There has been lots of talk in the media the last few days about "Hey Hey it's Saturday". Australia has been claimed a cultural backwater, racist, naive.... amongst other things.
For our International friends, I want to get a few things straight:
"Hey Hey it's Saturday" is not regular programming on Australian TV. It was a very popular variety program that ran - you guessed it - Saturday nights from 1978 to 1999 . At the time, it was a pretty big deal, and all kinds of International guests appeared on the show.
For whatever reason, a reunion show aired over the last two Wednesdays. That's right, it didn't even get shown on a Saturday, which should tell you that most of us weren't even paying any attention.
Red Faces was a fairly popular part of the show. It is hosted by Red Symons, and usually features people making idiots out of themselves. This is no Talent Quest folks. Quite the opposite, and acts are usually known for being in bad taste, amateur, or just idiotic.
Last week on Red Faces one of the the acts "The Jackson Jive", presented a skit where 5 performers wearing blackface came out and did a dance to Can You Feel it.
It was pretty awful. Harry Connick Jr, who appeared as a judge, was obviously unimpressed.
You can watch the performance, and his later discussion, here, if you haven't already .
That video is so awkward for me to watch. The performance by the Jackson Jive is awkward. Daryl Somers' apology is awkward, and Connick Jr speaking on behalf of the USA is also pretty bloody awkward.
I've heard it stated, by many people over the last few days, that we have a different sense of humour down here. Well, that is true. We certainly don't take things too seriously. The first Michael Jackson jokes started hitting my email about 2 hours after he died. Same with Steve Irwin. We take all Americans and celebrities with a grain of salt in Australia. Even taking that into account, I think the Jackson Jive skit was inappropriate. Haven't we moved on? So we don't have the same cultural context when it comes to blackface and whiteface performers. Still, it's 2009. Australians were elated when Barack Obama was elected President. We were thrilled when Kevin Rudd made his apology to the stolen generations last year. But we still screen programs that perform skits like this. We still screen programs that perform skits like this, and this.
I don't think a different sense of humour is a good enough defence. Australia is still, for all its multiculturalism and even an ability to have fun with that in a good way (my favourite Indian restaurant, owned by recent immigrants to Australia, is called The Curry Muncher), a racist country. Many people who would never dare make a "racist" joke, would have no problems making a joke about Aboriginal Australians. Our indigenous population still have a life expectancy that is 25 years shorter than our white population. This is very far from an ok situation.
Not all Australians are racist. The problem is people defending the skit in question with the argument "but it was all in good fun, it wasn't racist". As an Australian, I see that it was innocent, I am aware that the performers of the skit themselves, most from multicultural backgrounds and every single one of them a Medical Professional, certainly would have had no malicious intent with their performance. Even Marlon Jackson recognises that the performers "weren't trying to be disrespectful for the family".
But if we're now embarressed by this situation, if this 4 minutes of television, only viewed by 10% of Australians on the night, but now viewed by the entire world - has opened up more discussion, if it has made some people think twice about a joke they tell, or an offhand remark; or better yet, if it makes more people aware of the very dire sititation many of our indigenous population are in - then it can only be a good thing.