William Edwards talks to Cam Smith about a comedy article that scared Sydney shitless
Satirists have been facing the wrath of a misunderstanding public since Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal some 300 years ago, but last week, comedy provoked widespread panic, as satire website The Sauce became “Australia’s most successful terror organisation by accident”.
That distinction was earned the day before New Year’s Eve, when The Sauce published a satirical news story, written by its editor and creator Cam Smith, about police finding explosives rigged to the Sydney Harbour Bridge set to explode at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The story went viral and was mistakenly shared as fact by multiple news outlets.
On The Sauce’s Facebook page, the story garnered millions of views and ignited a war between those who believed there really were explosives and those who understood the website’s apparently arcane notice: “This post is satire.” Following an increasing number of complaints, a second notice was added to Facebook: “This post is satire you idiots.” Perhaps blame doesn’t lay with The Sauce?
Yet this isn’t the first time Smith’s satire has been misconstrued. Indeed it happens so often he calls it “part and parcel of news satire.” So I ask if being misunderstood frustrates him. “It’s depressing to see the outlandish things people will believe just because they’re written down, people getting all worked up about something not real. It does raise the question of whether we do more harm than good.”
Smith’s conscientiousness is striking. I query why he feels morally obliged to do more than entertain. “Well I don’t want to be causing unnecessary harm or perpetuating racism because of something I’ve written, which was a concern when the latest article went viral,” he says.
“Any story that touches on terrorism has a tendency to bring out the worst in some people, satire or not. And for satirists the point is to educate people, it’s a different kettle of fish from pure comedy.”
While Smith’s article doesn’t describe the imaginary explosives as terroristic, in Australia’s dominant public discourse there is an ostensibly inseparable link between foreign terror and explosives. Indeed now more than usual terrorism is prominent in the public consciousness. Does Smith think readers’ memories of the Martin Place hostage crisis exacerbated responses to his article?
“Definitely. Australia’s heightened vigilance right now certainly played into people’s reactions, made it easier for them to think the story was real, and prompted them to share it with friends. I think a lot more people missed the double entendre than otherwise would have due to threats made at Martin Place and the fact that terrorism is so forward in their minds.”
At this point, Smith predicts my next question: was his article too soon? “Well I’m not of the pool of comics who think people being offended isn’t worth considering. Disproportionately more professional comics use comedy as a coping mechanism for tragic events compared to the general public, so it’s easy to misjudge these things in the writing and editorial stages. For those directly affected, it will always be ‘too soon’. For someone who saw something on the news and felt nervous, I’m unsure. Jokes can be part of the healing process when tragedies happen. Humour softens the impact of these events because it allows us to associate them with laughter instead of pain. As long as you’re not making fun of people’s suffering, of course.” He reminds me of Honi Soit comedy’s own rule: punch up at the powerful, not down at their victims.
“That’s definitely true,” Smith says when asked if, rather than being matters of time, some jokes are wholly beyond the pale, “and it comes down to whether the topic’s something we need to move on from or not, whether as a society we shouldn’t ever be desensitised to it. At The Sauce we have our own rule. We ask: is the joke funny enough to justify the topic? And for some topics no joke is funny enough.”
You can read ‘Police Find Thousands of Explosives Rigged to Sydney Harbour Bridge’ and more from Cam Smith at: http://thesauce.co