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.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Last year in November.Chasers War on Everything. Jackson Five Skit in Blackface. Where. Were. You. All. Then? Today in Early Learning Centre shops across Australia: Golliwogs. On Every Counter. Saleslady says they sell like hotcakes. Nobody. Is. Complaining. I think I might move to Mississippi.

  2. I can remember a similar media shoutathon over The Chaser’s War On Everything and their ‘make a realistic wish’ segment, but not sure why they’ve been raised as an example in a discussion on racism. What did they do?

  3. Bolt’s argument runs much as Szego’s. I have so taken aback by the fact that 2.2 million people tuned into Hey Hey, a show I stopped watching when I was 10 because I decided it was stupid, that I haven’t known quite where to start. I think this kind of racism is tied into the culture of nostalgia, an emotion I’ve never really related to. The fact that this skit was on 20 years ago and considered totally acceptable is, in a way, even more shocking. But as Maxine implies there is a snobbery in all this as well – we can be appalled by Hey Hey, but because The Chaser are, you know, ironic, and on the ABC we accept what they do. Being smartarse rather than disingenuous doesn’t change the politics underlying it all. Maxine is thinking of moving to Mississippi. I’m not sure where I want to move to but I sure don’t want to live here. Oh, and while I’m on a rave, what’s with Rudd saying we should be allowed to – that we have a ‘right’ to, walk on Uluru. That’s, frankly, much worse. And he’s the Prime Minister, not a Channel hack who’s had a lot of plastic surgery.

  4. I find this article puzzling. It seems to assume that anyone who calls the Guardian and the Huffington Post on their easy default to stereotypes of Australians thinks there’s nothing wrong with the easy bigotry and racism of the Hey Hey sketch. The two positions are not synonymous. The expression of the former is not simply ‘petulant victimology’.

    In my estimation both the Hey Hey sketch and the overseas press’s particular brand of condemnation do no-one any service. The eagerness with which the Guardian took up their judgement of Australians is a form of bigotry and they should no more be excused for their unsubstantiated prejudices than the performers, producers and host of Hey Hey.

    Just as you charge White Australians (a very problematic grouping) with wanting to deny racism in Australia, the criticisms directed towards Australians as a group by the overseas press serves to bolster their national identities as free from the scourge of racism, which is just as patently ridiculous.

  5. Kirsty – of course the overseas coverage is self-serving. That doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. I’m not a racist, but in the interest of transparency: what colour are you, and what country do you live in?

  6. Coupla things.
    Yes, naturally, it’s easy for overseas newspapers to attack Australian racism. But that cuts both ways. Too many people who have no difficulty speaking out against racism abroad seem to find it impossible to imagine that racism happens here, too.
    In any case, the best way to show that not all Australians are racist is not to whinge about what the Guardian might have said but to actually stand up in opposition to what’s happening here.
    I take Maxine’s point about worse examples happening elsewhere but in some ways one doesn’t pick these battles. This thing has blown up now and we have the Deputy PM explaining that it was all just good fun, since it was ‘meant to be humourous’, while 68 per cent of respondents to some Herald Sun poll say that the episode was neither racist nor tasteless.
    In that context, actually taking a stand matters a lot.
    If they get away with this — and it increasingly looks like they well — worse will follow.

  7. Oh, this is nice, too. Also in good fun, no doubt.

    Here’s something that someone should complain to Nine about, and take to ACMA too:

    “Sam Newman: If you’re not going all that flash then maybe the enclosed newspaper story might interest you. This is the newspaper story, it’s a story about a hundred seven year old Malaysian woman called Wook Kondor or Kundor, who is looking for husband number 23. Have you got any interest Sam?

    — Channel Nine, AFL Footy Show, 17th September, 2009”

    Yes, it’s the AFL Footy Show’s resident boofhead, Sam Newman.

    And this is what he had to say about Wook Kundor’s new husband.

    “Sam Newman: What sort of monkey would be marrying that woman? Ah that monkey right there.

    Brendan Fevola: You can’t call him a monkey.

    Sam Newman: This doesn’t go to Malaysia this program, does it?… That man is not long out of the forest.

    — Channel Nine, AFL Footy Show, 17th September, 2009”

  8. Julia Gillard’s stance is interesting and disappointing. There is a theory (to which I don’t necessarily subscribe) that the Hey Hey blackface was a dogwhistle, intended to signal to the put-upon, disenfranchised, Bolt-reading, foreigner-fearing slice of the populace that here at last is a show prepared to stay true to the attitudes of 1970s/80s Australia. Personally I doubt it was anything so sophisticated; it was more probably an act of boorishness by a production crew (and a TV channel; Nein has plenty of form) that must have known blackface is no-go but belligerently decided those rules applied only to others.
    Ms Gillard’s response, however, comes after 36 hours of brouhaha in which time she has had plenty of opportunity to consider all ramifications and to apprise herself (in case she was not already aware) of the sordid history of blackface. And yet she still chooses to side with the fuck-you-if-you-can’t-take-a-joke-and-anyway-those-darkies-are-pretty-funny-to-look-at brigade. It is cheap populism, certain to play well to that rump of the community that believes ‘PC’ is virulently tearing down everything we hold dear in this country – meat pies, kangaroos, Holden cars and black-baiting. It might get her a couple of extra points in future leadership polling (‘She looks like a pinko but she’s really one of us!’) but like her recent decision to remodel herself as Israel’s best mate rather than engaging with the complexities in that part of the world, whatever personal strategic value this has comes at the cost of moral shoddiness.

  9. By the way, this just in: apparently Molly Meldrum is gay! By god, poofters are just so funny…

  10. Have the Age interviewed any black people? No, but it’s okay because instead, they have interviewed a Jewish performer who does a weekly show in blackface, saying “He should know about discrimination…he’s Jewish” Ummm. Sorry folks, but no, it is not appropriate for some Jewish guy in bootpolish to be held up as a mouthpiece for black Australia. Jesus Christ. Can this get any more offensive?

  11. Yes Maxine, it can.
    On Crikey Red Symonds has explained that it was all okay because:
    “The act was performed by highly educated and intelligent adults.

    The show is popular.

    We never had slaves in Australia.

    It was just a joke.”

    Mercifully we now have the moral parameters laid out for us. Kyle Sandilands deserves to be hung, drawn and quartered because he is neither highly educated nor intelligent. The rape sketch on Hungry Beast was no good because the show isn’t popular. The Jackson troupe being portrayed were African-American, not the South Sea Islander slaves Australia prefers, so that’s a green light. And ‘just a joke’ justifies everything else. Hey, did you hear the one about Red Symond’s rampant paedophilia?

  12. um, it’s hard to know where to begin. maybe with the fact that we most certainly did have slavery in australia? or as sophie mentioned, hey hey has always been shit and now it’s just fucking nostalgic shit? or perhaps we should all hold hands and contemplate the exact moment gillard became a fully-fledged fucko? shame, julia, shame.

    and p.s. on the sam newman [yawn] debacle # 23785 – if brendan fevola knows you’re being a bigot and you don’t, you must be the dumbest fuck in the world.

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