The first thing to note about Rowan Dean’s satirical writing is that it’s bad. Really, really bad. Not bad the way Mrs Brown’s Boys is bad: bad the way a YouTube video by a fourteen-year-old who just watched Mrs Brown’s Boys and filmed himself repeating all its catchphrases on his phone is bad.
This, in the Australian Financial Review, is his latest attempt to carve out a niche for himself as the IPA’s Jonathan Swift: Nurse Gillard will see the Lakeside Lunatic Asylum patients now. It’s the kind of article that you might get if you convinced Larry Pickering to masturbate directly into a dictaphone. It’s an attempt at pithy humorous commentary that puts you in mind of the final season of Full Frontal if they’d hired Sam Newman as a script editor. It is to the history of satire as a sebaceous cyst on Ken Done’s perineum is to the history of art.
You can get a good sense of Dean’s flailing attempts to locate a reason for his own existence from the fact that in this piece, he dedicates three entire paragraphs to what he obviously thinks are HILARIOUS renditions of Julia Gillard’s speaking voice. Dean harbours a powerful and visceral hatred of Gillard in his heart, yet so difficult does he find it to express what he hates about her in a humorous, or even vaguely articulate, way, that he has to keep returning to the “Oi talk loike this” gambit.
At the risk of dissecting the feeble asthmatic frog that Dean has laid upon the workbench here, let’s unpick, just a little, how jaw-droppingly weak a comic device this is. First of all, it ain’t satire. I know Dean has probably spent a good portion of his professional life inducing gales of laughter at his skilful impressions of Borat and Austin Powers from work colleagues who were too scared of him to show their true feelings, but in the world of actual comedy writers who actually make a living writing comedy, thinking that all you need to do to create champagne comedy is mimic someone’s funny voice puts you at risk of being thrown out of the Hacks Union for failing to live up to its standards.
A comedian who does nothing but imitate a voice without having anything to say is rubbish, and that goes double for a writer who isn’t even imitating the voice out loud, but just transcribing it phonetically: you don’t even get the amusing sound of the impersonation. It’s even worse when the target of your impression isn’t someone whose voice actually has any comedic qualities. Julia Gillard doesn’t have a speech impediment: she doesn’t have some kind of obscure unplaceable accent or bizarre vocal affectation; she just has an ordinary Australian accent. Except that it’s what a man like Rowan Dean would consider “working class”. And in those three paragraphs wherein he returns to this device like a dog returning to another dog’s vomit from the 1970s that may have seemed like middlingly good vomit at the time, all Dean is actually saying is: Julia Gillard is working class, and I’m confident that the Australian Financial Review readership finds this fact in and of itself hysterically funny.
That’s Dean’s problem all-round, of course, and why what he does isn’t and never will be satire: he’s so convinced of the inherent awfulness of everyone who has ever disagreed with him on anything, and so sure that there are millions of people out there who feel exactly the same way, that he thinks all he has to do to bring a nation to its knees in gales of hilarity is to point and laugh at his enemies, and everyone will get it. “Oh yeah — Julia Gillard DOES talk like a dirty poor person!” we are supposed to exclaim, the comedy lightbulb flashing above our heads. And then we move on to, “Oh yeah — feminists ARE screechy and hysterical” and “Mental health initiatives ARE stupid!” Rowan Dean hasn’t bothered to actually try to convince anyone of these facts: he hasn’t even bothered to find a way to satirise the issues; he doesn’t have to, because to him it’s all so painfully obvious that his job is just to mention things that bug him and await the standing ovation.
The attempted “satirical” conceit of the article is that Julia Gillard is a psychiatric nurse, and she’s been appointed head of Beyond Blue due to her experience at another “lunatic asylum” — the federal parliament! Oh my goodness, someone sew up my gaping sides! Depicting government as a mental institution? Why it’s as fresh and innovative a premise as when it was first used sometime in the fifth century BC. Even funnier — Dean changes “Beyond Blue” to “Beyondblueties”! Because Julia talked about blue ties when she was prime minister, remember? And so…well I don’t know where the thread leads from there.
It’s another lesson young Rowan could maybe learn: the value of focus. It’s never good to dwell too heavily on a gag, but it’s advisable to keep your mind on each joke at least up until the point you finish writing it. Beyond the fact that mental health is funny cos there’s crazy people, I don’t have any idea what the whole Beyondblueties thing is supposed to signify. I guess for Dean, that’s enough: he got the idea for the column when he was reading an article about Beyond Blue and thought: hey, nutcases! THEY make me laugh!
Most of the article isn’t about Beyond Blue, obviously: it’s about Dean’s desire to translate his nightly routine of screaming incoherently at a photo of Gillard for half an hour before bed into a verbal form. Any hope Dean had of being a moderately competent satirist was scuppered before he began by the fact that he’s got no poker face. He flinches. He breaks the fourth wall. If Clarke and Dawe wrote the way Dean does, they would stop three or four times in every sketch to turn to camera and shout, “POLITICIANS ARE DUMB!” in unison. If Dean had written Randy Newman’s “Sail Away”, the chorus would’ve been. “Slavery is bad/Slavery is bad/What I’m saying in this song is that I don’t like slavery/Because slavery is bad, please don’t forget this”. Dean can’t write satire because he doesn’t understand satire: any piece that doesn’t roundhouse you in the face with its author’s opinion flies straight over his head, so he makes sure that everything he writes leaves footprints all over the reader’s nose.
Look at this one: “Nurse Ratshit remains unapologetic”. That’s the only part where he refers to as “Nurse Ratshit”, a pun that I’m sure he spent days thinking up. He’s structured the piece as a mock news report, because he once half-read an Onion article and thought that’d make him look witty; but he doesn’t even have the basic self-restraint to stick to his premise all the way through. He needs to throw in “Nurse Ratshit” like the halfwitted wannabe right-wing Frankie Boyle that he’s trying to position himself as — in his mind it’s too good a gag to waste.
After all, why try to find a clever way to slide the knife into Julia Gillard’s flaws when you can just write a scathing gag like “ Ms Gillard is believed to have been hand-picked for the job due to her lengthy experience diagnosing imaginary mental disorders such as sexism and misogyny”? Like pretty much all politicians, there is plenty in Gillard’s career for a satirist to sink their teeth into, in terms of dishonesty, hypocrisy, bad judgment and a preference for style over substance. Rowan Dean has never even thought hard enough about his subject to unearth such material, though: all he knows is that good people hate her, bad people love her, she talked about sexism, and that made him angry. And he’s blurted all he knows down on paper like a chimpanzee writing a treatise on sewage treatment.
Dean could never write jokes about a politician he admires, of course: his one move is “call someone I hate a shithead”; if he were ever asked to send up someone from his side, he’d draw a blank. Because like all the very worst comedians, he suffers from a crippling lack of imagination. He can’t look at his own side and recognise its absurdity. He can’t laugh at himself. His talent lies in cackling wildly at things that make his head hurt: confident that if he cackles loudly and intimidatingly enough, everyone else will laugh along with him. Why wouldn’t they laugh, when the people he writes about are so self-evidently laughable, and Rowan is so self-evidently talented?
Rowan Dean has a few messages he wants you to absorb from this article: mental health issues are dumb; everyone in Labor is a psychopath; feminists are bitches and sexism isn’t a thing; Julia Gillard is a bogan slag who should know her place; and most important of all, Rowan Dean is the rogueish court jester of Australian media, speaking truth to power in his inimitably searing way.
But that’s all he’s got: the unshakeable belief that he’s a genius and you’re an idiot and him and all his friends are going to stand around and bray at you like MRA donkeys until you stop being so uppity. He’s got no eloquence, he’s got no humour, he’s got neither the desire nor the ability to find an interesting angle or craft an original joke.
There’s no point debating about whether Rowan Dean is punching up or punching down: he never learnt how to throw a punch in the first place.
If you like me more than Rowan Dean, grab a ticket to my new Melbourne Comedy Festival show today: tix here