Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Depressing Night At The Footy Show (a rant)

Last night I was in the audience for the AFL Footy Show.

Offered a ticker at about 5pm, and with no other plans I thought ‘hell, why not?’, so I went along with a few friends. Frankly, I don’t think the show’s been worth watching in over ten years and is just a bunch of immature, egomaniacs pretending to be comedians, using base-level, opportunistic and often degrading humour to get away with it. It’s really become a poor variety show using footy as the premise of its existence.

But it’s television, right?! Gotta take the tickets and see things behind the scenes, which was somewhat interesting. The only other time I’ve been in a television audience was for Thank God You’re Here a couple of years ago. That night we were treated to light beer, soft drink, nibbles and lollies and the delightful wit of Brian Nankervis as warm up entertainment before the show and during ad breaks (yeah, even shows filmed weeks in advance have timed ad-breaks!).

It’s easy to be sceptical about how raucously an audience can laugh at something that might just garner a chuckle at home, but let me tell you – guys like Nankervis can get you in the mood. It was a great night and I laughed hard and loud.

Last night I made an effort to put my snobbish judgements about the Footy Show aside and enjoy it. Initially I did, even getting into some warm-up mindless cheering.

Then came the pre-recorded Brendan Fevola interview, where he revealed his battle with depression and recent attempted suicide.

The mood of the audience shifted, appropriately, making some uncomfortable; they’d come for a night of fun, laughs and mindless cheering, not to be confronted with a serious issue like depression. I was engaged, it’s an issue with personal resonance.

The discussion that followed was deflating, frustrating, infuriating. These were not experts, but you shouldn’t need to be to discuss the issue sensitively, with some compassion. Craig Hutchison – who I generally regard as the journalistic equivalent of a noxious weed, doing more harm than good in his reporting, which sucks space from worthy stories – was understandably uncomfortable asking questions about a serious, real, non-footy issue like suicide, but to his credit showed genuine empathy in the panel discussion.

Others were somewhat sympathetic, while quite happy to speculate unhelpfully on various aspects of the case; while Sam Newman seemed to think the whole thing was pathetic and an opportunity to play devil’s advocate, reckless buffoon, entertainer to the lowest common denominator or whatever he thinks is his shtick.

As a subsequent interview from yesterday – after Fevola had been exposed, by Channel 9 no less, seemingly indulging his gambling addiction by playing poker at the casino – Newman sat at the desk smirking. Sitting in the third back row of the audience, about 35 metres away I looked at him with blood-boiling dismay.

During the ensuing discussion Campbell Brown spoke with reason and sensibility, suggesting Fev needed support and privacy, and there are more important things than football. A small applause broke out in the audience while others were complaining about the ‘downer’ of a show they’d found themselves at. You can’t get excited and yell boorish comments during a serious segment – come on, let’s move on!

I’ve grown increasingly tired of Newman’s style ‘entertainment’, but given the benefit of the doubt that he plays it up as his profitable persona. Last night, even when not on camera he showed a total lack of respect for this serious issue. But it doesn’t really matter either way whether it’s all or partly an act – he has a massive, impressionable audience of men in particular who thinks he tells it like it is and would be ready to be offered a reason not to feel sympathetic for a serial pest like Fevola.

Discussion of depression and suicide needs to be treated with caution and sensitivity. This discussion did not belong on a forum like the Footy Show, although if they were prepared to address it seriously they could probably reach out to a section of society that needs education about depression the most, men who adopt strong ‘blokey’ values where discussing your feelings like Fevola has little place.

Newman obviously disagrees – nothing is off-limits, no matter the consequences on real lives when you make a living from rejecting political correctness. As he started comparing Fevola’s supposedly relatively easy circumstances with soldiers in war – an absolutely nonsensical comparison that demonstrates his complete ignorance – I’d had enough and yelled out ‘You’re a heartless bastard Sam’, while a few audience members cautiously applauded him.

The interview itself I though was well presented. It may have been part of Fevola’s recovery to speak out about his problems, and good luck to him. I must admit, I’ve always viewed him as a brat, but found a great deal of respect for his ability to be able to speak about such difficult issues openly.

After the Fevola discussion the mood quickly returned to the normal, schoolboy humour and antics. I may have gotten caught up in it in different circumstances. But I was brooding.

The camera only panned across me once, as the show returned from the ad break following the Fevola discussion. As all those around me cheered and applauded I sat and shook my head. There was no way I could be involved in this. I barely managed a clap or chuckle for the following hour.

I don’t hold the Footy Show, or the people involved with it, in high regard anyway, but last night I was disappointed in the cynical, naïve, even ignorant treatment and reaction of various people in the audience, one of my friends included, to such a serious issue.

I guess we need more people with the courage of Fevola to step forward and speak up.

Unfortunately for him, we probably need people who are more widely respected. But he earned some respect from some of us last night, despite his actions yesterday. Few recoveries avoid some relapse.

Unfortunately for those out there suffering, and for a reason I cannot comprehend, Sam Newman has respect in a certain sector of the community, and his public attitude to this will do no help to efforts to get men in particular to confront mental illness.

Newman essentially questioned Fevola’s ability to take responsibility for his actions.

It seems to me that Fevola finally is, and is making an effort to be a happier, responsible and respectable man. Sam Newman on the other hand… well as long as he’s happy.

Me, I’ll be saving a few brain cells by not tuning into the Footy Show anytime soon.

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