The reaction to the ‘Hey Hey’ minstrel show is proving more revelatory than the actual skit. The original ‘Hey Hey’ always depended upon a certain low level bigotry, with jokes about Kamahl’s ethnicity interspersed with innuendo about Molly Meldrum’s sexuality. In that sense, the Jackson Jive performance was more exemplary than accidental: it was a reunion performance, after all, in which the group had been asked to reprise an act from twenty years earlier, clearly on the basis that the producers thought the gag to be mighty funny. What’s more, in the midst of the dance, the ‘Hey Hey’ cartoonist chimed in, with a sketch inquiring as to the whereabouts of Kamahl (you see, he’s got black skin, too, and so should have been up there with the rest of his kind).
You might think, then, that this a good news story. Once upon a time, Darryl could get away with poofter jokes and casual racism. Today, it simply doesn’t wash, even with a guest like Harry Connick jnr, a MOR singer not (as far as I know) especially noted for his politics.
Except that the subsequent reaction suggests that many viewers simply don’t see a problem. The Age reports:
On Facebook, the Hey Hey It’s Saturday page that was so influential in bringing the show back for two reunion specials was awash with comments. One lonely voice urged people to lodge a protest with the Human Rights Commission – according to the commission, a complaint could be lodged on the grounds of racial vilification – but the overwhelming view among its 326,000-plus fans appeared to be that Connick jnr was taking things too seriously.
The comment stream at the Herald-Sun suggests a similar trend, with most of the hostility directed to Connick — a humourless fellow, it would seem, who can’t appreciate the rich vein of humour into which the Jackson Jive so spectacularly tapped.
Most commonly, the ‘Hey Hey’ fans (in and of itself a worrying concept) suggest that those offended should simply calm down and not be so sensitive. Of course, what most bothers the ‘don’t take things seriously’ crowd is that the media in Britain and the US has picked up on the story. You couldn’t make it up: on the one hand, victims of racism should stop being so precious; on the other, ‘ZOMG, the Guardian and the Huffington Post are saying nasty things about Australians. Oh oh, they’re so mean! It’s so unfair!’
It’s a petulant victimology characteristic of Australian chauvinism, in which any kind of bigotry is good clean fun (‘Look, mate — I only call ya a poofter cos I like ya’) up to the point at which it’s directed at white people, whereupon it becomes the focus of prolonged and hysterical wailing. Think about the death of Steve Irwin. When, in the midst of the ever-so-serious compulsory mourning for St Steve, Germaine Greer suggested that perhaps tormenting wildlife wasn’t such a great idea, where were the ‘lighten up’ crowd then?
The other bizarre aspect of the whole fracas is the suggestion that, because the skit was just a bit of idiotic clowning, it couldn’t possibly have been racist. Insofar as Julie Szego’s Age column today makes any sense whatsoever (she seems, for bizarre reasons known only to herself, to want to blame the whole episode on cultural studies academics and Marxists), her point appears to be that the sketch was planned for amusement and thus arguments about bigotry miss the point.
You could question our nostalgia for a show that’s arguably had its day. But forget the cant about this episode revealing something darker in the nation’s psyche. Hey, hey it’s not really subversive, it’s just plain stupid.
She — and the others like her — seem to be under the impression that blackface performances were originally staged as part of some conscious, Goebbels-like plot, a centrally directed plan put together by the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan League. In reality, actors blacked up to entertain a crowd, in performances that were usually seen as entirely lowbrow. That is, they were always seen as ‘fun’ — indeed as ‘stupid fun’. The racism of blackface lies not in it being staged by villains wearing ‘I’m a racist’ hats but because the humour rested on racial attitudes shared by the performer and the crowd — precisely the case with ‘Hey hey’.
It is depressing to have to make such an obvious point. But then the whole episode is depressing. With what’s continuing to happen to Aboriginal communities, with the ongoing violence directed to overseas students, the mainstream response to a minstrel show has been to say, oh, it’s ok — we’re not like America because there’s no racial problems here.