Gerard Henderson and Humour


Wipe that smirk off your faces and roll back the sunshine, kids, Gerard Henderson the Rain King is in town. In his weekly harrumph for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Right-wing columnist took aim at The Chaser team and their now notorious ‘Osama bin Laden motorcade’ which breached security at last week’s APEC summit in Sydney.

Henderson’s column was summed up by its headline, ‘Pranksters Up to Unfunny Business,’ although a subtitle like ‘Why the ABC Must Be Purged’ would have revealed the true thrust of his argument. According to Henderson, taxpayers’ money was being squandered by the ABC to sponsor illegal and irresponsible acts by a group of comedians who ‘in recent times’ have ‘moved to embrace fashionable Leftist causes.’

I would have thought the program’s title, The Chaser’s War on Everything, indicates their mission clearly enough: to satirise anything and everything in any way they can. Be it something as humorous as stripping off while they were pursuing Labor leader Kevin Rudd for an interview recently, or their unwise decision to send a cartoon by Michael Leunig to an Iranian newspaper last year two ‘media prankster’ actions that would appear to attack rather than ’embrace’ those of a Left or progressive persuasion.

Henderson himself has certainly spent quite a bit of time attacking Leunig over the years in various speeches and columns. So after reading Henderson’s assault on The Chaser for their dangerous lack of responsibility at APEC, it was hardly to surprising to trawl through his commentaries and not find a jot of support for Leunig’s rights, let alone the cartoonist’s understandable concerns for his family’s safety in the wake of the earlier Chaser stunt. It seems that what Gerard Henderson finds either reprehensible or funny simply depends on whether or not it’s aligned with his political view of the world.

Not Chas Licciardello

Typically, Henderson tries to tar The Chaser team with an elitist brush. He writes that, ‘The well-educated comedians like to make fun of less-educated police, cleaners, receptionists, taxi drivers and the like.’ But again I’d argue (pretty obviously) that The Chaser have a go at everyone, no holds barred. And the fact The Chaser are one of the highest rating shows on the ABC with rumours rife in the industry that Channel 7 have been trying to poach the program surely proves just how popular and mainstream they are.

What we really have here is an aristocratic, Right-wing columnist from an exclusive think tank, the Sydney Institute, taking a pot shot at comedians of broad appeal for being um er ‘elitist.’ Sorry, Gerard, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s been a long time since Barnesy’s ‘Working Class Man’ was blasting off your stereo if ever.

What’s finally most irksome about Henderson’s rap-over-the-knuckles, school principal tone a rectitude that is irritatingly common among the club of columnists who now dominate the opinion pages of the SMH, The Australian and the Daily Telegraph is how utterly humourless and sure of himself he seems. The real bin Laden is ‘not funny,’ Henderson declares gravely. Why, earlier this year, The Chaser even ‘thought it appropriate to turn the genocidal Nazi regime into a joke,’ he says. Oh how the Henderson Judgement tolls like a bell over it all: Not funny, not funny, not funny!!!

As other voices join with Henderson to declare that Osama bin Laden is no laughing matter, to argue that The Chaser are being both irresponsible and insensitive to terrorism’s victims in using bin Laden to promote their show, it’s important to remember how much this type of humour belittles bin Laden. The Chaser‘s stunt de-activates the aura of fear that’s gathered, so powerfully, around bin Laden as the number one bogey-man in Western society. Someone should send Gerard Henderson a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator, which mocked Hitler at a time when many in the USA and Europe were all too eager to embrace his rise to prominence, utterly infuriating the Fuhrer into the bargain.

Despite what Henderson and others are saying, humour does have a place in these matters and always has.

No one can argue The Chaser haven’t made mistakes or say that they haven’t gone too far, taken a few silly risks, missed their mark and yes, they’ve on occasion even been c’mon Hendo, say it for us ‘Not funny!’ But surely the role of radical satirists and indeed that of the Fool in cultural moments as varied as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High (uh oh, another ABC program!) is to take those risks, push those buttons, and provoke our thoughts.

Despite Henderson’s pronouncements, global news interest proved that The Chaser‘s stunt at APEC was indeed very amusing as a few laughing police caught on camera at the time revealed. The stunt also questioned the true effectiveness of security around the event, given that a bespectacled, middle-aged accountant in a Hawaiian shirt was being beaten to the ground elsewhere by police in front of his young son, for the crime of jaywalking across the path of an official motorcade.

I’ve spent time in Iran and China, seen the stone-faced nature of totalitarian power up close and it’s not a pleasant thing to witness. Time and again what unsettles these disgusting regimes most is humour and poetry: a laugh, a flicker of beauty, anything that cannot be controlled or predicted.

It would be ridiculous to compare our society to dictatorships like these, but in the ongoing and perhaps never-ending ‘War on Terror’ it would be fatal to suppress the freedoms and the agitators, fools and poets that remind us of what being human is all about.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.