The strangest thing about watching re-runs of CNNNN is seeing Julian Morrow with hair. The Chaser team has grown up and grown old. From USyd Arts Revue to fifteen years of pranks, biting political satire, and ridiculous costumes, the once unparalleled team is dropping back to the pack. Maturity, fatigue, and scars from the infamous ‘Make a Realistic Wish Foundation’ sketch have conspired to create a predictable decline. Nothing as funny as The Chaser at their peak can last: even The Simpsons descended from a sharp satirical parody to meaningless one-liners and slapstick.
Chris Taylor and Andrew Hanson’s One Man Show (OMS), which previewed at the Factory Theatre on 21 and 22 February, was at times very funny, but isn’t in the same league as earlier works. The sketches frequently picked on easy targets—the Department of Immigration, Internet trolls, banal Coles ads—without developing ideas or challenging boundaries the way they once did. The best War on Everything sketches, from the invasion of Today Tonight or the hilarious parody of Detective Superintendent Clive Pugh’s police-speak often used humour to advance more meaningful commentary. The reprisal of Pugh, who came out with his love for Constable Hugh, was undoubtedly the highlight of OMS. Aside from excellent wordplay, there was the wonderful tension of two policemen whose passion is restricted by the same laws they strive to uphold.
Skits of this quality are few and far between for The Chaser these days. After a decade and a half of churning out jokes, middle-age is setting in. There are striking similarities to the rise and fall of Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, and several others of the Chaser’s most direct predecessors. Their own fifteen years of great success with The D-Generation (1986-9), The Castle (1997), and The Panel (1997-2004), eventually faded with less frequent, less biting shows like The Hollowmen (2008). Fawlty Towers could only achieve such unadulterated comedy genius because it ran for just twelve episodes.
In their War On Everything days, The Chaser was far more prepared to make the audience, themselves, and unsuspecting onlookers uncomfortable. The Grim Reaper’s job application at James Hardie, The Eulogy song, and the fake weapons sale outside a Bulldogs NRL game all made us laugh and squirm, and it’s crucial that there is comedy that does this. None was present at OMS, a long-term reaction to the backlash after the Realistic Wish Foundation sketch (which parodied the Make a Wish Foundation with the punch-line: “Why go to any trouble when they’re going to die anyway?”). The team’s popularity and talent went horribly against them. Public outcry went as high as then-PM Kevin Rudd. The vehemence of the public reaction seems to have left a lasting impression on the group: they have rarely shocked us since.
The most notable feature of the group’s evolution was the way they broadened their range. They progressed from a newspaper, The Chaser, to a larger parody of news broadcasters in CNNNN before peaking at War on Everything, a variety show that enabled their humour to penetrate deeper into society and opened up far more targets. Since then, they have limited themselves both in style and substance. Single issue shows like The Chaser Decides and The Hamster Wheel have reduced the range of their commentary and undermined their appeal to large audiences. The heavy reliance on highly successful elements of previous shows, such as the much-loved CNNNN newsbar (‘Thai restaurant has pun in its name”) now manifested in ‘live tweets’, highlights their stagnation.
Audience ratings are testament to this decline. War On Everything averaged 1.5 million viewers in Seasons 2 and 3 (2007-9), the APEC episode generating an incredible 2.9 million. The Hamster Wheel (2011-12) averaged barely half that – 840 thousand – with no audience reaching a million. Previous stage shows Cirque du Chaser and Age of Terror Variety Era had highly successful, often sell-out national tours. By comparison, OMS will have just two shows in Sydney (1st, 2nd May) and four in Melbourne.
To some extent, the Chaser boys are limited by stage productions because their best work relies on stirring up mischief amongst an unsuspecting public. Nothing will ever match their APEC stunt, but the reactions provoked by Chris’ ‘divorce’ on Sunrise and Clive the slightly-too-loud commuter showed the Chaser in its element. They can’t do this on stage, and in OMS the one attempt at audience participation—the ‘iPhones in the air’ finale—was largely ineffective.
Again, their popularity betrayed them. As relative newcomers in the mid-2000s, they were in the perfect position to prank almost whomever they wanted. As their notoriety grew, fewer people—particularly politicians and celebrities—took their bait or found themselves caught unawares. Their ambushes of John Howard’s morning walks fell flat, Mr. Ten Questions was increasingly treated with tolerance rather than surprise, and Jaymes Diaz, who a few years earlier would’ve been running for cover, was glad to be on their show. One suspects that even bin Laden grew tired of having his speeches sub-titled.
The Chaser is still funny, and OMS is worth watching. But the team that once declared they didn’t want to grow up has finally succumbed. That youthful invincibility has gone.