Max Gillies talks satire, The Gillies Report and the future of political comedy – ABC News

Posted: October 19, 2021 at 10:42 pm

Ibelieve the satiric impulse to be a defining Australian element of Australian culture, equally by colonists and the colonised.

On a number of occasions over the years, folk have lamented that Australian television political satire has been light on the ground since The Gillies Report in the early '80s. Whilst it's gratifying to be so remembered, it's a misperception.

There was a dearth of satire before The Gillies Report, having been 15years since The Mavis Bramston Show wound up. Mavis had been widely regarded as the earliest iteration of the genre on our shores.

Truth be told, TV management across the board had been leery of it.

In fact, despite the ABC commissioning a pilot from us, it shared the general scepticism about our prospects for success, the demographic for the genre assumed to be males aged between 45 and 60.

My experience in live cabaret suggested otherwise, and fortunately this held up in the transfer to the mass medium.

With the burgeoning of social media and smart technology offering a plethora of new platforms, nearly everybody's a satirist these days.

Satire is at heart reactionary impulse. The important distinction is between practitioners who punch down and those who punch up.

Everybody "doing"political satire has their own approach.

The most common recipe since stand-up became a fashionable performance genre in the 1980s is basically what the Americans designate the monologue. All their daily topical TV shows sport one. We all use it to a degree.

But beyond the stringing together of gags, the ways are infinite Barry Humphries, Shaun Micallef, the Chaser crowd, Rod Quantock, Curtis and Kelso, Eddie Perfect, Tim Minchin, Phil Scott and The Wharf Revue, Clark and Dawe, to choose a few males at random. Each develops his own unique formula. As do the women.

For example, Micallef's approach has evolved over time.

Basically he is the analyst exposing contradiction, who is nevertheless bemused by unexpected further duplicity.

He has also gathered about him a team of expert know-alls, PR reps, demographers, forecasters, academics, military and sporting figures, journalists etc to confuse him even more.

The whole gaggle is supplemented with a bunch of creatures from his own slapstick imagination.

My method as it evolved was not simply burlesque or mimicry, caricature or dramatic psychological representation, but involved all of the above.

Inconsistency, and hypocrisy were the drivers. My purpose was initially ambiguous to me, playing onthe contradictions between intent and behaviour, policy and practice, altruism and veniality.

Most importantly, my work was not a solo act but at all times a very real collaboration. While I've colluded with many canny and talented folk over the years, three in particular have been critical to evolution of the shtick.

Initially the writers Patrick Cook and Don Watson helped me discover the rich scope of its possibilities. Mordant, quirky and both with acute historical perspicacity, their characters leapt off the page at me. Without them my television satire would not have transpired.

Fortuitously a young Guy Rundle had been taking notes as we went to air and would introduce himself a decade later.

A prodigiously talented polymath and funny to boot, Guy subsequently wrote four political revues and countless exquisite monologues for me over the next quarter of a century - my most satisfying years on stage.

Gifted make-up artists and wig makers Paddy Opwald and Laura Morris and prosthetics wizard Nick Dorning were vital contributors. As were dental technicians from time to time.

For television, I was blessed to have two Australian master alchemists overseeing the studio and our unique ensemble of infinitely creative performers including John Clarke, Tracy Harvey, Wendy Harmer, Phil Scott and Geoff Kelso.

In satirising political mores, I would often find myself in a quandary, which would ultimately turn out to be a key to success.

To target a politician for an egregious moral lapse or policy crime is one thing. As an actor I needed to show the perpetrator of a political offence as psychologically plausible.

Humanising a target in this way somehow mitigated the admonition.

The positive take on this is the opportunity it affords to play with contradiction the key to memorable characters and stories.

Discovering that prime minister Malcolm Fraser's apparent arrogance was his almost debilitating shyness was a revelation.

The contrast between reality and appearance was always rich territory.

Andrew Peacock and Bob Hawke each let their guards down disarmingly, provoking both lampoon and yet surprisingly enduring friendships.

They would not be the only ones to embrace the mockery. Russ Hinze and Amanda were very good sports, rendering them virtually unassailable.

By historical accident, The Gillies Report was just in time for the globalisation of economies, unprecedented trade liberalisation, and deregulation of markets.

Thatcher, Reagan, Hawke and Keating were the principal cast. Colourful locals like Neville Wran, Bjelke-Petersen and Russ Hinze at the periphery joined supporting players, the Polish Pope, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

The greatest hazard for satirists today is the litigious propensity of some politicians and journalists. Victimhood is now embraced by the most powerful among us.

In my day such behaviour would have rightly been given short shrift. The powerful were made of sterner stuff back then.

A common complaint by comedians these days is that wokeness and political correctness make it impossible to do what was permissible even a decade ago. I disagree. The formula is always via contradiction and context.

Don Watson found a perfect way to deal with the sensitive, the outr and the politically incorrect in the very first Hawke piece he wrote for me: the offensive joke, both sexist AND racist, immediately followed by a pugnaciously handsome apology. I find it still works treat.


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Max Gillies talks satire, The Gillies Report and the future of political comedy - ABC News

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