Hey Hey, it’s controversial

As anyone who knows me should know, I’m not one to really make my views on causes or politics widely known. I have my opinions, and by and large feel no great need to proselyte them to the world. But if I could be said to have a Cause, then this is why I’m writing.

Many years ago, and for many years in a row, there was a variety comedy show in Australia called Hey Hey it’s Saturday. Initially spontaneous and subversive, it grew over the (28) years into a prime time monster, lost it’s edge, gained an army of followers, and then crumbled in it’s own weight and habits. Having become a shadow of it’s former self and thus, a relic of the past.

Fast forward another  10 years and we have just had a reunion special or two. I had to admit I didn’t watch them. I was not huge fan of what the show had descended into at the end of last century, and if I watched TV enough to even know there was going to be a special, I’d not have bothered watching anyway.

But then something special happened. Controversy!


Yes, in one of the most beloved of Hey Hey regular skits, the ironically named ‘Red Faces’, a group of amateur performers used Blackface to parody the Jackson Five, and specifically, Michael Jackson (performed in whiteface). The sketch was judged by guest Harry Connick Jnr, as being offensively racist, and has stated that if the same occured in America, then the show’s broadcast would have been terminated.

So anyone following any of this probably knows all this already, but it makes good background for those unfamiliar with the situation, due to geographical or chronological distance.

The race is won by…

The sketch in question: The Jackson Jive (youtube)

Now Michael Jackson’s ever-lightening skin tone and other cosmetic surgeries have been the center of COUNTLESS parody for many many years, only overshadowed by his other eccentricities and alleged perversions. This parody used a more sensitive racial jibe than most, that’s all. Blackface was all about white men making themselves look black, and Jackson had famously made himself look white. So it’s not the worlds cleverest parody, nor in the best taste, but beyond that, this is all a storm in a teacup. (someone else can compare this to Robert Downey Jnr‘s performance as a white Australian pretending to be a black American in Tropic Thunder.)

Ok, so that’s as far as most people seem to care.

A couple of comments in the local free rag’s (mX) coverage got me thinking in a few other directions though, and thus this post.


Stepan Kerkyasharian, chair of the Communications Relations Commission, said a joke was racist if it offended any person

To which I say no, not ‘any person’. Cos some people are overly sensitive about a topic, and so will be on a hair trigger and will go off about it if given even the slightest provocation.

Were the men in question racist? I don’t think so. This is a good video to watch on racism in fact, and pointing out racist behaviour to people (It was only coincidence that I had seen this earlier today.)

So, I think their actions were poorly thought out, and they should have realised how it would look. But that’s not my point. Because maybe they did consider, and decided that at the end of the day, they were both parodying Michael through the use of blackface, AND parodying blackface through the use of Mister Jackson in whiteface. Regardless of intent or not, that is not my direction.

This, however, caught my attention

“I am Indian, and five of the six of us are from multicultural backgrounds and to be called a racist… I don’t think I have ever been called that.”

–Dr Deva, plastic surgeon and whiteface performer.

Dr Deva, here is some news: not being a whitefella doesn’t give you a free pass to not think about the racial content of your actions. That is all.

No really, that’s about as much comment as I think it’s really worth. Certainly not the hoopla that has been drummed up by the controversy media. I don’t think Deva is racist, just a bit clueless about being on that side of racial interpretations.

Most interesting to me, however, and that I’ve not heard talked about much at all  (or indeed, any at all), is Mister Jnr’s reaction.

“Censored” is a Dirty Word

Now, if I can be said to have a Cause, it is this:


(I am against it.)

Harry Connick Jnr has stated that if the show was airing in the US, then it would have had its broadcast terminated. It would become “hey, no show”.

So he started it, let’s bring this to Connick’s home turf. Now I realise that technically, the US constitution says nothing about a private company curtailing ones freedom to speak – so a TV station stopping a broadcast has no contitutional protection. But symbolically it’s a bit crap. A bit? No, how about a LOT.

Advocating the curtailing of someone’s speech… is just not acceptable to my eyes.

Parody, incidentally, is protected free speech under the US constitution. I just thought I’d mention that.

So I think it says alot about someone’s mindset that their first instinct is to cut the show. And it says alot about all our cultures that this is NOT what everyone is up in arms about. Let Dr Deva know that his skit could be seen as being offensive by those with a cultural history of American slavery, and be done with it. Frankly, that issue is boring and old.

But do NOT tell me that anyone should not be allowed to perform that skit, if they want to.

Remember, the right to make offensively bad jokes that nobody likes, without being censored, is meant to be a GOOD thing.

Stopping someone from speaking their mind, whatever their opinions and tastes are, is a BAD thing.

Dear Mr Deva. Please remember in the future to consider the way others will interpret your actions.

Dear Mr Connick, Jnr. Please think LONG AND HARD about the real meanings of your words, and what it is you are implying to advocate when you speak without thinking. If you do not, you run the risk of truly looking like a dick.

Dear controversy media. Please get your issues straight.


(BTW, If you are reading this via a facebook note or other site, please link back to the original site via this permalink and consider commenting there also: http://blog.thorx.net/2009/10/hey-hey-its-controversial/ . Thankyou)

5 thoughts on “Hey Hey, it’s controversial

  1. Pingback: Nemo Thorx (nemo) 's status on Thursday, 08-Oct-09 15:01:53 UTC - Identi.ca

    1. Zehra

      Thanks for the feedback. I am cosntantly trying to find examples of where a cognitive view of culture can be used to clarify areas of conflict and guide action toward opportunity.I have recently done training as President of an Inline Hockey club on discrimination, bullying and harassment. The message continually put forward is “It isn’t about intention, it is about impact” and I agree with these sentiments. In some states in the USA, this is not the case and as a result victims are far less likely to stand up and declare their offence.People often quote the above in times of cultural conflict and some of the anti-Hey Hey comments in the media have been variations on this, however idealistic laws usually include the concept of “reasonableness” which allow them to work in the real world. The law-makers understand that while ignorance of legal requirements in the area of harassment and discrimination is not a defence, the focus on the person being offended means there is a process of continual learning and adjustment required for full compliance and benefit to occur.It is this process of learning that I was trying to focus on and we are all going through it, whether it be a legal discrimination issue, or a cultural one.I remember being in the USA during the . As four lives were lost and 474 homes destroyed, the only mention in USA Today was of a threat to koalas. I was initially offended that the American press would care so little about such a threat to our nation’s capital and it’s human inhabitants, but after some thought I couldn’t expect them to be aware of the fire, let alone the importance of it and it was wrong of me to hold an offence against them.My post is not so much to comment on whether Hey Hey was right or wrong to allow a black-face skit, but more about the process of learning involved in cultural conflict that increases compassion for other’s sensibilities and taboos. I hope this process has informed many Australians about black-face and how offensive most Americans find it, and it seems to me that this learning process (and the broader cultural advancement that derives from it) is often hindered if there is not a respect for how others see the world, and also how they might transfer these ideas to other.I agree Keith that we have some way to go with the Aboriginal question in Australia. Following this train of thought, I would suggest that there should be more discussion, more acknowledgement of the facts around discrimination and more learning on both sides.Taboos can be useful, however if the taboo is transferred without the reason for it, then when the context changes (like to another country or another generation in the same country) the taboo can not only lose it’s effectiveness, but cause offence instead of understanding.For this reason I applaud Harry Connick Jnr. He suppressed his disgust, discussed the details of the offence (back-stage) and then helped teach Australia about why it was so offensive. Bravo!!Less taboos, more respect, patience and understanding. These are fairly common values. But cultures aren’t a thing to manipulate. They aren’t shared understandings that can be changed all at once. They are a conglomeration of all the individuals world views and the only way to see lasting cultural change is for each individual to commit to learning from every transgression, whether they are the aggressor (Jackson Jive), the by-stander (Harry, Daryl and the viewers) or the victim (African Americans).

      1. nemo Post author

        hi Zehra, I wonder what you consider this feedback for, since I didn’t really direct it at anyone (except maybe Harry :) …plus, thus is quite an old post. Anyway, good points about relative cultural sensitivities :)

  2. Dudao

    that our historic slarevy was of disadvantaged English and Irish by the English crown.We do however have our own issues to deal with in how the majority in this country relate to indigenous Australians.I dare say that it never occurred to the participants in Red Faces that they were doing a “black face” act – they only thought as far as delivering a parody of the Jackson Five. There is a potential issue here of the taboos involved in people of any ethnic group portraying characters of *any* other ethnic group. Does this taboo mean that Sir John Gielgud should never have played Othello?In sober hindsight, the team at Hey Hey should perhaps have recognised that this act was not only being viewed by an audience of millions in Australia, but globally (they knew this from the previous week). They also know that Facebook and Twitter had brought awareness of the show to the world. Knowing this, they should have considered the USA audience and their taboos.It is not easy when talking to a global audience to take into account all the culture involved, but the tools we are now using to communicate are making this an increasing priority – if we want to communicate effectively. – Keith

  3. Simona

    StuartThanks for giving me ctonext, clarity and meaning to an event in time that seemed confusing and challenged my own thoughts on the issue. On the anniversary of Monty Python how much of what they did seemed funny at the time for me and potentially is quite taboo for others, now I see possible conflict.What delay in progressing as a human race does such ongoing reflection create when the taboos and old ways keep getting celebrated. Hey Hey, Monty Python and even dare I say it war memorial marches keep us in past paradigms. lets only look forward, live in the moment and learn from the past thanks


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