Hey Hey it’s a black day

Another week, another outrage perpetrated by the entertainment industry. And this time it’s Hey Hey It’s Saturday that’s in the firing line for that ‘Jackson Jive’ sketch involving blacked-up performers. At least it’s a change from the days when the show’s only crime was blandness.

Despite several opinion polls claiming today claiming the public didn’t think it was racist, to me the argument seems indisputable. It wasn’t an attempt at accurate impersonation, like when a white performer on Saturday Night Live dons brown makeup to mimic Barack Obama. Their choice of jet-black makeup was denigrating, transforming the performers into dancing golliwogs. So it was no surprise that the act raised the hackles of Harry Connick Jr, who hails from New Orleans, that town which recently experienced enormous racial tension in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The producers were intending to recreate a “classic” moment from twenty years ago, when the act was originally shown on Red Faces. But our sense of humour has changed in those intervening decades. I’m all in favour of edgy comedy, but white people mimicking other races feels inherently problematic nowadays even when it’s done by a performer as skilful as Peter Seller in The Party. Just as Paul Hogan’s 1980s ocker ignoramus Mick Dundee seems more embarrassing than amusing in 2009, Hey Hey succeeded only in proving that some classic television moments should not be revisited.

Though I can’t condone the act, our increasing hunger for the public crucifixion of would-be entertainers nevertheless seems an unhealthy trend. Crossing what can be a fairly blurry line in the sand of public sensibility should certainly be rebuked, but not with the kind of hysteria we’ve seen in recent weeks with the likes of Kanye and Kyle. Having been on the receiving end of the treatment with The Chaser team obviously makes my perspective biased, obviously, and we entirely agree that we made a serious error of judgement. But there’s a question as to whether the punishment fits the crime.

The reality is that unless we accept that making occasional misjudgements is an inherent risk of trying to entertain, we will end up with only the most tame, tedious television. If even a show as safe and dull as Hey Hey can provoke public fury, what hope is there for gifted comedians who push the envelope like John Safran and Chris Lilley, both of whom have also been subjected to the blowtorch of public outrage in recent years? If we don’t calm down a bit, we’ll get to the point where nobody except Sam Newman dares to try and make a joke on television. And that would be a very great shame.

This article was originally published in Grazia