Why is funnyman Chas Licciardello always smiling? Because he is ‘a natural pessimist’

The Chaser’s Chas Licciardello talks the state of politics, media and his long-standing obsession with America.

Jun 27, 2024, updated Jun 27, 2024
Chas Licciardello from The Chaser television comedy is escorted by security from the Coalition Campaign Launch in Sydney in 2016.  (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Chas Licciardello from The Chaser television comedy is escorted by security from the Coalition Campaign Launch in Sydney in 2016. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

When asked on a scale of 1 to 10 how much hope he has for the world right now, Chas Licciardello laughs. 

“I’m more optimistic than most,” he said. “And maybe the reason I’m more optimistic than most is because I am a natural pessimist. So I always see the bright side, because I expect worse.” 

As part of the often-controversial satirical comedy team The Chaser, Licciardello cut his eye teeth on the political landscape of post 9/11-Bush and the height of the Howard administration.

The current state of affairs – heightened political extremism, alternate facts and a convicted felon running for one of the most influential appointments in the world – to him come as no real surprise.

“I think it was predictable and in fact predicted where it was going,” he said. “Back in the 80s there was a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, which was a quite famous American book about how people growing up in a TV media environment were going to end up leading to terrible political outcomes. And it was pretty much on the money.”

“I would definitely say [politics] it’s changed significantly. But I think that what’s happened is we’ve carried on the same path that we were on before. You can trace pretty much a straight line from the 80s through to now. We’re just a little bit further down that road, on our way to hell.”

 “Let’s hope that there’s a T junction soon.”

What Neil Postman’s seminal text failed to predict, and Licciardello finds a more interesting phenomena, is the changes that have occurred within media itself.

Licciardello has been in a prime position to observe the media landscape, producing, writing and appearing in over a decade of The Chaser’s stable of television projects and serving as the co-host of ABC’s Planet America alongside John Barron since 2012. 

He points to two unpredicted movements that have impacted the state of modern media. Number one, he explained, is “the death of any form of revenue model that works”.

“Especially when the internet started,” he said. “People thought, ‘well, the media will just move to the internet. And when they move to the internet, there’ll be unlimited riches.

“But now we are on the internet, there aren’t unlimited riches, there are less riches. And we’re finding that the amount it costs to produce solid work is more than people can afford to pay. So what you end up having is increasingly younger and unqualified journalists having to do much more than the people who had 30 years experience in the past had to do.”

“They have to produce five times as much content. They have to produce content about stuff they don’t have time to research. They have to produce content in an environment where if they make one mistake, they are going to get the shit bashed out of them by social media.”

The second big change Licciardello highlighted is the emergence of social media. “We did not see the way social media would take over the normal media and the way that everyone would have their opinion validated because it fills that content gap,” he said. 

“I think the two have worked together in insidious ways to push us into a circling the drain scenario, where I think we can all see it. We can all see that drain being circled, but I don’t think any of us have any idea how to hop out of that sink.”

In the wake of that dire pronouncement, Licciardello rebutted himself, “I should say that the magic of Planet America is that since we’re on the ABC and we can get funding without advertising, and I am independently wealthy because of my previous years making high-rating television shows, I can afford to subsidise what the normal media can’t.”

“And so for that reason, if I’m a bit obsessed about something like, say, American politics, I can work ridiculous hours and I can follow my passion in a way that a professional journalist could never do. And so it allows us to make the kind of show that you couldn’t make otherwise.”  

American politics, and America itself, are a lifelong obsession of Liccardello’s. “I happen to love America,” he said. “To psychoanalyse myself, I think I’ve always been attracted to the possibilities associated with America. Anything is possible there – and I mean negative as well as positive things.

“It’s a place where you get the most extreme of everything – the smartest, and the most virtuous people, as well as the dumbest and most malevolent. If you want to know what the future holds – well, you can find it metastasizing away in America, as well as about a million other possible paths that never quite take off.”

At present Licciardello follows American political news far more closely than the situation in Australia, admitting he did not hear of Barnaby Joyce’s affair and subsequent lovechild until months later “when one of the Chaser guys just mentioned it in passing.”

With all of that concentrated focus, what is his take on the upcoming American election?

 “Right now, as we speak, I think Biden is in a bad position. If I was a betting person, I’d be putting money on Trump at this point in time,” he said.

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Licciardello said Biden would have expected “more bounce” out of Trump’s trial and conviction on 34 felony counts, and to receive more credit for the state of the American economy.

 “The other thing which Biden would not have expected was how much latent affection there is for Trump,” Licciardello said. “He’s actually a lot more popular right now than Biden is. There is genuine nostalgia from a lot of sectors in America for Trump’s term. They seem to have forgotten the entire last 12 months of his administration. They think back on the Trump era as the golden time.”

“And it’s hard for Biden to compete with that, because he’s got to deal with reality right now, not nostalgia.”

A refusal to give in to the call of nostalgia, is part of what keeps Licciardello from despairing of the here and now. 

“The world definitely is facing a lot of challenges, but it always has,” he said. “You can’t go back to a period where people were saying, ‘oh, everything’s fine. Everything’s fantastic.’ Even the periods that we now look back like the 50s – people think of this golden economic era, where people all got along. Back in the 50s, in America, there were massive civil rights issues for a start. Leaving that aside, they were scared that it was about to be the end of the world. We’ve forgotten that.”  

“There’s always problems. So I don’t think that there’s necessarily more problems now than there are at any other time. It just feels like there’s more, because we’re living now. And I see a lot of opportunities.”

One of the opportunities Licciardello foresees is the fruition of Western society having “spent the last 15 years really obsessing about diversity.”

 “I’ll tell you what that’s going to yield,” he said, “a generation that’s grown up in that environment, who now have opportunities that they wouldn’t have had before. 25 years ago, your best opportunity was if you’re a white male, probably private school educated. Now there are a lot more people who have an opportunity. And those people are coming of age. And as far as I’m concerned, people do their best work when they’re in their late 30s onwards. So I’d expect in 10 years’ time a lot of very impressive people in positions of power, who had the doors open to them that might not have been before.”

“And I personally am quite excited to see what they have to offer when it comes time for them to deliver. So I’m not pessimistic. Yes, there’s going to be shit, but we’ll find a way.”

Licciardello will be appearing alongside April Palmerlee, the Chief Executive officer of AmCham, Christopher Pyne, former Australian Defence Minister and Bruce Wolpe, Author of Trump’s Australia at the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia’s 2024 US Election Special Event.

“I’m particularly excited about Christopher Pyne,” said Licciardello. “I’ve always admired him as being an intelligent guy. When we used to do The Chaser, we always found him to be extremely intelligent, and he just didn’t say stupid things pretty much ever, which was rare in Australian politics.

“I love talking to him after he’s left Parliament, so he can be unleashed to a certain extent. Certainly, we had a little prep session on Zoom, and he was very unbridled. I think he will be worth the price of admission.”

Those who are interested in hearing more of Licciardello’s thoughts will have an opportunity to catch him in action at the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia’s 2024 US Election Special Event at the Emporium Hotel South Bank on Thursday July 4.Tickets are still available to the 2024 US Election Special Event on the AmCham website

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