Original art by Jelena Xu

Med Revue 2021: somewhere between Shrek and Marriage Story (with a sprinkle of stereotypes)

by Richard Xu-Austen and Kat Wong

Richard and Kat watched the opening night of Med Revue: Breaking Bones and came out with a lot of thoughts. It was dazzling, energetic, and… somewhat offensive.

Editor’s note: we have removed a section of this article in reference to a joke which we previously and erroneously labelled as ‘offensive’ . We acknowledge it was incorrect for us to make this judgement about a joke made by someone of that ethnic background when we ourselves have not faced their lived experiences, and we apologise.

As we entered Science Theatre, the atmosphere buzzed with energetic chatter from Med Revue alumni and friends of actors. In front of the stage, the band set great vibes with their jazzy rendition of the Mii Channel music.

The lights dimmed and a voice sarcastically told us that there would be “no edgy humour whatsoever.” But describing your humour as ‘edgy’ is always a bad omen.

~Three hours later ~

The Good

“I wish they had leaned onto that element of the production more because that’s where it seemed everyone was having the most fun, trying their hardest, and actually pulling it off.”

Kat: So, what did you think was the highlight of the show?

Richard: Honestly, the best part wasn’t really the revue itself, but the band. The ‘Red Hot Capsicum’s’ cover of ‘Plastic Love’ was amazing. The funky bass, the keyboard solo and the wonderful singing made the whole performance worth it. 

Kat: Totally agree, I wish they had been used more throughout the show in place of pre-recorded songs. That parody of ‘Sincerely Me’ which combined the band and the vocals was a great example of the show’s potential.

Richard: Also, the singing and dancing was astonishingly good. Toby Marlow was confident and brought great energy, and Kelly Lun went ham when singing ‘I Will Survive’. I wish they had leaned onto that element of the production more because that’s where it seemed everyone was having the most fun, trying their hardest, and actually pulling it off. 

Kat: The ‘Bad Guy’ dance was my favourite. Its choreography, high pace, and the cool lighting made it look like a music video. Every piece of choreography was impressive. Rosanna Cheong and Jessica Zhang were stand outs, specifically during the Rob Cantor ‘Ian Jacobs’ parody.

The last dance was also really fun, great vibes to end the show. My only critique was that the lights shone straight into my eyes a few times, temporarily blinding me, and I would miss parts of the performance. 

By the way, the props suited the show so well. They were ambitious, bright and colourful, and made the show feel larger than life.

The Bad

“That being said, some of the skits just didn’t work. One particular scene titled, “The Sketch That Goes Wrong,” was supposed to be a parody of a ‘bad skit’…not that we could tell.”

Richard: And then… there was the not-so-great stuff. What were some parts that missed the mark for you?

Kat: The length. It was three-hours long. To put that into perspective, that’s as long as Hamilton. For a show that was mostly skit after skit, three hours is just too much. It starts to drag, especially in the second half, and this is only made worse by the recycled material. 

Richard: The voiceover material was the biggest problem. A lot of the lines were old, lazy jokes that rarely landed. The theme of drugs wasn’t incorporated in a clever or funny way, instead, writers relied on the mere mention of ‘weed’ or ‘vapes’ to get a laugh. Putting all that aside, the “Sir Jerry/Surgery” pun was top-notch; give that writer an award. 

Kat: To be fair, the voiceover acting was immersive and well done. The female voice actress, in particular, was a stand-out. Her Italian/New York accent was perfect, and her voice has this radio-presenter quality to it. 

That being said, some of the skits just didn’t work. One particular scene titled, “The Sketch That Goes Wrong,” was supposed to be a parody of a ‘bad skit’…not that we could tell.

Another problem I had was the repetition.

Richard: Med students must be big Harry Potter nerds because the number of Harry Potter jokes was ridiculous. I couldn’t understand why they’d use literally the same punchline seven or eight times. Another problem I had was the tonal whiplash – the performers would go from a Shrek-inspired skit to an emotionally draining Marriage Story-style argument within the span of a couple of minutes. 

Kat: Agree, the serious moments take us out of the suspension of disbelief the show maintains during its phantasmagorical skits and end up grinding the entire thing to a halt. 

The Ugly

“While I don’t think this year was as bad as 2018, some of the jokes were at best, insensitive, and at worst, plainly racist.”

Kat: What parts of the show were unforgivable?

Richard: The cross-dressing character, Coco, was one of the worst parts of the show. I don’t understand the kind of humour that they were going for other than “haha it’s funny to see a guy dressed up as a girl”. It’s very 2000s, not funny, and is rooted in an outdated outlook.

Kat: Med Revue has a tumultuous past with what they call ‘edgy’ humour. While I don’t think this year was as bad as 2018, some of the jokes were at best, insensitive, and at worst, plainly racist. The audience even recognised that some of these jokes were offensive, because whenever they happened, someone would yell, “Tharunka!”

One racist moment was a joke about China and COVID-19. The voiceover said, “Let’s play Chinese whispers” and proceeded to cough for 10 seconds before another character replies, “coronavirus?”. In light of the wave of anti-Asian hate, including jokes like this is lazy and demonstrates a lack of cultural awareness. 

We have reached out to Med Revue for comment on these issues.

To Sum Up

Med Revue suffers from issues with racism that appear to stem from a history of bad judgement in past productions. Since 2018, Med Revue has addressed this to some extent, but clearly there are ongoing issues.

If you can overlook these moments, Med Revue: Breaking Bones is undeniably a bright, energetic experience with some strong highlights. Without doubt, the dancing, band, and set-production were impressive, the cast’s chemistry is electric, and their energy is contagious. 

Med Revue 2021: Breaking Bones is playing at Science Theatre from 13-16th April. Tickets are available from $15 on the Med Revue website.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article decried the Coco character for being “rooted in a heteronormative outlook”. The use of the word ‘heteronormative’ was misleading and inaccurate and we have since deleted it.

Med Revue and Tharunka’s Response

Response One – Cast Member involved in joke about Middle Eastern Men

“The most egregious part of this article is that two seemingly non Middle-Eastern ppl think they can dictate how I, a Lebanese woman, can joke about my own cultural stereotypes.”

“I think the article carries an overall tone that Med Revue is ‘racist’ and problematic and honestly feels like you were reaching for this content based on the 2018 article. I think this is a largely unfair claim based on the evidence you produced of our ‘racism’, where over a 3 hour show you could barely provide 1 legitimate example. Please realise that you are condemning and falsely representing a whole society of people for nothing more than ‘spicy’ content.”

Response Two – Cast Member involved in ‘Chinese Whispers’ joke

“Hey, I’m [redacted] (the other voiceover), and I would like you to remove the description of the “Chinese Whispers” joke from your article. I am a person of Chinese heritage, as was the other person who co-wrote this joke. We feel that you took the joke out of context and blew it out of proportion to get a ‘spicy’ take. Calling the joke racist while deliberately excluding information on who wrote and delivered it is not okay. In saying this, we have decided to remove the joke from future shows. It was a pun that was never intended to hurt anyone from our community, however, we understand how it may be misinterpreted considering recent events.” 

“Finally, I understand that you have to reach your audience and gain attention, however, creating false controversy and misleading people who didn’t go to the show through your reporting is not a good way of going about it. It has real world consequences for our society and members.”

Response Three – Director and Cast Member involved in ‘Coco’ character 

“Both the cast member and I have an issue with the statement about the character of Coco being heteronormative. Coco was written as a news anchor, and we opened the role to all of cast regardless of gender. Simon (a gay man) landed the role and decided to make the character a drag parody of Jennifer Coolidge (hence the accent, outfit and flirtatious personality). I don’t understand what is heteronormative here especially considering our gender-less casting and open and non-discriminatory representation of lesbian, gay and straight relationships all throughout the show. Was it an assumption that Simon is a straight man parodying all women that led you to this conclusion? If so, that in itself is quite offensive to Simon.”

Tharunka response to Med Revue comment

In the original version of this article, we referenced a joke which we previously labelled as ‘offensive’. We acknowledge it was inappropriate for us to declare this judgement about a joke made by someone of that ethnic background over their own voice when we ourselves have not faced their lived experiences, and we apologise. As a result, we have retracted that part of the article. Furthermore, we should have reached out to Med Revue for clarification and, again, we are sorry for this oversight. That being said, we stand by the rest of the article.

This is our response to their statements.

Firstly, the sketch about the Middle Eastern man (which has now been redacted from the article for aforementioned reasons) is performed through voiceover, so nobody can see the identity of the performer. In this instance it is hard to discern whether a performer is ‘owning’ a stereotype. As a result, the line between ‘owning’ a cultural stereotype and just perpetuating one for a laugh is extremely thin. People in the audience do not know that the actor is of Middle Eastern descent. So, we pose these questions: if the point is for the joke to be reclaiming or owning a stereotype, how is that made clear to the audience? If it isn’t clear, then what is the purpose of the joke, what’s the punchline?

Secondly, members of Med Revue have stated that “over a 3 hour show you could barely provide 1 legitimate example” of their racism. This is untrue, and even if it were, there should not even be one example. We had cut some examples out because of the length of the article, but we are happy to go into detail now. One particular skit was about the different areas of Sydney. Sure, the performers make fun of themselves and places like the North Shore, but when referring to Hurstville, they state, “Why would we move to Hurstville? Nobody speaks English there”. On face value the joke seemed to just repeat racist tropes rather than challenging them, and if the intention was to challenge those tropes, it was not at all clear to the audience. Additionally, the aforementioned ‘Chinese whispers’ joke was another questionable part of the show. While this is not a consistent theme throughout the show, as mentioned before, even one racist joke is too much. 

Thirdly, with regards to the request to remove our description of the “Chinese whispers” joke, we have decided to keep it in the article because we believe it to be a fair representation of the segment. While Med Revue has accused us of ‘taking this joke out of context,’ there was no context from which to take it out. During the intervals between sketches, the voiceovers would just act out a list of jokes, and the ‘Chinese whispers’ joke was described exactly as it was presented to us: as a ‘bit’ that came out of nowhere. 

The author of that response has tried to diffuse the offensive nature of the joke by referring to their Chinese heritage. But, our overarching problem with the joke was that we (Kat and Richard), as audience members of Chinese heritage found it an awkward, offensive and tasteless joke to make considering current events. And while we cannot speak for all Chinese people as a monolith, neither can Med Revue. 

People of colour can still perpetuate racist stereotypes about their own ethnicities, and even if this wasn’t true, was it the intention of Med Revue to perform jokes where each audience member would know the heritage of every cast member and therefore be comfortable with laughing at questionable content? 

Fourthly, the criticism levelled with regards to Coco was not so much about the character but about the nature of the joke. The content of the joke remained in essence, “haha it’s funny to see a guy dressed up as a girl”. There’s a line between cross-dressing and drag, and if the jokes are premised on the act of dressing up as a woman itself, it could be deemed cross-dressing because drag isn’t intended to be funny in itself. We agree that the use of the word heteronormative to critique the joke was misleading and apologise for that. However without any context, the joke could be perceived as drawing from the gender binary construct that perpetuates a distinct stereotype and caricature of what it means to perform femininity. Although we now understand that the intent of it was to be a drag parody of Jennifer Coolidge, that intent was not immediately clear until we were told so.

Finally, we take issue with this claim that we exaggerated this for ‘spicy’ content or ‘created false controversy’. We reviewed the show, pointed out highlights, provided constructive criticism, and then showed the offensive moments. The article did not revolve around the show’s problematic elements, the criticism of ‘edgy’ jokes was left to the end of the article, and omitting this information from the title would have presented a false image of the show. These jokes linger in the minds of the audiences – particularly for those that are not Med Revue alumni, and it is important to highlight this. 

While you may brush it off as one or two racist jokes, we believe the ideal number of offensive jokes should be zero.

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