What is bad taste? And, more importantly, who decides asks ex men’s magazine editor Paul Merrill who is no stranger to erring on the side of inappropriateness.
The Chaser, Kyle Sandilands and Sam Newman have all found themselves on the wrong side of right and faced calls to be publicly flogged. But, mostly, it wasn’t their core audience who were outraged. Instead, the ‘serious’ media took it upon itself to be outraged for them. Part of my job as editor of Zoo was to push the boundaries of acceptability to appeal to a demographic that is hard to shock – blokes in their twenties.
So competitions to variously win a boob job, divorce, gay wedding, circumcision, bath with a girl band and month’s supply of lesbians were all designed to provoke shock and generate PR. All of them pretty much succeeded.
People were talking about us. And nothing makes a magazine more appealing to young men than parents and authority figures labelling it offensive.
We caused a stir when we re-enacted key moments from Mary Macillop’s life with a bikini babe and dwarf Pope, but it was hardly a deluge, just a couple of unchristian-like death threats from devout Catholics who were probably equally unimpressed with our 85-year-old stripping nun during World Youth Day.
So what should cause offence? Sandilands and The Chaser came unstuck by involving kids in an on-air sex quiz and terminal cancer spoof respectively. Arguably, both had gotten away with worse. I got into a spot of bother by offering a prize of ‘Voluntary euthanasia for a loved one’. My defence that it was a serious look at the issue of assisted suicide convinced no-one, including me. Magazines rarely seem to cause offence. Which is good… and bad. No-one should set out to be obnoxious, homophobic, racist or hurtful, or indeed as puerile as some of my efforts. But there’s a phrase about omelettes and breaking eggs that is also true. Let’s not let the broadcasters get all the headlines.
Paul Merrill’s memoir, A Polar Bear Ate My Head, is published by Random House next month.
- This piece first appeared in Encore magazine. Subscribe to the print edition here or download the iPad edition here.