By Ethan Andrews
I told another comedian about the topic of this panel and they cringed. At the bottom of the stand up ladder the idea that tweets and five minute bar sets steer social change is so lofty that an instinct – thanks to a combination of tall poppy and imposter syndromes – can be to dismiss it. Anyone who has sat through an open mic knows it: there is nothing worse than a Bill Hicks wannabe. But at the top of the tree it seems Australian comedians are getting angrier.
Between the last two Barry Award winning shows, Zoe Coombs-Marr’s Trigger Warning and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, plus Tom Ballard’s comedy lecture Boundless Plains to Share and Coombs-Marr’s 2016 marriage to Rhys Nicholson, comedy has never been a more powerful or high-profile weapon in Australia. Picking it apart we have Julie Koh, Holly Friedlander Liddicoat, Deidre Fidge and Patrick Marlborough.
As nice as it is to see a variety of mediums represented – fiction, poetry, satire and stand up – it is clear this is a panel that has involved a bit of shoehorning in its assembly. Koh admits right out of the gate that she does not see her writing as comedy. Casting a much broader net to encompass all types of writing that contain a bit of humour somewhere, the discussion begins with an examination of comedy’s role as a vehicle for activism.
As it is so easy to be overwhelmed by sadness, Friedlander Liddicoat says that writing funny stuff is a coping mechanism. “Presenting the world in all its absurdity is a chance to move through apathy.”
For Fidge the decision to focus on comedy was one made easier by limitation: “I am only comfortable writing in a silly way.” Going on to describe the writing process at SBS Comedy, Fidge says that regardless of the nature of the issue, the brainstorm in the writers’ group chat was always topic-first. If you are trying to convey genuine meaning, you can’t reverse engineer a joke to fit an argument. Koh’s process is similar; starting with intriguing premises, and letting jokes fall into place incidentally.
But how effective is this approach? Why a book, or a satirical article, or a festival show, instead of an op-ed?
Fidge thinks comedy makes issues more accessible, but Koh wonders, “How idealistic is satire? In some ways with Portable Curiosities I am preaching to the choir.” The same could be said of this panel’s place in the festival’s programming. Talk of writing process reveals some practical advice, but otherwise the topic leaves our panellists a little pigeonholed. It’s a real shame because Koh’s quip could have been the launchpad for a bit more back and forth exploring the way that audiences are growing fond of the anger behind Australia’s punchlines.
On a hierarchy of accessibility, we start with Jim Jefferies and Betoota. Moving up a rung are The Weekly and The Chaser’s projects. On top, we have Barry-winning shows doing encore shows at the Opera House. How do audience reactions change as the work moves from mainstream to challenging? Are audiences as angry as creators? Does anyone care? I wish this dissection of Australia’s comedy DNA went deeper. Instead, the panel ends with the obligatory discussion of comedy’s greatest taboo… crossing the line.
With a refreshing humility, and the kind of self-awareness those Bill Hicks tributes need, Fidge questions her role as a writer: “Am I the right person to make this joke? Will I change the world with this joke? I don’t think I’m skilled enough and I’m not very brave.”
Speaking as a stand up and writer accustomed to feedback, Marlborough knows that approaching the line is something that you can fuck up very easily. So how do you avoid it? Simple.
“Be fucking funny.”
Image credits: Scott Limbrick