Recently there was a suggestion that some of us split from the local Book Club and form a TV Club. The reasons for this were as follows: we don't have time to read the books, some of the people who come to Book Club don't read the book club but just come for a feed, and Book Club was starting to do weird things like discuss two books at once. The biggest gripe about Book Club probably was that you might end up reading a book you'd rather not.
Book Club, in case you were wondering, looks like this:
No Swedish footballers' wives involved: it's all incredibly nerdy and dorky, but this is how you socialise in Alice, through joining clubs and groups.
Some of us were occasionally meeting to watch The Chaser and Summer Heights High. So it seemed like a natural progression, to form a TV Club. (But why can't you just watch TV? -- Ed.) Being a member of a TV Club suggests a chance to be totally passive, to wing things, not to have to read anything you don't like. Or even to read, full stop. Non-reading being something I'm bitterly opposed to, but this is total nerdsville, for all those who miss the joy of a tutorial situation, so that has to count for something.
This week we'll have our first inaugural non-meeting, watching the last episode of Summer Heights High. I'm rather intrigued by Summer Heights High as an example of one of the recent wave of comedies that use irony to satirise (the handling of) PC-ness and diversity. The other thing about Summer Heights High is that its appeal seems to have been instantaneous: a cult following has developed overnight (at least amongst high school children in Alice). While the show owes some of its momentum to We Can Be Heroes, it rides on the coat-tails of British comedies such as Little Britain, Ali G and the deadpan humour of the mockumentary, The Office, comedies in which you often don't know whether to laugh or cringe. Lilley's work also follows in the Australian comic genealogy of suburban satire sired (or maybe just popularised) by Barry Humphrey: Ja'mie (not my most favourite of Lilley's characters) could be Dame Edna's long-lost grand-daughter, with her distinct superstar tendencies.
Anyway, I've thought so much about the use of irony in these comedies that I've tied myself in knots and I'm not really sure I have anything to say...which perhaps relates to the point Pav Cat made recently about The Chaser's eulogy song ultimately deconstructing itself. One of the sources of discomfort provoked by these shows is the question of when is too much irony too much, i.e. when does it become a vehicle for expressing downright, say, racist sentiments, as maybe the case (depending on your reading) in relation to the Arab semen stains in the eulogy song.
Strictly speaking, The Chasers is another comic TV subgenre but I think it shares similar ground in its use of satire with some of these shows. To me, the problem with The Chasers is that it's too indiscriminate: it sets up any and every target. While all of the abovementioned shows do push the envelope at times, the difference is that most of them set a context or a trope for their satire. Those with a loose trope -- Little Britain, Ali G -- tend to, er, get out of hand (nay, run out of original ideas -- Ed), whereas those with a clear premise -- e.g. satire of the public school system in Summer Heights High and office culture in The Office -- so they're better able to handle layers of irony because the context and objects of satire are more focused. Chris Lilley's and Ricky Gervais's work is effective because of its verisimilitude (tho I think some of the language in SHH is getting a bit worn now -- he'd better not make another series) and because of the awareness they provoke of the gap between the mundanity of their characters' lives and their ambitions and, by proxy, ours.
If you're still wondering about the value of irony-laden shows like these that, then consider ads for The Librarians, soon to replace Summer Heights High. This show looks absolutely terrible, because of the singular lack of ambiguity in its humour. For example, in one of the promos, a librarian chirps to a woman in a hijab: 'You have to come back at our opening time. It's our country; our rules.' It's back to the grotesquerie of the late 80s/early 90s Australian cinema moment, with join-the-dots caricatures. In a comedy like The Librarians, I'm guessing that 'Polynesian Pathways' would probably be championed as an embattled site of multiculturalism. In Summer Heights High, however, a more complex set of relations is invoked: the very program that's meant to shore up Jonah's sense of identity undermines the coolness he wants to project.
Another thing which interests me about these comedies is whether there's an American equivalent or if (a) the prospect of ironising diversity is too tricky in the States or (b) irony is not enough of a staple of American humour for such comedies to work. I can think of films like Little Miss Sunshine that satirise ordinary white middle-class Americans' aspirations, tho PC-ness isn't really a target in this film. One of the points that British comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen's film Borat turns on is the belief that Americans can be provoked like some kind of endearing savants because of their lack of irony, (not to mention their cultural myopia, possibly the reason why so many of Borat's interviewees take him at face value). But perhaps I haven't watched enough American TV.
I've had a number of discussions (usually with other Australians) about whether Americans have a sense of irony, and the conclusion I've drawn from my brief experiences in the States is that many of them indeed do have a sense of irony but it's not a national institution, in the way that irony is in Britain or being laconic is in Australia. There is a Commitment to Earnestness, I've found. Some Americans also go a bit wobbly at the knees if you throw some particularly deadpan or complex irony at them. (I've noticed that some of Denton's American guests just don't know what to say when he does this.)
Anyway, I'm not sure that I ultimately have anything smart to say about SHH so I've come up with a new We Can Be heroes personality type indicator instead...which Chris Lilley character are you?
Each time I watch Summer Heights High, I see more and more parallels between my life and that of Mr G:
Leonard dies. Celine dies.
I want the Creative Writing program to be more mainstream and professional.
Mr G wants to build a Gregson drama institute with national standards.
Big Boss says to me: 'But you don't have the EFTSU'.
The Headmistress says: 'We don't have the resources.'
Big Boss implies / The headmistress says: 'From where I'm sitting, creative writing / drama doesn't feature much in the picture.'
I threaten to resign. Mr G actually does resign.
In fact, I'm starting to wonder if Summer Heights High might be directly based on my own life. I think I might write to the ABC and complain, though I've noticed they've recently put a disclaimer at the start about all characters being fictitious.