Monday, 10 December 2012

Comedy hoaxes require brains, comic talent - and a point

Aussies are a matey bunch – you only have to look at Australian Masterchef to see how friendly and supportive the contestants and the judges are towards each other: the UK version of the show is far less cosy. Australians also have a culture of good-blokeishness in which being able to take a joke and a ribbing plays a major part. Of course, that’s also a key part of British culture - in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of robustness is a defining characteristic of the Anglosphere, which has reached its apogee down under.

The fact that a poll of Australians suggests two-thirds of them don’t believe the hoax call had anything to do with  Nurse Jacintha Saldanha’s suicide, and that the two presenters are still talking about their involvement in her tragic death in the conditional tense – "f we played any involvement in her death then we're very sorry for that. And time will only tell" – suggests that Australia may now be severely out of step with the rest of the English-speaking world.

The problem for the two presenters (apart from their leaden unfunniness) is that they appear to have made a whole series of “category mistakes”. First, they evidently failed to realise that what seemed a harmless joke to them and their listeners might represent a humiliating catastrophe by the people they hoodwinked. Secondly, from the crudeness of their imposture, they would probably have assumed that nobody in Britain would for one moment have been fooled into taking them seriously – but those of us who live here know only too well that Britain is no longer a culturally homogenous nation.

Thirdly, because the Royals have to behave in a thoroughly demotic, ”plain folks” manner in order to appeal to antipodean sensibilities, the presenters may have felt they were actually playing a joke on distant relatives, about which they’d eventually share a good laugh over a few tinnies (after all, Prince Charles quipped “how do you know I’m not a radio station?” to reporters on the day after the prank). But Jacintha Saldanha wasn’t a member of the Royal Family: she was a professional who must have felt thoroughly humiliated by her failure to protect her patient’s confidentiality.

But the mirth-making duo's fourth – and most serious – category mistake was to imagine that prank phone calls designed to deceive strangers who have done nothing to deserve being made fools of are a legitimate source of humour. They aren’t. 

There are three legitimate areas for “pranks” or hoaxes: ones involving people you know well – i.e. friends, family or workmates - which are often basically affectionate; satire – i.e. in order to puncture the silliness or stupidity of a self-regarding elite; and investigative journalism, where they’re role is to expose dishonesty and corruption. Pranks which distress blameless strangers by making them say or do something stupid  only appeal to inadequate, insensitive, essentially humourless people.

Back in the late 1960s, a British TV programme (probably The Braden Beat or somesuch) got Peter Sellers to phone a large British oil company to apply for a job. In the first call he pretended to be a highly-qualified and highly-intelligent Indian who spoke English with a thick accent. He got the brush-off. Sellers then phoned back posing as a gauche Texan with less impressive qualifications, and was immediately invited in for an interview. That struck me as a legitimate hoax – it had a point.

When, on Brass Eye, Chris Morris convinced a number of British celebrities to talk utter nonsense about the dangers of Cake – a “bisterbile cranabolic amphetamoid”  which, among other things, was supposed to affect the part of the brain known as Shatner’s Bassoon, (which, Noel Edmonds told us,  “deals with time perception”) – he was making a serious point: there’s no reason for us to believe what famous people say just because they’re famous (see it here).

But what exactly was the point of the Aussie hoax? To register contempt for royalty? I doubt it. More likely, it was an attempt by a couple of meaningless media airheads to raise a snigger from their airhead listeners.

I have a feeling the UK felt out of love with hoax humour following that disgusting phone call made by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brandt to the actor Andrew Sachs. Let’s hope Australia has now learned the same lesson. Media pranks and hoaxes are best left to people with brains, a sense of humour – and a point.


  1. Everyome else probably already knows this but:-

    Apparently the Christmas convention for the British Medical Journal is to carry a number of spoof articles. One of which was reported on the BBC website as a serious contribution to science, Healthcare should learn from football, say researchers.

    Brains, sense of humour and a point, 3/3.

  2. David Moss. Another brilliant comment. Made me chortle. I wearily watch the BBC's increasing coverage of popular science [loud-mouth down the pub with a copy of "The New Scientist" under his arm] and wonder when it is all going to end. I think Clive James calls it "Sci-Bollocks."

    The BMJ article cites Harry Redknapp. The current biography of Lord Palmerstone by David Brown features a portrait of the great politician and he bears an uncanny resemblance to 'Arry. Even the same hair-style. Do you know anything about this? I think Redknapp should submit himself to one of these TV genealogy programmes.

    1. I went off the Rev. Peter Mullin when he wrote in the Telegraph that 'Arry looked like a gargoyle. If I'd known he was a descendant of Palmerston's, I would have commented on the clergyman's post.

      You're right about BBC science coverage - I'm puzzled as to why their science programmes should have become so unwatchable just when their arts and music documentaries (on BBC 4 at least) go from strength to strength.