Australian Variety Program

Hey Hey It's Saturday, a variety program, began as a Saturday morning children's show, but like other children's shows in Australia, developed a curious adult following and has become a durable feature of Australian television history. Now programmed on Saturday nights from 6:30 to 8:30, it has been a consistent ratings winner for Network Nine, outlasting every challenge the other networks have thrown at it. Television variety like Hey Hey emerges from Australia's robust history of music hall, vaudeville, and revue, on the stage and in radio. Vaudeville featured singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats, magicians, ventriloquists, male and female impersonators, and animal acts. In revue a thin story-line was used to connect a series of comedy-sequences, backed by song and dance numbers. It included an orchestra, ballet and show girls, and a commedienne. But the comedian was always the star of the show.

From such traditions great comedians, such as George Wallace and the legendary "Mo" (Roy Rene), emerged before the days of television. Australia's greatest TV comedian, Graham Kennedy, in his long-running variety program In Melbourne Tonight, adapted such vaudeville traditions for television, where they continued to thrive in specifically televisual terms. The compere of Hey Hey It's Saturday is Darryl Somers, a comedian who is perhaps the successor to Graham Kennedy on Australian television. While he may not be so much a king of comedy, he remains a noteworthy lord of misrule. One of Kennedy's writers at In Melbourne Tonight, Ernie Carroll, provides another connection to the earlier tradition. He became the producer of Hey Hey and also the arm and voice for its resident puppet figure, Ossie Ostrich, retained from the children's show version.

Hey Hey differs from 19th and 20th century vaudeville in not having show girls or animal acts. It did for a period have a character called Animal, who silently wandered about the set, a walking icon of a crazy world, purely visual signifier of the ludic, of a world upside-down. The show does continue vaudeville and revue tradition in having an orchestra (a rock band) and, for a long period, a resident commedienne, Jacky MacDonald. Jacky portrayed an apparent naif, telling sly risqué jokes with wide innocent eyes.

Although Darryl Somers, with Ossie Ostrich sitting beside him, guides the show, Hey Hey is decentred comedy, dispersed through the various figures and performers, who often include the production crew. The show also contains various (changing) segments. "Media Watch" presents mistakes in TV commercials, or funny items, usually taken from the provincial press. "Red Faces" offers amateur acts. "Ad Nauseum" invents a quiz show with questions about TV ads. "What Cheeses Me Off" is a complaints column, and "Beat It" a music quiz.

Hey Hey uses all the technical and audiovisual resources of TV itself to make everyone and everything in the show part of the comedy. We rarely see John Blackman, for example. But he is a regular off-screen voice doing impersonations, being ironic and sarcastic about guest acts and cast members, or making dry jokes and performing "insult comedy". This visual "absence" is countered by the highly visual cartoon jokes flashed on the screen at any moment. When "Media Watch" speculates on possible mistakes in TV commercials, a camera may suddenly focus on a producer. Surrounded by cameras and cords, he holds a mic, and says what he thinks, though he will earn derision if the others think he gets it wrong. Puppet Ossie Ostrich will comment on everything dryly and ironically. Little Dickie the other puppet (a blue head held on a stick, and a rasping voice provided by John Blackman), might suddenly rush forward and be rude about someone or something. In turn, in one show Ossie commented of Little Dickie that his stick has "terminal white ant".

The show revels in the festive abuse that Bakhtin saw as a feature of carnival in early modern Europe. In a society where, he suggested, people were "usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, professions, and age," festive abuse overturned hierarchy in social relations, creating an atmosphere of equality, freedom, and familiarity--Hey Hey exactly.

In Hey Hey all is chaos and anarchy, the reverse of structured sequences guided by straightperson and chief comedian. Darryl Somers as compere is, instead, a relatively still space across which all the mad traffic of jokes, the different comic contributions and voices, traverse and clash and comment on each other. If he maintains an ongoing program he is never a central voice of authority, a ringmaster. His strength is in his alertness to what is going on about him as much as in his own comic contributions.

Traditional stage variety entertainment thrived on familiarity and audience involvement. Similarly, Hey Hey actively draws on the vast and intimate knowledge that its audience (in the studio and at home) has of the media, of the rest of popular commercial TV. Like Monty Python's Flying Circus in the early 1970s, Hey Hey is variety for the electronic age. The media are often the material for the comedy: parodying Lotto in "Chook Lotto", the media in "Media Watch", talent shows in "Red Faces", or testing knowledge of pop music in "Beat It".


Hey Hey It's Saturday
Photo courtesy of TCN Channel Four

Involvement by the studio audience is always encouraged. If, for example, a show is declared a 1960s or a Science Fiction night, Darryl and Jacky and Ossie wear extravagant uniforms and masks. But the audience also dress up--a touch of the masks and disguises of carnival of old, taking people out of their ordinary life and circumstances. In "Red Faces," perennially one of Hey Hey's most popular segments, the audience may override Red's gong if it likes an act.

Clearly in Hey Hey there is an extreme self-reflexivity; we see camera people with their cameras and crew with mikes and cords going everywhere. For television culture, this builds on a very long tradition of self-reflexivity in popular culture and theatre. The festive abuse of Hey Hey reminds us that a great deal of popular culture, from carnival in early modern Europe to music hall and vaudeville in the 19th century and into the 20th, featured parody and self-parody. This was more than a way of mocking received attitudes and official wisdom. It was a philosophical mode, a cosmology, a way of questioning all claims to absolute truth--including its own. To the degree that our own "wisdom" is drawn from and dependent upon the media Hey Hey It's Saturday suggests we should look on that knowledge with a wary eye.

-John Docker


Darryl Summers
"Ozzie Ostrich"/Ernie Carroll

PRODUCERS Bob Phillips, Pam Barnes


Nine Network
October 1971-September 1973  Saturday 8:30-11:30 A.M. October 1973-December 1977 Saturday 8:00-11:00 A.M. March 1979-December 1983 Saturday 8:00-11:00 A.M.

March 1984-May 1985               Saturday 9:30-12:00 P.M.

Title Reverts to HEY HEY IT'S SATURDAY
June 1985-                                 Saturday 6:30-8:30 P.M.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1984.

Docker, John. "In Defence of Popular TV: Carnivalesque V. Left Pessimism." Continuum (Murdoch, Western Australia), 1988.

McDermott, Celestine. "National Vaudeville." In, Love, Harold, editor. The Australian Stage. Sydney, Australia: New South Wales University Press, 1984.

Turner, Graeme. "Transgressive TV: From In Melbourne Tonight to Perfect Match." In, Tulloch, John, and Graeme Turner, editors. Australian Television: Programs, Pleasures and Politics. Sydney, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 1989.


See also Australian Programming; Monty Python's Flying Circus