Hey Hey It’s Agony

There are times when, despite myself, I feel truly sorry for politicians. And I had one of those moments last night watching Tony Abbott valiantly enduring Hey Hey It’s Saturday. I loved the show as a kid, when it was, ahem, actually broadcast on Saturdays, but now it’s like watching one of those reanimated corpses in Zombieland sluggishly stumbling around. And the show could certainly use more brains.

It’s cruel to make our prospective leaders appear on light entertainment programmes. They have to tiptoe gingerly themselves through a comedy minefield, perma-grins plastered to their faces, and permanently on guard against a gaffe that will instantly light up YouTube. Most painfully of all, they have to try and think of funny lines themselves, and politicians are not exactly selected on the basis of their quick wit.

There are precious votes on offer, of course – the votes of the battlers, although admittedly only those battlers who can stand to watch Daryl mug his way through a show that should have been left in the 80s cultural dustbin alongside ‘Shaddup You Face‘.

Pollies appear on variety shows in the hope of displaying a human side that’s notably absent during their increasingly formulaic campaign appearanceys. Kevin Rudd used them brilliantly, presenting himself as the endearing, self-deprecating dork we saw on Rove and Sunrise, and it was a shock to many when as Prime Minister he proved to be far more wooden, formal and verbose.

But there must be no more thankless ordeal than judging on Red Faces. The segment is entirely about Red Symons bullying excruciating performers, something he does rather well. The only point of the other judges is to build up the contestants’ hopes before Red dashes them. So, Abbott had no chance to tell endearingly frank, folksy anecdotes about his life, the way he might have on a morning show, or Enough Rope.

Sure, Rex Lee (Lloyd from Entourage) used his cameo brilliantly, quipping about his sexuality, plugging his show and getting a few laughs. But for Tony Abbott, sitting alongside him and no doubt even more uncomfortable on the show than he usually feels around gay men, it was much tougher.

Quips were all that the Opposition Leader could try in the extremely brief time allocated him. And it didn’t go especially well – his comparison of the faux redneck contestant’s voice to Julia Gillard’s seemed a touch sneering, especially since, let’s be honest, the entire point of appearing on the show is to win the bogan vote.

He gave up after that, and shared the compelling insight that he liked animals, was superficially nice to a few cute kids and bantered about his exercist programme with the ever-befuddled Daryl. By the end, he must have been longing for the relative warmth of being interviewed by Kerry O’Brien.

Most unpleasantly of all, when Abbott walked onto the set, he was booed. Which I’m sure is horrible under most circumstances, but must be especially galling coming from people with as low standards as a Hey Hey audience.

What’s more, I doubt he won a single vote for his troubles – he just didn’t get the chance to shine. Julia Gillard declined her invitation to attend, no doubt realising that it wouldn’t look Prime Ministerial, and it was surely a smart decision.

The irony is that Tony Abbott is one of the most natural, comfortable politicians we’ve got under most circumstances. If anything, he’s too forthcoming and frank, lacking that iron discipline over his tongue that was the hallmark of John Howard’s leadership. I would have been interested to see a proper, light-hearted interview with him, of the sort Stephen Colbert does. But of course, that wasn’t an option. Not on Daryl’s watch.

I demand many things in a leader, but humour – or even the ability to play along with comedians – isn’t one of them. Intelligence, decent principles and the ability to communicate are hard enough for most of them to muster. And although those like Paul Keating who can raise the odd laugh are welcome, I can get my yuks from proper comedians, or just wait until Julie Bishop plagiarises their gags.

In America, prospective leaders are only required to bring the funny at the Al Smith dinner, which both Presidential candidates attend to give a comedy speech. (The 2008 instalment was particularly amusing.) Of course, they get professional help writing their gags, and that’s the way it should be done. It lets them tick the “display a sense of humour” box, and nobody has to endure Dickie Knee.

I can’t remember John Howard ever agreeing to appear on a variety show like Hey Hey, since he was always a man with the wisdom to know his limits. And while I understand a challenger like Tony Abbott’s need for airtime, it would be far better for us all if candidates simply declined when the likes of Daryl came calling.

This post originally appeared on The Drum.

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