That joke isn’t funny anymore….or is it?

Photo: Julia Marie Naglestad / NRK

When Herbert Zöchling-Tampier, Schurli Herrnstadt and gang wished to satirise the Eurovision Song Contest – quite the easy task in the mid-1970s – they combined nonsense lyrics, silly choreography, and fancy dress shop masks. Their “Boom Boom Boomerang” is often replayed, all context removed, in compilation shows and retrospectives as an example of the bad old days of the competition, the original joke completely lost in a haze of faded memory and circumstance. The song, such as it was, held a mirror to the competition’s standing at the time, its criticism now lost in favour of a modern audience laughing at the funny men with masks around their heads mimicking kangaroos. 

This example of attacking Eurovision from the inside, what might be called “meta” by modern audiences, was not very popular in subsequent years until the early 21st century saw a revival.  “We Are The Winners” literally chanted its way to a top 10 finish in 2006. Much like its antecedent from Austria decades before, the joke has lost its impact in the intervening years. What made the song notable, and still cited today as either the peak or the trough of joke entries at ESC, was the direction of travel for the competition as a whole. By 2006, ESC was still not settled on its journey from TV studio to arena, from insular, almost staid, competition to frenzied fortnight of global entertainment. It was also still in a linguistic flux, allowing countries to abandon their own languages for (mostly) English, regardless of ability. “We Are The Winners” can be seen as the obvious solution to televote audiences not responding to Lithuanian, whilst not necessarily understanding an entire song in English: the same handful of lines, repeated with increased theatrical insanity, all wrapped up with dead pan self-awareness. 

Drawing a direct line from “Boom Boom Boomerang” to the 21st century was, arguably, one of the most infamously silly songs in modern times, “Dancing Lasha Tumbai”. Making it to second place on the back of camp dancing and nonsense lyrics, exactly the content used to satirise the contest a generation before, and successfully hiding its subversive lyrics behind the theatrical pantomime performance, “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” has become one of the most beloved entries despite its hyperactivity, not because of it.

The vexed issue of jokes at Eurovision, and the cross-over point with novelty, satire and parody, has continued to the modern day with two songs which could be seen as the natural successors to Austria 1977 and Lithuania 2006.  Latvia, not immune to nominating songs that are more punchline than pop chart, has chosen a jolly pop-rock track about veganism with decidedly NSFW opening lyrics, while Norway is sending the spiritual successor to parody hit “What Does the Fox Say” with its high-NRG dance track based on the Red Riding Hood fairy-tale.  Inevitably, their inclusion in the competition, which the organisers EBU would rather be professional, even corporate, has stoked the flames of debate. What place do these “silly” songs have, if “silly” is all they are, in a contest vying for global credibility, particularly in the United States?

British viewers will recall veteran commentator Terry Wogan audibly give up his career-spanning job behind the Eurovision mic in response to Spain’s “Baila el Chiki-Chiki” scoring far higher than the UK entry that year. An instant crowd divider on its nomination for Spain, “Baila el Chiki-Chiki” was a master-stroke of trolling, parody, and self-aware joke song, all tailor made for a nascent Internet community to create memes and gifs. The song isn’t particularly good, and like all jokes told too often, the punchline wore thin. But Wogan’s grumpy attitude underlined the view that Eurovision was too naff, too uncool, too willing to enter childish nursery rhymes to ever be taken seriously. A line could be drawn from “Boom Boom Boomerang”, a knowing satire on the direction  Eurovision was taking, and “Baila el Chiki-Chiki”, a dance instruction video gone wrong. 

“Silly” is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. Spain in 1993 was hyperactive and quite jarring to listen to, and the United Kingdom itself would struggle to justify sending “Teenage Life”, with its women-as-schoolgirls motif speaking to a domestic audience aware of Benny Hill and the Carry On franchise. Silly songs can be perfectly acceptable to a wide audience: Germany’s 1994 entry was a neon-lit girlband, complete with Anglo-German rapping and hand-jives, perfectly silly and toe-tappingly effective. Is the issue really one of ‘credibility’, a criticism pointed at Eurovision from the very start?

On this point, let us revisit those earliest years. Veteran entertainers Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson brought finger-puppets and whistling alongside “Sing Little Birdie” in the 1950s when it became rather obvious than a trans-European singing competition might need to do more than just use words when communicating lyrics to an audience with less proficiency in English than exists today.

Is the problem at the heart of fandom’s debate one of translation? Does a funny joke in one country not quite work to another country’s audience? During the “growing pains” era of Eurovision, the transition from insular to global, from TV studio to arena, the contest became a honeypot of off-kilter, peculiar entries that straddled the intersection between silliness, parody, and attempted joke. What place in the Contest’s history do we place “Leto svet” from Estonia, or “Czarna dziewczyna” from Poland, other than they happened during the transitional period of the Contest itself, when the rules of entry were being rewritten, when the importance of an all-out televote audience was still being worked out and understood?

The issue of “credibility” will never be tested by the EBU itself, as songs are not ruled out by style, only by political or sexualised lyrical content. For every “Brazil” from Yugoslavia, or for that matter every “Love City Groove”, there will always be hundreds of serious, credible, professional songs. It’s worth remembering that ‘credibility’ is a different test than whether a song is a joke, parody or self-aware skit. That said – and it’s an important point – the “growing pains era” of the mid-2000s was the darkest period of the Contest’s history, as the continent attempted to throw every kind of humour at a song competition to see what worked. Few countries could avoid the temptation (or the influence) to sidestep away from absolute seriousness. France went kooky, the UK went quirky, and Ireland, the one-time powerhouses, sent a puppet turkey. No competition would survive returning to these testing, trying, darker times, and any Contest that did wouldn’t survive beyond the second ad break.

A casual audience expects Eurovision to continue existing in its own lane, away from the Grammys and Brits, away from the MTV Awards, away from the expectations of absolute seriousness from song to song. This expectation fuels creativity as much as anything else, and is why countries are free to move from ballad to pop to rock to silliness without asking permission first. What fandoms want and desire is always a push-and-pull of demands, often without considering the wider audience beyond social media. Eurovision is the exception, a multi-national, multi-lingual, one song against the other goodwill games that doesn’t quite make sense and always survives. Maybe that’s the question to be answered in the future: to what extent is the Contest which the EBU desires to be taken seriously permitted to poke fun at its own premise?