Have you ever gone back to your old primary school or visited the house you grew up in? There can be a lovely sense of nostalgia about revisiting your past. Like slipping into a warm bath. It feels safe and familiar and you’re instantly transported back to that moment in time. A simpler time.
But everything always looks much smaller than you remember it. More shabby.You see cracks and flaws you didn’t see at the time and certainly didn’t remember.
And so it was with the Hey Hey It’s Saturday reunion shows that aired last night and last Wednesday. When I was at Channel 9 there was much talk about bringing back Hey Hey so I wasn’t at all surprised when I heard it was happening. Did I want to watch? Not particularly.
I grew up watching Hey Hey It’s Saturday and I’m old enough to remember when it was a Saturday MORNING show. I followed it to Saturday nights and like many, spent some pretty formative teen years getting ready to go out with Hey Hey on in the background. I don’t know if I’d say I was a fan or that I ever LOVED it although I certainly watched it. It’s more that it was just there.
And back in those days, there were only four channels to watch and no Internet. So there was that.
I did switch on briefly last Wednesday but I found myself unable to watch more than 10 consecutive seconds of it before I had to cover my eyes with one hand and change the channel with the other. So I didn’t see much, just Daryl stumbling around and some awkward live cross to a John Farnham concert.
The ratings for last week’s show were phenomenal – more than 2 million people tuned in. That’s the reason I went back last night to see if I could break the 10 second barrier and to find out what so many people had wanted to watch. I was curious – just as I always am about anything that’s wildly popular.
Also, I’m on holidays and am staying somewhere without Foxtel or wireless broadband. I KNOW.
I stuck around watching for quite a while last night in the same way that it can be hard to look away from a car accident. I was enthralled and appalled. The familiarity was the enthralling part. They really didn’t change much at all and it was in some ways refreshing to see live TV with all its flaws and unpredictability. Frozen chickens in a barrel? Yes, a simpler time and there was humour in that.
The show really did stay true to its history and that’s where the appalling part seeped in for me. The Hey Hey years were an era when sexist, racist and homophobic jokes were the norm. It was standard to mock people for being anything other than a white, Anglo-Saxon male. And so it was last night.
“The Women Of Hey Hey” were wheeled out one by one in order to stand around, act dumb, look pretty and be the butt of sexist jokes. These are not stupid women. Livinia Nixon, Penne Dennison, Jackie McDonald, Denise Drysdale and a few new young ones who seem to have been brought in just to pretty things up – they’re all smart, capable performers.
But the format of Hey Hey always boxed them into the Barrel Girl role. Often literally. Laugh, smile, act stupid and be the human punchline for the sad, sleazy jokes and cheesy double-entendres made by voice-over guy John Blackman and the rest of the Hey Hey Men.
Just when I was wondering (and tweeting) “Is this really 2009?”, things went truly pear-shaped with a Red Faces skit that involved blackface. For those who don’t understand the backstory to blackface and thought it was merely a harmless skit with a bit of make-up, it actually means far more than that, particularly in America. There, it is considered an extreme act of racism and harks back to a time when black people were systematically mocked and ridiculed by white people purely due to the colour of their skin.
Here’s how it went down:
And here’s how it is being reported by US website Gawker:
Last night an Australian variety show aired a skit with five white men in blackface performing as the Jackson 5. And the audience cheered! Thank goodness Harry Connick Jr was there to be the voice of reason.
The show was a live reunion special for Hey Hey, It’s Saturday, a popular and long-running program down under that was cancelled a decade ago. During their Red Faces segment, which is similar to the American version of The Gong Show, six doctors performed a choreographed number in blackface and afro wigs pretending to be the Jackson 5. Thankfully, one of the judges hit the gong shortly into the number.
The amazing thing is that, as the show tells us, in 1989, the same group doing a very similar act won the competition! So, in 20 years, we’ve gone from this offensive form of comedy being wildly popular to being still popular with the masses, even though some people know better. In America, blackface is one of those things that you can only show if you’re talking about how awful it is because, well, it is pretty awful. Sure, there are culture differences, but it’s not like they don’t have black folks in Australia who would get pissed off by this.
Luckily, they gave Connick some time at the end of the show to say that he wouldn’t have done the show if he knew there was going to be such an act. “[Americans] have spent so much time trying to not make black people not look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we really take it to heart.” Wow, and American is being the voice of cultural sensitivity? Australia must be really messed up.
Um, yeah. Not our finest moment as a country. At least they gave Harry Connick Jr the air time to make his point. Some small kudos for that.
I’m sure today, when last night’s show is being discussed around watercoolers, online and in the media, it will turn into a debate about political correctness. There will be that group of people who will grumble loudly about how the dispute about blackface is ‘political correctness gone mad” and hurrumph: “Why can’t we just laugh at things like we used to?”.
Well, I’ll tell you why. As a species, we evolve. Physically, spiritually and mentally. We learn to modify our behaviour and our attitudes as standards change. Just because things were acceptable in the past doesn’t mean they should still be today. It was not too long ago that women and black people did not have the right to vote. Or that rape was considered acceptable within marriage. Or that you could drink and drive and not wear seatbelts. It’s naive and reckless to assume that things were better in the past. That smacks of rose-coloured glasses and it’s just not true.
Racism, homophobia and sexism were never harmless. They were always negative, destructive and insulting.
The fact we have come to understand that and change our standards and expectations for public – and private – behaviour is a terrific thing, not something to complain about.
Last night, after I tweeted “Bravo for Harry Connick Jr for speaking out against the blackface skit” one person tweeted back: “Take your politics to Canberra Mia. Hey Hey is what it is.”
I agree absolutely. Hey Hey is a product of its time. A time we have thankfully left behind and which should stay in the past, preserved as a happy memory because it doesn’t translate into 2009.
Or as someone else tweeted: “It’s like one long Dad joke from 1985”. Totally. Except my Dad has always espoused tolerance and respect for all people, not just fellow white dudes.
UPDATE: According to The Australia’s Amanda Meade this morning….
THERE were fat jokes, race jokes, even a black and white sketch of an old woman with saggy boobs. Nothing was out of bounds for Hey It’s Saturday: The Reunion which had an audience of more than 2.3 million on Nine last night.
spent weeks auditioning the public for the chance to appear before Red
Symonds and co and strut their stuff. Daryl Somers, producer and host, chose the appalling ‘Jackson Jive’
revival act in full knowledge of what it represented: a relic of the
past in which black people were mocked.
This was no surprise dumped on Somers and his fellow Hey Hey performers who had got together for a two-part reunion show. Hey Hey has shown it belongs to the past.
However the popularity of the first show – 3 million in the city and
the regional areas – will be what determines its future and whether it
becomes a regular feature on the Nine network.
Nine is so desperate for a hit the question of good taste will not be a factor in the decision to sign Somers for more shows. After all this is the network which has hung on to The Footy Show’s Sam Newman despite his many sins.
And this, from The Australian’s Caroline Overington who nails it…..
Imagine that a talented white Australian is a guest on a US talk show.
that they were asked to judge a talent segment. Out comes a troupe of
Americans, faces painted black, carrying spears, painted with dots,
staggering around the stage, petrol cans to their faces, and flies in
their eyes. We’d be appalled. We’d be embarrassed. We’d be offended.
People will say: oh, but they didn’t do that. It was just a harmless tribute to Michael Jackson.
No, it wasn’t. You see, men with painted black faces are minstrels, and
minstrels are the men who toured the American south in the years before
the civil war, mocking black people as lazy, and stupid. Black men were
depicted like apes, with big, droopy lips. The women were loose, often
showing their bloomers.
Connick jnr behaved beautifully last night. He immediately distanced
himself from the horror unfolding before him; and he made it absolutely
and completely plain that had he know that Hey Hey was planning to have
minstrels, he would not have gone on the show.
Connick jnr – son of Harry Connick snr, who was district attorney in
the race-troubled city of New Orleans for 27 years until he retired in
2003 – did not want to be associated with that kind of stunt.
The men behind the black masks – all specialist medicos, including a
plastic surgeon, a radiologist, a urologist, and so on – insist that
they aren’t racists (in fact one is of Indian background, and another
apparently Lebanese) and one hopes that’s true.
But consider the context: Connick jnr is has a long history of working
side by side with talented black musicians. He laboured after Hurricane
Katrina, to repair the city he loves. His friendships and business
partnerships with black Americans are dear to him.
He was a guest in the Channel Nine studio, and most Australians have
been taught that when there’s a guest in the house, it’s proper to be
polite, and not humiliate him, before an audience. Darryl was right to
apologise, not only to his guest, but for the show.
Ultimately, Hey Hey was a lot like a primary school reunion. Amusing at
times, nostalgic but in the end, a timely reminder of how much you’ve
grown up and left those days behind you. In a good way.
Did you watch? What did you think?