Going too far

Posted on February 20, 2010

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Comedy often pushes the boundaries, forcing us to look at ourselves and society. When that is successful, there is an underlying truth to the gag itself. Take for example the classic and phenomenally successful Golden Girls. One of the things that made that show work so well was the underlying truth of a fear of dying alone, hence the four women banding together.

When things go too far, it is usually a case of a poor joke, made in worse taste, that doesn’t have that underlying truth. This was never more evident than with The Chasers’ frankly appalling gag about not bothering to give dieing children decent gifts because they are only going to die anyway. The only truth underlying that was that there are seriously ill children out there, dieing from terrible disease. That was not a reflective truth, merely an awful and unfunny truth that The Chaser crew made a shocking error in judgement in even coming up with a gag to exploit it. Matters became worse with an evident degree of butt-covering and buck-passing within the internal politics of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park, did an episode which reflected on the often nonsensical media and public obsession with celebrities. Why that obsession exists is hard to pin down. The effect on the celebrities themselves can be harsh. A case in point – how many ‘child stars’ end up basketcases? The episode in question revolved around Britney Spears. Where Stone and Parker pushed the envelope too far in my opinion, was with the set-up. The Southpark kids trick their way into Spears’s dressing room by pretending to be her children. A depressed Spears, hearing that her children had arrived, cheers up, only to be crestfallen when she realises that it is not her children at all, but just more people wanting something from her. The depressed Spears then blows most of her head off with a shotgun.

That aspect of the Southpark episode was essentially making fun of depression, the underlying truth being that depressed people can kill themselves. For me, that unfunny truth overwhelmed the remainder of the overall truth underlying the episode – that of unfathomable obsession with celebrities and celebrity status. Perhaps I am more sensitive on the issue than others because of my own past with depression and the phsycial scars from a failed suicide attempt.

It is Family Guy however that are really incurring my wrath. This is a show that also often really pushes the boundaries. It has some very clever characterisation, particular with Brian, the talking family dog, and Stewie, the baby. However a recent episode used as its comedic line, making fun of Down’s Syndrome and former US Vice-President hopeful, Sarah Palin. Now I am not a huge fan of Palin and what she stood for during the last presidential campaign. But, making fun of the fact that Palin has a child with Down’s Syndrome is going too far. What underlying truth is there in making fun of something like that? I was left with a distinct impression that the creator simply doesn’t like Palin and the Republicans and decided this was a way to express little more than hate.

Politics and political characters are things that are the staple of a lot of comedy. They all too often simply beg to be made fun of. But this stunt by Family Guy was nothing short of nasty and entirely unjustified.

There are times when I am made to feel ashamed of both being a writer, including my comedic writing. This was one of them. Pushing boundaries is one thing but simple cruelty as point-scoring is another and not acceptable.

Kids make cruel fun of people who are different. Where I grew up, people of other than generally Anglo-Saxon ethnicity was a rarity. They were different so they often became targets. There is one girl in particular that I hope to meet again one day so that I may apologise for my role in her regular humiliation. Lord knows, my parents would have had several layers of skin off my bum if they had ever found out the things we were saying and doing to the poor girl. Part of me knew it was wrong but I kept laughing at it anyway, which just encouraged the worst perpetrators even more. Another child who was at my primary school briefly, was of considerably lower intellect than whatever passes for average. I sometimes laughed at others who were making fun of that poor kid as well. At least I had the decency to feel guilty about it afterwards and stopped.

What I have just related was the stunts of pre-teen kids, thirty-five years ago. This controversial episode of Family Guy had about as much depth as those childhood cruelties. Surely as ‘adults’ they should know better by now?

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