Lighten up Australia

The "controversial" scene from At Home With Julia .

LIGHTEN up Australia!

It seems we now live in an era where comedy is deadly serious and political machinations are a laughing stock.

When the ABC announced it would broadcast a new sitcom starring actor Amanda Bishop as Prime Minister Julia Gillard, talkback radio went into meltdown.

Labor MP Michael Danby claimed At Home With Julia was "unfair", that it was targeting Ms Gillard because she was a woman, and would not have been created if John Howard or Billy McMahon were in The Lodge.

Academics claimed the show was a reflection of Australia's unease with a woman in a position of power, her male partner relegated to a subservient figure who had little to do all day but watch television.

The crippling analysis overlooked the key point that the program was satire. A humorous send-up.

Has the land that produced Norman Gunston, Sir Les Patterson, Con The Fruiterer, Kath Day-Knight and Paul Hogan really descended into the depths of humourless wowserism?

Have we got to the point where we can't laugh at our leaders?

At Home With Julia is not laugh-out-loud television but it's entertaining enough.

Three episodes into a four-part series, it has done a reasonable job of sending up Gillard and Mathieson as Kath Day and Kel Knight-style figures living in The Lodge and struggling with the responsibilities of career and a personal life.

Gillard is shown as a well-meaning but bumbling figure who has a penchant for giving her partner embarrassing pet names such as "Tim Tam".

Most of the humour is good natured. Wayne Swan mistakenly leaves out "a couple of zeros" from the national budget and Gillard helpfully tells him to write a note to himself on the top of his balance sheet.

Phil Lloyd depicts Mathieson as a man with a lot of time on his hands and someone struggling to define what his role is.

In one episode, the "first bloke" is confronted by a crowd of angry protestors who back down after they realise it is Mathieson driving the prime ministerial car.

As one of the protestors notes: "We've got nothing against you mate, we know you've got no real power".

Drew Forsyth gave a remarkable performance as independent MP Bob Katter, nailing his unique speaking style and ability to laugh at his own jokes.

All considered, the actual scripting of the program is relatively uncontroversial.

The "Australian flag sex scene" broadcast this week was not gratuitous and written in context of the episode's theme.

Maybe the use of the flag as a makeshift bed sheet wasn't in the best of taste, but after all, it is a comedy program.

Why has there been such an audience outcry when we have been satirising our politicians for years?

Impersonator Max Gillies made his name on the small screen during the mid-1980s by sending up Bob Hawke, dissecting the "silver bodgie's" mannerisms and ability to cry at the drop of a hat.

Rob Stitch memorably sent-up Paul Keating as a school yard bully and John Hewson as a dim-witted wimp on The Late Show.

No-one took it seriously and I suspect the targets were laughing along with the rest of us.

Women leaders have also been the subject of satire, most notably former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher when she was in 10 Downing Street.

Actor Angela Thorne hammed it up alongside John Wells as Denis Thatcher in the television comedy Anyone For Denis? and the late Janet Brown famously starred as the Iron Lady in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.

Even Australia's own Magda Szubanski hammed it up as Joan Kirner on Fast Forward.

Szubanski donned the former premier's trademark polka dot dress and busked in Bourke Street to raise money to cover Victoria's crippling state debt.

At Home With Julia isn't ground-breaking.

We've seen plenty of satirical programs on Australian television before and we'll probably see a At Home With Kevin07 or Life With Tony down the track if present opinion polling is anything to go by.

But you never know, in these dark political days for the Prime Minister, maybe she too is having a chuckle at the exploits of her fictional doppelganger.

At least it would give her something to laugh about.