandma!” She recovers from her initial shock, laughs out loud and yells back “Piss off, dickhead!” as he disappears around the bend.
    Made her day.

    Ps “the old high horse through a spot of dressage” – very enjoyable

    • Hi Andy. I really appreciate your comment, thank you, but I am so terribly sorry to hear that about your mum. She sounds great, incidentally, not that you need me to tell you that, obviously!

      • Andy says:

        As an interesting side note, Mum is the spitting image of Cate Blanchett (possible Grace Kelly replacement -For the Grace of God). I’ll have to send her a link and ask her if she’s interested in the job.
        Looking forward to your next post.

  3. Barbara Kerr says:

    My hilarious cancer story:

    While I was at uni, my parents sprung it on me that my mum was having a radical hysterectomy, right before she was due to go into hospital (“we didn’t want to worry you”). Fortunately the hospital was a half-hour walk from my home – not so fortunately, I didn’t have a car and it was during one of our lovely 40 degree summers.

    One boiling afternoon I left my mum, thin, green and hooked up to a bag with the word KETAMINE on it in huge letters (regrettably, she didn’t have enough to share), and trudged home. Passing a video shop on the way, I decided that a light, frothy comedy would be just the thing to take my mind off everything.

    Note to self: When faced with one’s mother’s possible untimely demise, do not hire _Shaun of the Dead_.

    • Thanks, Barbara – holy hell, though, I’m sorry to hear that. I know precisely what you mean about the unsuitability of ‘Shaun of the Dead’.

  4. RobC says:

    “What did the crippled orphan get for Christmas?”


    Is this laughing at kids with cancer? I don’t think so. Is it funny? I think so. Like a lot of good humour, it relies on the subversion of audience expectations; I was expecting it to go this way, but it went that way.

    Obviously I wouldn’t tell this joke to a crippled orphan kid who had cancer, unless I knew him and his sense of humour very well.

    Sometimes jokes are going to offend people. That’s the risk you take when you try to be funny in anything other than a tired, predictable way. My personal rule for that is, if you’re going to risk being offensive, make damn sure you’re also being funny. Some people make the mistake of thinking that simply being offensive = being funny. Which is why the bloke telling racist jokes down the pub on a Friday night is a sad loser, while Doug Stanhope is one of the funniest human beings who ever lived.

    • Nicely put, Rob, thank you. In fact, probably better put than my column was.

  5. Martin says:

    Ironically enough for Bruce Guthrie his insensitive mentioning of Doug Aiton only brought back to life my own childhood trauma of having to listen to the old windbag. And what a surprise it wasn’t to learn that Aiton was even handing out a list of unacceptable topics to new recruits. Only J Edgar Hoover could have been nicer.

    Unfortunately I think though you missed the main paragraph of Guthrie’s article which was as follows:

    “In fact, on cable television you can still see endless re-runs of episodes of The Benny Hill Show that thought nothing of seeking cheap laughs from sexual assault.”

    I’m still trying to imagine former victims of sexual assault weeping copiously in front of the television screen saying “It’s all too real, it’s just too real!”

    In which case they should definitely not watch this Benny Hill clip:

    • Many thanks, Martin, for your valuable addition! Top point re. the Benny Hill.

  6. Genevieve says:

    I’m glad someone has had the courage to talk sensibly about The Chaser’s ‘Make a Realistic Wish’ skit. I always saw it in the way you do, and also, possibly, as a comment on how the whole ‘Make a Wish’ concept is perhaps a little odd – as if somehow death for a child and their family is made more palatable if compensated with a trip to Disneyland. Controversial, perhaps, but a valid question to ask. Should we punish people for asking morally challenging questions?

    Perhaps, one of the reasons Mel Brooks got away with making fun of Hitler was because he was Jewish. It was an important thing to do because it really exposed how absurd, stupid and horrendous Nazism and left the question hanging – how did this dude become Chancellor of Germany?

    I suppose the trick is not to let the comedy trivialise something horrendous. I haven’t seen ‘Crazy, Stupid Love’ but the philosophical point made in the crying in the toilet scene seems to have been a valid one – ‘Worse Things Happen At Sea’. Maybe, that is where ‘The Chaser’ ran into trouble – they appeared to be trivialising something absolutely horrendous.

    Comedy has an important role as a social commentator – if we make rules about when it can and cannot be used I suspect we run into trouble. After all, how far is it from taboo to censorship?

  7. Snif says:

    Actually, it’s surprising how often Hitler can be funny – that people can use that same old clip from “Downfall” and make it sometimes howlingly funny with just the subtitles is quite something.

    • Thanks for this and, yes, am entirely with you re the ‘Downfall’ parodies – they’re the gift that keeps on giving, as far as I’m concerned.

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