You know you’ve got a penchant for mischief when, of all people, Kerri-Ann Kennerly sees fit to dox you. Like a scolding schoolmarm, the Studio 10 presenter was out to teach Charles Firth, the perennial troublemaking prankster from the Chaser comedy team, a long-overdue lesson.
His crime? Projecting highly influential radio host and political powerbroker Alan Jones’s personal mobile number up onto the Opera House. It was a defiant protest of Jones’s support for the iconic Sydney monument’s use as a billboard for the Everest Cup.
According to Charles Firth, Kennerly’s punishment backfired miserably. “There were too many to count, but it would have been at least 10,000 people messaging me,” Firth tells me. “And it was the loveliest thing because one in every 100 message was, ‘Yeah, Kerri Ann Kennerley is right,’ and then the 99 others were, ‘Support you, Firthy’.”
The stunt, which not only hit the Opera House but also targeted Parliament House, was crowdsourced via social media. Late in the day, the callout was made for anyone with projectors to lend and hand and turn a half-baked idea into reality. Much to Firth’s delight, the people complied.
“It was sort of our first genuinely crowdsourced stunt, where we didn't actually have any resources of broadcast or anything like that. It was probably the funnest stunt I've ever done because it had real impact,” Firth tells me.
Jones, known for many things, a self-deprecating sense of humour not among them, failed to see the funny side of the prank and brought Firth and Co. to the privacy commission for breach of the Privacy Act.
Unfortunately for the veteran broadcaster, the Chaser was exempt from any fines or prosecution. Laws pertaining to the Act do not apply to small enterprises, and despite the notoriety and fame the Chaser boys have enjoyed over the years, apparently they have never really made much money out of the endeavour.
“every time we go and try and fix up his plaque outside St Mary's Cathedral by adding the little line, ‘and convicted paedophile’ to it, the Catholic Church takes it down”
As Firth scoffs on the other end of the line, “It was basically our lack of success that allowed us to get success.”
We get started talking about the big news stories for the year, the current affairs and headlines that the Chaser routinely mock and ridicule.
I ask for his major league picks for the year: which stories defined Australia in 2019? Greta Thunberg, and the political protest movements that have broken out all around the globe come to mind. The election of ScoMo and the Liberal Party, as well. (“The fact that the Australian people went to the polls with full knowledge that this was the guy who shat his pants at Engadine Maccas in 1997 and still decided to vote him in, I think says a lot about ScoMo and it also says a lot about Engadine Maccas,” he japes.).
But one story surprisingly alludes him. To be fair, I’d had time to prepare and was putting him on the spot – and by his own admission he was still recovering from a weekend of (controlled) debauchery following a win at the Australian Commercial Radio Awards.
But it was the arrest of Cardinal George Pell that temporarily escaped his mind. All the more surprising considering the Chaser’s long history of antagonising the high-ranking Church official.
“I’m such an idiot,” he laughs. “Yeah. Arrested, and continues to be in jail, and every time we go and try and fix up his plaque outside St Mary's Cathedral by adding the little line, ‘and convicted paedophile’ to it, the Catholic Church takes it down,” his schoolboy-like mirth coming out again as he describes the stunt.
“And the most amazing thing about that was the Catholic Church denied we had done it. They said, ‘No, no, no, you must have photoshopped the evidence.’
“The Catholic Church is so insanely against evidence-based crimes that they're just in denial when there's clear video evidence of a crime being committed. That's exactly what got them into the fucking problem with Pell in the first place!”
He tells me he wants to learn how to weld so that he can permanently affix the plaque. He’s even half-jokingly tells me he’s willing to be arrested for the stunt just so he can make a gag about “being moved to Ballarat.” It’s so fucking childish; I can’t help but laugh.
“I'll do it again, but it'll be in a different parish, it'll be fine,” he giggles.
His history of iconoclastic takedowns of Australia’s powerful and wealthy elite to one side, I ask about his early days with the Chaser’s War On Everything, where instead of politicians, powerbrokers and pompous policymakers, he took aim at the overly earnest and terrifyingly uneducated American public. Although he says good comedy isn’t about punching down, as an Australian, there was always something satisfying about watching from the other side of the world as these Yanks were mercilessly mocked for our viewing pleasure. It seemed to reaffirm everything we had always suspected about the proud citizens of the United States: egotistical, proud and self-centred – ripe to be taken down a few pegs by good old Aussie humour.
“Most politicians in Australia are profoundly mediocre people.”
But were they really as stupid as he made them out to be? Could they honestly be fooled so easily by a basic map of the world with the names of the countries re-arranged so that the Australian mainland became North Korea and Tasmania, South Korea? The short answer: Yes. Hilariously, yes.
“We were accused of unfairly editing some of the stunts, but our most successful ones weren't unfairly edited at all,” Firth tells me.
“We went to South Carolina to shoot, and it was like shooting fish in a barrel. I think we used 100 per cent of the answers, the whole vox pop only took about half an hour to shoot because every answer we got was gold, and it was just like, ‘Oh, well that's an easy’.
He acknowledges that it’s not the sort of thing that would work today. “The American people had a self-belief that they were the worlds policemen”. Poking fun at their ignorance was necessary to show us that they were scarily underqualified for such a position of authority.
“I think now if you did it, it would just look like bullying because America's on such a downward spiral,” he adds.
Are there any politicians Firth has run into over the years, maybe ones that have been at the receiving end of one the Chaser’s stunts, that he would have a beer with, I ask? Once the cameras are off and the dust settled, are any friendships formed?
“Yeah, you can totally have a beer with politicians, but I think the problem with the Press Gallery is that they end up being on the same side of the politicians because they had so many beers with them,” he explains.
“So, you've always got to remember: the politicians are the enemy.”
His disdain for career politicians has been a driving force in his career as a political satirist. He barely contains it as he launches into an assault on our nation’s leaders.
“Most politicians in Australia are profoundly mediocre people. They're the dags who didn't have the ability to do anything else later in life, and the actual political system has a way of expelling people who are too talented.” Though I believe he’s being 100 per cent serious, his tone is playful. After all, his sister – Verity Firth – was a politician.
This take-no-prisoners approach is effectively the secret sauce that has maintained the fresh comedic chops of the Chaser team for over 20 years.
And, according to Firth, this is the sort of show we can expect to see come December when he and others hit the stage to bring to life the wonderfully bizarre, irritating and down-right-depressing news stories that have dominated the year.
The Chaser’s War On 2019 is a collaboration between The Chaser website and The Shovel. According to Firth, it’s basically “satirical all-stars”.
“We go through the year, and because we've been writing stupid headlines all year about how stupid the world is, we have this rich, rich resource of material. We then take you through month by month, through the year, and you get to relive the entire horror that was 2019. It's basically just all our best one-liners that we've collected across the entire year in one 90 minute package.”
You can get tickets to the show, which will be touring in venues Australia-wide. If you’re interested, you can also grab the Chaser and Shovel Annual 2019 online and at all good book retailers.
And just for the record: I checked – Charles Firth still hasn’t changed his bloody number.