That time of decade again!


I must be afflicted with some degree of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Apart from the desire to own various editions of the same albums or books, a need to organise all knowledge of comedy into a working body (which I like to refer to as a ‘unified field theory’ of comedy; relax, it doesn’t actually mean anything beyond being an intellectual-sounding metaphor) and becoming irrationally annoyed that we in Australia have given in and now spell the word ‘gaol’ as ‘jail’, I also get the irrits when we treat the wrong year as the end of a decade or millennium.

The new millennium didn’t begin in 2000, it began in 2001.

The new decade doesn’t really begin in 2010, it begins in 2011.

But I guess if we started counting the new millennium in 2000, this is the end of that decade. (And even Arthur C. Clarke made the error; after correctly selecting ‘2001’ as the important year in 2001: A Space Odyssey, he followed the story up with 2010: Odyssey Two.)

So here we are, December 2009 about to begin, and journalists are compiling their ‘round-up of the decade that was the “noughties”’. A year early, if you ask me. But nobody seems to be asking me if their timing is right.

No, it’s nearly the end of the first decade of the current millennium, and what journalists are asking me – and you, and anyone else who appears to be listening – is to do the news-gathering for them. Here’s a question I was asked earlier. I can’t help but have an answer for that.



A journalist’s tweeted reply to my comment is as follows:

Could say the same 4 comedians. As ppl whose job it is to comment on society we HAVE to rely on getting input from the masses

I disagree.

In the first place, the comedian’s job is to entertain. News has only taken on that mentle in recent years in order to keep turning a profit – having to entertain audiences that would prefer sugar walls and happy endings.

Good comedians are the ones that have their own world view, and reveal it more-or-less by stealth: ‘you think the world is like that, but have a look at what I can see from where I’m standing – actually it’s like this’. Their degree of skill at revealing to you what you know, but didn’t realise you know, is a mark of how good they are. The art is to conceal the art.

News, on the other hand, used to be about reporting the facts. Uncoloured. No agenda. (Of course, everyone has an agenda.) And professionals were paid to gather those stories. To use all their skills. Now, they depend more and more on stories coming to them. And people love their brief moments of fleeting fame, so love to step forward with their stories. Maybe they should try to perfect the art of concealing the art also: be well read, be ‘metropolitan critics’ who get around and hear all the opinions and sniff out those leads…

Back to the ‘decade in review’, however.

A news service ought to know what the big stories of the past decade were. They just spent the past decade presenting the stories. It’s not supposed to be a live concert by your favourite old rocker. You might feel ripped off if you see David Bowie live and he doesn’t do ‘Changes’ or ‘Fashion’. You shouldn’t – he was, up until his last world tour, still making brilliant new music and I’m happy to not hear ‘Space Oddity’ if it means I do hear ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ or ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’. Bowie is canny enough to poll his online fanbase for a list of songs they want to hear live, if he wanted. I’d much rather he presented the show he chose, but will accept that he may actually ask the people that keep him in nice designer suits what exactly they want to hear.

But the news is the news. Don't ask me whether I want to hear about September 11 or Weapons of Mass Destruction or the first black president over the deaths of Belinda Emmett or George Harrison, the end of John Howard’s term as Prime Minister (and the erosion of our rights as citizens that coninued beyond his  leadership) or our first female Governor General. I’m not gonna switch the channel in disgust because you failed to remind me of Paris Hilton’s sex tape, the bizarre media fixation on Maddi McCann, Tanya Zaetta ‘entertaining the troops’ or the story of Chantelle Steadman and little Alfie Patten. Particularly when we perhaps ought to be reminded of Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine, the Cronulla Riots and talkback radio’s role in inciting them, East Timor’s independence and Australia’s assistance in that struggle (only maybe this time point out there was oil involved, and lots of it, and also add the reminder that much of it is currently spilling into the ocean, bad for both our energy needs and our ocean resources…).

See, when you specifically skew the news to the audience, it stops being news. It starts being entertainment. And then comedians do start having to do your job for you: reminding the audience how the world is, and in particular, reminding them that it’s not necessarily the way people who sell airtime and audiences to advertisers would necessarily have you believe.

So, news outlets. Tell me. What do your beancounters want you to tell us the big stories of the last decade were, exactly? How does that differ from the way you believe you ought to placate your audience with the big stories? And going through your archives, what actually were they at the time?

If, after all that, the likes of Juanita Phillips, Samantha Armytage and Chris Bath feel the need to pepper their bulletins with dick jokes in order to keep the viewers’ attention, it may well prove more entertaining, but it’ll still be a case of the news not doing its job properly anymore, not proof that journalists and comedians are essentially the same thing. (Although, we can afford to lose ‘Kochie’; doppelganger James O’Loghlin is a fine comedian who does ‘serious’ much better than Kochie does ‘funny’; there’s no need to have them both loose on the airwaves!)

Onna televish

One afternoon in 1980, when I was in Year 3, my mother looked up from a school notice I’d just handed her and said, “Oh. Who else was given a note like this to take home?”

Unlike the weekly newsletter or an excursion consent form, which would have been distributed to every student in the class, this notice had come in an envelope and was given to only certain students. It explained that the school had been approached to provide kids for a spot of filming, to take place at a park after the day’s lessons had been completed, and inquired whether my parents would give permission for me to be involved. (It was long before the days of Bill Henson.) The body seeking to have the footage shot was SBS, the ‘Special Broadcasting Service’ that was about to launch a new television station that would cater to ‘multicultural Australia’ with multilingual programming (that is, shows that wogs would want to watch). Well – would cater to multicultural Sydney and Melbourne, initially.

Much as the ABC was ‘Channel 2’ for most people back then, we knew SBS as ‘Channel 0’. Although the nought was a numeral, it was always pronounced ‘oh’ rather than ‘zero’. On air, voice-overs would also refer to the station as ‘channel oh-twenty-eight’ (Channel 0/28). I have no idea how that worked – which parts of Australia could turn a channel dial (because it was the age of dials, and not buttons and remotes) to ‘28’ when they only seemed to go from zero (yeah, all right, ‘oh’) to only as far as ten. Although, anything was possible in the old days of analogue; old television sets had a setting on their channel dials for a station between 5 and 6. It was 5A. Why? What got broadcast on 5A? Who by? And to whom? (The answer, I discovered  while writing this, is Riverland Television Limited – a commercial station broadcasting in regional South Australia.)

Anyway, point is, SBS was about to launch Channel 0/28, and so Mama Romeo surmised there’d be a fair whack of other non-Anglo Australian parents reading a copy of the same letter that evening. And she was right. While token whiteys were also approached – they outnumbered us at the school – the closest of my mates who happened also to be second generation Australians were certainly invited to partake. Tony, whose family came from the same southern Italian village as mine, and Clement, who was – and still is – Chinese Malaysian.

So one sunny afternoon after school we were collected by a chartered bus and delivered to a park. I’ve no recollection which, nor of the teachers and possibly even parents who accompanied us, but I do remember Japanese kids playing cricket nearby, and being approached, with my best friend Clement, by one of the crew as we stepped off the bus. A tubby little Italian and a Chinese kid fitted the bill perfectly. We soon had our ankles bound in order to partake in a three-legged race. We were clearly ‘the compliant ones’ rather than The Defiant Ones.

We only feature for a few seconds, but I’m sticking with ‘feature’ over ‘appear’. I don’t know why they went for it – well I do, actually. We’re coming last in race, but I know I’m giving it my all.

3-legged race01 

Despite the fuzziness of the screencaptured image (the videotape hasn’t dated well, and there’s not much call to digitally remaster a 30-year-old station ID) you can see me, the fat kid on the right, powering on. Look at the pair on the left having trouble holding onto each other, their legs going in opposite directions… despite the binding at their ankles, they’re clearly competing against each other.

I was lost in the moment. I must have been – I was too young to worry about making a dick of myself in public, and didn’t know enough to be conscious of the cameras. Neither did anyone else, I’m sure; we were just kids. But in the second take (there were at least two) they moved me ‘centrestage’, as it were. Although hidden by an audience cut-away, you know there’s a second take because there’s a continuity flaw: Clement and I change sides.

3-legged race02

That I’m getting right into it is evident even in this poor-quality image. Look at the expression on my face! And maybe there’s a subtext being conveyed: those foreigners – they may not be at the forefront of society, but gosh, they work hard! Although that’s not any more deliberate than the parallel I’ve already drawn, between the three-legged race consisting of foreigners and outlaw fugitives. More amusing are some of the broader signifiers that, 30 years on, come across as funny.

Why is it that the baby most keen to read a book happens to be Asian?

The Australian flag makes a dark-skinned child flinch – shouldn’t that be the effect of an American flag?

Does the fact that the tailor shop is called ‘Klein’s Clothes Clinic’ suggest the schmutter trade runs in the family, but there was a disappointed Jewish mother who really wanted a doctor for a son?

Were cops that polite to new Australians ever in the history of white occupation? (Possibly, back when cops, too, were new Australians; but I suspect they called themselves ‘English’ then, and were nice only to people they called ‘sir’.)

Is it wrong to note that it’s the less white-looking kid in the canoe who has the ‘Bankcard’ symbol on his shirt, and may well come from a family with a shop or restaurant so successful that they actually used Bankcard facilities often enough to warrant related merchandise such as clothing?

Do all Italian men in Australian television have to wear moustaches so that we know they’re Italian?

I’d like to point out how wrong such broad observations are, how ignorant you’d have to be to make them – but 30 years on, I’m an Italian with a moustache. So the only generalisation I can speak about authoritatively is the one that, for me, happens to be true. Of course, I don’t have a moustache in the ad; I was only nine when it was made and puberty was still a matter of – oh, I don’t know – months away. But I know the station drew an audience who saw the ad repeatedly because, by the mid-80s, well past puberty, I was still being almost recognised in the street: “Aw mate – you know who you look like? That guy on Channel Oh!”

I still get on television from time to time, either as a guy laughing (and hiding an edit) in the audience of a comedy performance, or as an extra in a comedy show sketch. Fittingly, my next appearance, in the background of a sketch, will again be as a token Italian, pretty much because, for all intents and purposes, I still look like someone on Channel 0.