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Brainspace: A Comment

Of the comedy series that graced Australian TV screens in the early 1980s, one of the freshest was Australia: You're Standing In It. In addition to some specific portrayals of urban Australia, the program contained some enduring characters that embodied universal forms: the over-the-top conservative (Mr Bruce), the dodgy salesmen (Dodgy Brothers), and Tim and Debbie.

Tim and Debbie are young left-wing pseudo-intellectuals who constantly misinterpret the world (The Costigan Report). They interact intensely in a naturalistic style (often talking over each other (Barry)) discussing a wide range of topics which they feed into the grinder of left-wing ideology. Tim and Debbie's comedic ancestry stretches back at least as far as Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore, and they resonate at least as far forward as "A Fish Called Wanda" (in which Kevin Klein's character misinterprets his philosophy books ("The London Underground is not a political movement")). Tim and Debbie are the original groupies of intellectual mass culture.

Like many great comedic characters, Tim and Debbie are constantly at war with the world: not physically (as are Basil Fawlty and Mr Bean), but ideologically (Traffic Lights). They profess to be radicals. However, their overt certainty is not underwritten by inner security. In fact they are so insecure that they have to keep agreeing with each other, and if one contradicts the other, the other usually agrees with them instantly (Treasurer, Vietnam)! They profess the desire to remake the world, but they depend on the existing one too much to be convincing in their revolutionary fervour. Their ideology is constantly colliding with the real world in embarrassing and amusing ways, and this tension is the source of much of their humour. Most embarrassingly, the collision is often enacted between themselves; they tend to blow the whistle on each other (Happy)! Tim and Debbie are revolutionaries with an admirable degree of personal flexibility: socialists who don't want to pay tax (Tax). Like sharks, they have to keep moving, because if they don't, they will drown in their own inconsistencies (Vietnam).

Although the humour seems simple, a closer inspection reveals a dazzling array of comedic devices: malapropism (Tim's School), newspeak ("dole artistic funding cheque" (not quoted)), naivety (Barry,Barry's Wilderness Workshops, The Dole House, The Solution), over-solicitousness (Humpty Dumpty), wordplay (Museum, Christmas In Poland), allusion (Genetic Engineering), misapplied ideology (Traffic Lights), hyperbole (The Solution) and inverted causality (The Costigan Report, The Prophet). All of these devices support a common theme: misinterpretation of reality. Tim and Debbie continuously tilt at the world, and miss.

Today, it's difficult to imagine Tim and Debbie as real people. The non-culture of generation X seems too cynical to manufacture Tim or Debbies on a mass scale. But in Australia in 1983 one couldn't sit in a bus, stand in a queue, or visit a student union without overhearing at least one Tim or one Debbie. Their manner had become the house style of young trendies and the survivors of the counter-culture: a mature target ready for plucking. So when Tim and Debbie landed on our television screens in 1983, their real counterparts seemed to vanish overnight, demonstrating that the fate of all truly effective  satire is to render itself obsolete.

If Tim and Debbie's original targets are extinct, there may be fresh ones in sight, for cable TV and the Internet are breeding their own kinds of Tims and Debbies in the form of terminal media junkies. Like Tim and Debbie, hyperbolic Internet surfers and media junkies pose as ecstatics who have transcended the triviality of daily existence, whereas in reality, they've merely reduced their dynamic range. Like Tim and Debbie, the cybersurfie's verbal currency is debased to the extent that everything is "amazing". Their intellectual landscape has been razed flat because nothing is evaluated; everything is assigned the same weight. Like Tim and Debbie, the World Wide Web implicitly values ideas less by their intrinsic worth, than by their connectedness: integrity displaced by celebrity and allusion.

Thus, Tim and Debbie may be interpreted as dark caricatures of the fully-wired citizen. No depth. Just an endless mental plain where a cornucopia of ideas assemble for the day's superficial interactions. A portent, and perhaps a warning. Are you a cyber Tim or Debbie? If you've got this far through this piece, probably not. But if you've been skimming tersely, with a trigger finger nervously twitching over the mouse button ready to jump to the next page, perhaps, like me, you have cause for concern.

Ross N. Williams, 11 January 1996.

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Copyright © Ross N. Williams 1996. All rights reserved.