The Deveny dilemma

The Age‘s decision to sack Catherine Deveny raises complicated moral and professional issues for people like me, who both work in the media and like to send Twitter messages without putting an much thought into them. So I couldn’t resist weighing in, because the question of what jokes comedy writers can make in the public sphere is one I’ve spent the past decade thinking about.

Unsurprisingly, the offence-potential of jokes is often discussed at The Chaser. We’ve observed that ideally, a highly offensive joke ought to be really funny, because there’s nothing worse than having to defend a lame gag in the heat of public criticism. This principle was well illustrated by Deveny’s struggle to justify tweeting “Rove and Tasma look so cute! I hope she doesn’t die too”, which induced a wince rather than a chuckle from nearly everyone, myself included. What was its point, other than to remind us that Rove’s previous wife died a tragic, untimely death? The offensiveness meter had been dialled up to eleven, while the funny meter was hovering somewhere below zero.

She claimed it was read “out of context“, which is, of course, the ever-unconvincing Hilali defence. I think the context was entirely obvious – the telecast featured footage of Rove and his wife arriving at the Logies – what more do we need to know? Well, she claims that she’s a great mate of Rove’s, and “would take a bullet for him”. Which is lucky, under the circumstances. But that friendship just makes it seem all the more poorly judged.

But the tweet that caused the most offence was this one – “I so do hope Bindi Irwin gets laid”. She’s defended this as “[using] humour to highlight the celebrity culture, the raunch culture and the sexualisation, sexual objectification of women’s bodies”. Well, that would be a remarkable achievement of comic compression in 140 characters, and I think it’s sufficient from the response to conclude that she failed to communicate this. I don’t think Bindi is inherently off-limits – that would be an unjustified level of immunity to claim for someone who has been so constantly and deliberately placed in the spotlight. But when joking about a child, and a bereaved one, I’d argue that caution should be exercised, something Deveny essentially failed to do.

Now, humour is subjective, as many have pointed out in this debate. Which is why in The Chaser, we tend to apply a majority-rules approach when trying to work out what’s funny. And even then, we’ve gotten this wrong on occasion, as I’m sure everyone remembers. But working out which gags to keep, and which to drop, is the most difficult part of the job, and explains why standups carefully hone their material in front of live audiences. Lots of people have written on Twitter that they found Deveny’s gags hilarious, but for the most part, they really didn’t work for me, with the possible exception of “kdlang is dressed by The House Of Kim Jong Ill” (sic).

By contrast, I found some of Wil Anderson’s jokes hilarious. I burst out laughing when I read “In front row for John Mayer.I may not take home gold logie but now have herpes…”. Deveny might suggest that’s because I’m a patriarchal male, but that can’t be helped. As the recent winner of the People’s Choice Award at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, Wil’s comedy qualifications are pretty solid – and 33,000 people like his gags enough to follow him on Twitter. To argue that they (and Deveny, for that matter) should be denied the opportunity to consume material they enjoy because others don’t happen to find it amusing is utterly ridiculous if we are to have any kind of free speech.

I’ve devoted quite a lot of this article to discussing which tweets I thought were funny, and what ones I thought weren’t. And that’s because whether you’re at a pub with your mates or on national television, it’s the audience who ultimately gets to judge what’s funny and what isn’t. Based on her material from Sunday night, I’ve not much interest in going and seeing Deveny’s live comedy show (which, bravely, will take place at Trades Hall in Melbourne tonight), and I don’t intend to make her tweets part of my daily diet.

But to my mind, that’s really where it should end. If you don’t like a comedian, avoid them. It isn’t hard, except when the mainstream media shove their gags in your face to provoke a response. If someone who sets themselves up as a comedian isn’t funny enough, then they’ll fail, and go back to waiting tables or writing for the Logies. By contrast with Biebermania, this is one area where the logic of the marketplace makes considerable sense.

The recent tendency towards mass-media firestorms of spiralling outrage has distorted this simple principle because it has encouraged people who were never going to liked certain content to complain about it. People who hate art and would rather have root canal surgery than visit a gallery – like Kevin Rudd, I suspect – had Bill Henson’s photos thrust in front of them, provoking outrage that would never have been possible otherwise. And here, a columnist whose Twitter account only had 3000-odd followers as of midday on Sunday has been dragged into the national spotlight because some people didn’t like what she had to say. Those responsible for whipping up the frenzy – for creating the outrage – are the ones who are forcing people to consume the content, not the original author. They, to my mind, are the ones who should be held responsible for causing the offence. And that’s why I think my colleague Julian Morrow was so right when he warned media decision-makers against overemphasising the importance of “secondary outrage“.

Fine, Deveny was employed by the mainstream media, so she walked into this environment with her eyes open. And those of us who are generally the first to criticise others tend to deserve what we get in karmic terms, if not always logical ones. But I am increasingly troubled by the strange, masochistic delight that sections of the media take in getting into a lather over comedy. This anger, it seems to me, is almost always manufactured. While her fans no doubt care about Bindi Irwin’s sexual purity, I very much doubt Neil Mitchell or the editors of The Age or Herald-Sun websites do. They just like getting people talking, because it means ratings and web traffic. Which is why we have the ironic situation, as Crikey pointed out this morning, of The Age sacking her and yet profiting from the web traffic generated by people discussing it.

As for the sacking, my question is – what’s changed about her writing? As Amanda Meade commented today, Deveny has been producing this kind of stuff for ages. My colleague Richard Cooke took her to task only last week for her comments on the ANZACs, and I think rightly so. Perhaps the paper has been considering “boning” Deveny for a while. But at this particular moment, they should have been defending a long-serving employee against the wowsers, not giving into a mere 200 commenters on their website. Goodness, if the ABC sacked people after 200 complaints, not only would we have never had a TV career after melting down the switchboard with our first-ever episode in 2001 (perish the thought), but most of their news and current affairs department would have been axed into the bargain. Making people disagree with you can be a valuable commodity, after all – Miranda Devine’s columns have inspired howls of anger for many years, and yet she continues to flourish like salmonella at a poorly-managed KFC.

It makes me worry about the future of comedy. If we continue to flagellate comedians who overstep the line, then no-one will take any risks. Is that really what the Australian public wants? If even a show as tepid and formulaic as Hey Hey It’s Saturday can provoke global fury (for reasons other than its return to our screens, that is) what hope is there for any comedian?

And yet many of us love humour which makes fun of public figures. The intense criticism of deserving targets is what has made The Daily Show so successful, for instance. And even Barack Obama took a turn at this recently, roasting Jay Leno and several political opponents with considerable skill. But comedy is experimental by its nature, and sometimes falls flat. When it does, the valid responses are simple, and time-honoured. People should not laugh. The odd piece of fruit custard pie may even be thrown, if you really want. But recreating the Spanish Inquisition is always, always an overreaction to comedy.

As for Deveny, she’ll probably be okay. She’s a lot more famous today than she was on Saturday, and she’s still tweeting – and as the graph below illustrates, has picked up over a thousand followers as a result of this fuss. And today, she tweeted a joke that really made me laugh: “The bad news? I’ve lost my job and had to cancel the family holiday. The good news is the holiday was to Australia Zoo.”

It’s hard to think of a better response to this situation than a genuinely funny, clever gag. If she can produce more of this, and fewer pointless swipes at Bindi, she may well have a long and successful career in comedy.

3 Responses to The Deveny dilemma

  1. Kerron 5 May 2010 at 6:19 pm #

    Nice work – you raised some interesting points. I followed Catherin but was quite upset by some of her Anzac tweets. The comment about rove and tasma was the last straw so I unfolliwed her. Simple. Surely the most outraged people should be rove and the Irwin family – it’s not the role of the media to whip society into a frenzy and tell us what to be outraged about. Free speech is something we need to protect – I want to live in an Australia where I have a choice and can listen/tune in if I choose or not. My choice – not ACA and Neil Mitchell!

  2. Charlie 5 May 2010 at 7:18 pm #

    Great piece, I can’t help but think back to the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross radio ‘scandal’ we had here in the UK, which demonstrated both the importance of the laughter/offence-o-meter and the ability of a select few to propagate outrage.

  3. Greg 6 May 2010 at 12:01 pm #

    Interesting. Wonder if she would have been sacked if no-one had complained ergo: Is it the amount of negative response that make commentary a moral issue? Would the comments have been OK for her publishers if no-one else heard them, and then there was a British Politician recently who……… “oops is that mic on?”

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