Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Nicholas J Johnson defends Lowbrow TV

by Nicholas J Johnson , June 5, 2014Leave a comment

Last week at the Highbrow vs Lowbrow Cultural Showdown, six of our favourite writers faced off to defend their preferred cultural forms. This week, we’re publishing their speeches in full for your edification. Here, Nicholas J Johnson defends lowbrow TV.


I can’t stop looking at Eddie McGuire’s smug, stupid face.

It’s not my fault. It’s just I’ve never been this close to the man before, and it’s not until now that I’ve realised how oddly smooth and tanned his skin is. As if someone has stretched the orange bladder from a football over a slab of marble.

‘So, Nicholas,’ Eddie says, ‘how long have you and Bridget been together?’

‘Fifteen years, Eddie. Since we were both eighteen.’

There’s a five second pause while the game-show host does the math.

‘You’re thirty-three? Gee, your face is well lived in.’ He looks to the studio audience for approval. They titter awkwardly.

We weren’t even supposed to be on Million Dollar Drop. Originally, I’d convinced Bridget to audition for Deal Or No Deal and she’d agreed, even after the Wheel of Fortune fiasco of 2002.

But the casting director had decided that the old-beyond-his-years professional magician and his sweet, long-suffering wife were too good a talent to waste on Deal’s 5.30 timeslot, and had bumped us up to primetime: Million Dollar Drop.

Now, all we have to do to win one million dollars is tell Eddie McGuire whether the ‘B’ in the eBay logo is blue or red.

Of course, we aren’t there for the money. Neither is the studio audience. Or the cancellation-inducingly small number of people watching at home. No, we’re looking for something else altogether: a moment.

We search for it at the bottom, trawling shows like Sister Wives, Extreme Couponing, Best Funeral Ever, America’s Worst Tattoos and Bridalplasty.

We know these shows are awful and degrading and disposable. But we’re willing to lower ourselves into the muck, to thrust our arms elbow-deep into the feculent sludge to find those precious few truly human moments that only exist in the very worst television.

We have to watch closely or we might it miss it.

The little twitch in the previously confident young woman’s eye when she realises that a statistically significant portion of the population would rather avoid her, than either snog or marry her.

Honey Boo Boo and her obese road kill-cooking mother playfully tossing bulk-purchased rolls of toilet paper at each other, giggling, the cameras forgotten.

Every visceral image that flashes before your mind’s eye upon hearing that a television show exists called I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.

We are all that seventeen-year-old girl straining, dealing with what we think is just the usual shit, only to look down and see a baby, staring up at us from the toilet bowl of the KFC bathroom.

These characters are our clowns now. Cavorting like the grotesque archetypes of Commedia dell’arte in semi-improvised scenes of sex, love and base bodily functions. But instead of the swaggering El Capitano or the gossipy La Ruffianawe get Heather the entitled housewife and Kyle the non-threatening gay man. We get to see ourselves, reflected back, exaggerated and simplified.

We won’t find these characters if we search in critically acclaimed HBO dramas. The more finely crafted those shows are, the more subtext and erudition they inject into their Emmy award–winning scripts, the more artificial they become. They are museum pieces to be admired from afar.

Highbrow TV shows give us Brylcreem-slicked Madison Avenue advertising executives. They wrap sharp sixties fashion around classical allusions in the vain hope we won’t realise we’re just watching Bewitched without the spells.

Highbrow has to slaughter Robb Stark, his mother, his wife and his unborn child to come close to the emotional wreckage that was wrought when The Bachelor refused to tell the winning contestant that he loved her, even though Nikki was called first at every single rose ceremony and she is a paediatric nurse so you know she’s a good person and doesn’t she deserve a little happiness? Doesn’t she deserve a ring on her finger?

Well? Doesn’t she?

‘I’m afraid I’m going to need an answer, Nicholas.’

I take a deep breath and smile.

‘Red, Eddie. The B in the eBay logo is Red.’

As the trapdoor opens and the wads of cash fall from our grasp down the five metre–high Perspex tube there is an audible gasp of dismay from the studio audience, who are more horrified and heartbroken on our behalf than at a thousand Red Weddings.

And there, in the eye of the shitstorm, Bridget and I stand aghast, knowing that, at the very least, this is our moment.


Nicholas J Johnson is a Melbourne author and entertainer. His debut novel, Chasing the Ace, is out in July. His website is



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