Mention the name Joe Hildebrand on Twitter and you receive a variety of opinions. Many find his quips and asides funny and often retweet them. This is especially the case during Q and A, where it is almost inevitable that one of his bon mots appears at the bottom of the screen. There are those, however, who increasingly question his frequent appearances on a range of television programs. His appearances on those programs suggest a couple of sides of his onscreen persona. On commercial programs, he is a funny, self deprecating, crumpled outsider, making quips about elites.
When on the ABC, however, on The Drum, amongst other shows, he is part quipster, part quasi-hipster representative of News Limited. There he is often not amongst “friends” as he would be at a commercial station. This is why he is frequently heard mentioning the support the Daily Telegraph supplied to Rudd in 2007 and the pro-ALP editorials in the lead up to the 2010 election as a reposte to comments made about Daily Telegraph front pages that demonstrate a partisan agenda. The problem with that defence is that the numbers of people who read the front pages and those who read the occasionally supportive editorials would be fairly large. Hildebrand, though, does make the effort to at least respond to criticism in a reasonable fashion, which is more than some from News.
The main work for Hildebrand, however, is punching out columns for the Daily Telegraph in Sydney. As he has said on the ABC and SBS programs on which he appears, his audience does not consist of the “elites” of Glebe – unlike, by implication, the ABC and SBS. His audience is in the west, northwest and southwest of Sydney, as well as the Sutherland Shire. Therefore, his columns need to be seen through the lens of how he is trying to appeal to this audience. Looking at the Telegraph on Saturday, January 7, we can see the hallmarks of his approach to composing columns, as a solo effort and as a part of a duo. They highlighted his schtick as well as a developing problem for him as the crumpled outsider poking fun at elites.
The first one, a co-written piece with Patrick Lion about “8 Rules for a Day at the SCG” could have been an entry in the Things Bogans Like blog and does have much in common with the cultural commentary being undertaken by the Melburnians. It light heartedly targets people who would act in a self-centred way in order to enjoy themselves at the cricket but not care that much for their workplace or fellow patrons. It also recalls the notorious moment when people in an SCG crowd urinated in their cups and spilled it on people during a Mexican Wave. Like much of Hildebrand’s work, it pokes fun but would also invoke a sense of self-identification in its audience. It’s a good piece, especially this part
5. Sneak in to the Members One of the most important core Australian values is that we feel we are entitled to stuff that we don’t pay for simply because someone else has it. With this in mind, it is every Australian’s duty to make several attempts to sneak into the Members’ Stand and relish their relatively shorter queues and relatively cleaner urinals. And if anyone questions why you’re there just do the decent and honest Australian thing and call them an arsehole.
The other column presents more of a long term problem for Hildebrand’s schtick. It is about Sydney and “a complete victory of style over substance” that we see with the fireworks display and associated parties on New Year’s Eve. The piece does a tightrope walk between his crumpled, self deprecating outsider persona and the reality of his being a part of the elite that he seeks to lampoon. Evidence of the difficulty of the challenge is shown in the introduction and first paragraph, where we see the intent.
EVERY New Year’s Eve Sydney’s lord mayor takes over the city’s prime harbourside viewing area at the Opera House just so society’s self-serving elites can get their snouts in the trough, quaff free champagne and look down on the poor people below them.
I know this because, after years of trying, I finally got an invitation. Last Saturday marked the first time I had ever managed to see the New Year’s Eve fireworks display up close without the water police involved. (This does not count the year that I thought I was watching the fireworks display but had actually just set the kitchen on fire.)
This is Joe saying to his audience that he was an outsider – the water police line is there to confirm that. He is also saying that he was still really an outsider – even though he was invited and attended, he still saw “them” as self-serving elites. He is casting himself as an everyman fish out of his usual water. He continues this tone throughout, applying the point form blowtorch to these self-serving elites as he did the bogans at the cricket. This is typified through making snarky comments about the generic “Sydneysider”at such an event.
This is largely because drinking champagne while watching fireworks on the Harbour fulfils a Sydneysider’s primary needs. First, the champagne makes you more and more stupid and also more and more chatty, thus guaranteeing that you can talk constantly without running the risk of saying anything sensible. As an added protection, if anyone is on the verge of saying anything sensible someone can always cut them off by saying: “Omigod!!! Look at the fireworks!!!”
Hildebrand also shows how he likes to use his broad categorising brush over groups in his articles, which is not meant to be taken entirely seriously. The article continues along this vein, showing how much of a mess Sydney can be seen to be in, with a mixture of the “posh and unwelcome Eastern Suburbs” and “the Shire is God’s Own Country but nobody else is allowed in”. Whilst people in those areas could see a grain of truth to the comments, they skip along the satirical line of bad taste, especially and the line about people in the South West needing “sidearms” if they go outside Camden. (When I used to live in the South West and read Camden or Macquarie Fields jokes, I always wanted to say to anyone that they should meet me at the Campbelltown Art Gallery for a coffee and make up a new stereotype that wasn’t quite as horrible. I think the time for Camden jokes is long gone. But I digress.) Hildebrand’s broad brush doesn’t stop there, though – there is a desire to satirically skewer the perceived pretensions of those who live in other cities:
Because that is what Sydneysiders do. That is who we are. We don’t sit around writing screenplays (Melbourne), smuggling blood diamonds (Perth), blaming the demise of Western civilisation on pay TV (Adelaide) or moving our lips when we read (Brisbane). We get drunk, we party and we go to the gym. If Melbourne were a person it would be Jean-Paul Sartre. If Sydney were a person it would be Paris Hilton.
It’s the same approach he takes to his satirical targeting of people from the Inner West of Sydney over the past months, one example being this piece on “hipsters“, which is continued in the January 7 piece with “the inner west is overrun by hipsters operating cafes out of recycled wooden crates”. He has developed an ironically self aware shorthand for satirising politically activated, fashionable inner west residents whilst moving there himself. The inner city stereotype is sometimes coupled with Greens critique – inferring that most of the Greens supporters are from that area. It is all part of the Hildebrand Broad Brush, for sure, but coupling his cultural critique with political comment plants a seed in the mind of audiences for whom that stereotype already existed. He doesn’t seem to do quite the same with comments about ALP or Liberal supporters.
The fireworks article highlights the main problem for Hildebrand as he continues writing his columns that develop his “crumpled outsider criticising elites” persona. With his invitations to elite events and frequent appearances on TV programs, he is now part of the elite he seeks to satirise. This will pose a problem for him, because his audience will never be invited to the events Hildebrand increasingly attends. There will come a point where they will ignore his protestations that he really is an outsider and spends all his time poking fun at the other attendees. It’s also clear that he does enjoy his status as Sydney elite “insider”, embracing the inherent contradiction that entails. This can be seen with the end of the article, where he says that he enjoys embracing the “stupid” that seems to underpin the Sydney that he sees:
“So yeah, everywhere in Sydney does indeed suck — but Sydney itself goddamn rocks. And if you’re not stupid enough to understand that then you’re obviously not from around here”.
His audience, who fight the traffic every day and suffer from a horrible pre and post NYE transport calamity will want to agree that Sydney does indeed “goddamn rock”. However, they would be looking at Hildebrand’s piece and thinking either “good on him, he’s a funny bloke” or “hey, he was having a good time while I was waiting forever to get on a train, what a tosser”. At this stage of his writing life, I suspect more would be in the first camp. He needs to be careful, though, that he doesn’t attract more comments of the second type. It was good for him that the cricket piece was co-written and didn’t make Hildebrand the focus. Otherwise, he probably would have said something about being in the Members’ Stand – adding to a status of an “elite insider” looking out. That’s because for Hildebrand, that is the risk he will increasingly face.