Essays For Australia

The Joke’s On Us

Written by
1 April 2022
Originally appeared in Essays For Australia

To our eternal benefit, Australia has seldom been taken seriously. When Dirk Hartog strayed off course on his way to Indonesia in 1616 and stumbled upon the west coast of our desert-like continent, he took one look around and decided it was of no use to him or his employer, the mighty Dutch East India Company. Hartog had been sent to Indonesia to collect a boatload of cinnamon, cloves and other exotic spices which were the new staples in the kitchens of the emerging, aspirational middle class of Europe. This barren, seemingly uninhabited land clearly offered none of that, so after a couple of days he continued north to his more commercially lucrative destination. But before he pulled anchor he knocked up a pewter plate with his and his senior crew’s names on it and sent a few men ashore to nail it to a post atop a limestone cliff. It was the 17th-century equivalent of a graffitist leaving his tag on the side of a building in a remote ghost town, and about as consequential.

Hartog’s compatriot Willem de Vlamingh had a snoop around the west coast 81 years later, venturing further south, and found what he thought was in part a “paradise on earth”, albeit with giant rats occupying what is now called Rottnest Island. Had he convinced the Dutch government or Dutch East India Company that the land had potential, Australia’s introduction to European colonialism would have been entirely different, and Australia today would be arguably an unhappier society. The places where the Dutch East India Company once settled or dominated – Java, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and South Africa – are not among the world’s most free and prosperous former colonies.

By being settled under vastly different circumstances a century later, Australia later became, ironically, one of the greatest and happiest middle class nations in history. And with it, we developed a unique sense of humour that fitted well with our famously sardonic and pragmatic attitude.

It was more to do with good timing than planning. The empire that did settle Australia didn’t take the country entirely seriously either. While the British government at the time considered establishing a colony around Botany Bay strategically beneficial, the urgent need to shift some of its working-class convicts offshore was a considerably stronger motivating force.

By 1787, when the First Fleet set sail, the Enlightenment, especially the anti-slavery ideas of William Wilberforce, dominated discussions in the salons of London. Along with food, rum, convicts and sailors, the Fleet carried the less tangible but equally significant cargo of Enlightenment ideals, such as the separation of church and state, freedom of speech, the rule of law and equality before the law, individual autonomy and, according to Phillip himself, the revolutionary notion that “there shall be no slavery in a free land”.

This liberalism extended to the inhabitants he knew he would encounter in the new land. His instructions were to “endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affection, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them”.

It was a break from the usual way colonies were established. Twelve years earlier, Britain’s rule over the colonies in America began to be eroded when Thomas Jefferson and others declared the empire was obstructing them from their unalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, which led to the colonies declaring their independence.

The sailors and convicts aboard the First Fleet needed no such formality. They disembarked into what was in theory a penal colony, but which had no walls. Some convicts made a run for it, and either perished or returned so emaciated that, according to one report, not even crows would have picked at their carcasses. Whether they realised it or not, their future relied on the colony becoming self-sufficient. When illness forced Arthur Phillip to return to England in 1792, his replacement, Francis Grose, introduced policies that avoided replicating the poverty and unemployment that had driven many of his convicts to crimes of theft in the first place. He granted land and convict labourers to his officers in an effort to replace public farms with private enterprise. In some instances, the convicts were paid with rum. Convicts too, upon emancipation, were given land to make a go of things. The Enlightenment principles that people should be free to govern their own affairs and that self-interest was the greatest driver of economic activity, were embedded long before any settlers felt the need to formally declare their right to pursue happiness. They were too busy doing it. From this harsh but opportunity-laden environment emerged a culture that frequently and stoically found amusement in the face of adversity. And it wasn’t just the white settlers who created this.

“I often think that we Australians underestimate the contribution that Indigenous people have made to our national ethos,” then prime minister Tony Abbott told a Reconciliation Dinner in Canberra in 2014.

The stoicism, the laconic humour and the endurance that has come to characterise us as a nation. I doubt it came ashore in 1788 because, frankly, it doesn’t characterise the English, the Irish or the Scots but it came to characterise Australians. I suspect that the interaction on our frontier between the white fella and the back fella has produced in the Australian character that stoicism and that humour which is now very much a part of our ethos, indeed a part of our soul.

When World War One broke out in Europe, Australians engaged in a heated debate about whether to fight in Britain’s defence. Two plebiscites, in 1916 and 1917, asking if the federal government should have the power to conscript able men, were narrowly defeated. Our greatest artist at the time, Norman Lindsay, contributed to the debate with a series of cartoons for The Bulletin, the nation’s most influential publication. One, published in April 1916, six months before the first plebiscite, depicted a monstrous German “Hun” soldier with bloodied hands in a field strewn with the bodies of women and children, who asks, “Can’t you see what a peace-loving man I am?” Others showed cowardly “slackers” at home avoiding the duty to support their mates at the front. They are simple images imbued with an intense urgency to defeat tyranny in Europe. Lindsay tries to deploy larrikin humour, but the subject matter is overwhelmingly grim. None of those cartoons make you laugh out loud, nor would Lindsay have wanted you to. It was a rare moment in Lindsay’s career, placing him alongside the ruling class, who sought to convince ordinary Australians to fight.

Lindsay’s belief in the virtue of the conflict didn’t last. His son Jack later recalled that Lindsay, soon after the war ended, drew a much funnier cartoon depicting Jesus in Heaven, asking God, on his throne, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?”

“Needless to say, it wasn’t printed,” Jack said. In those days, political correctness meant not mocking Christianity.

“For gorsake stop laughing, this is serious!” yelled a worker to his mate in one of the most famous cartoons drawn by an Australian, Smith’s Weekly cartoonist Stan Cross in 1933. The worker was hanging from a steel girder on a building site high above the ground, after some accident had occurred. To save himself, his mate had grabbed the other’s trousers, which were now gathered around his ankles. By now our humour had become even more impervious. We were only just emerging from the Great Depression (unemployment peaked at 32 per cent in 1932) but Cross’s cartoon struck a chord. Prints of the cartoon were sold and hung on walls around the nation. It neatly depicted what had by then become the archetypal response by Australians to adversity or danger: to laugh at it.

Nothing was so serious that it couldn’t use a bit of ridicule to lighten things up. When Sir John Kerr sensationally sacked Gough Whitlam’s federal government on November 11, 1975, Garry McDonald, as fictional amateur news reporter Norman Gunston (an ABC show), inveigled his way into the drama on the steps of what is now Old Parliament House and tried to interview the main players. “Oh, look, it’s a bit too serious for that,” said Bob Hawke, the Labor party’s federal president. “It certainly is, I quite agree – it’s extremely serious,” Gunston replies with faux journalistic earnestness. It is still one of the defining moments of Australian television.

“Australia is the funniest country in the cosmos,” Barry Humphries quoted his own alter-ego Sir Les Patterson in the introduction to The Traveller’s Tool, one of the funniest books ever written by an Australian. The Traveller’s Tool, “Sir Les” says

… will make the ideal present for the occasional person who doesn’t realise that Australia is meant to be funny, for Australiaphobes or for anyone who doesn’t see the point of Australia at all. With my book on your bedside table next to the Nivea the sheilas will know they’re in the hands of a professional and, like any red-blooded Australian male, you’ll be able to cry yourself to sleep – be it on your own or someone else’s pillow – muttering my own Australian motto: no worries.

By then, Australians had learned to laugh not just at the world, but at themselves. One doesn’t need to look too deeply into Humphries’ work to see a scathing critique of our chauvinism and lack of sophistication. As Sir Les says later in the book, there is a “well known statistic that Australia has more culture per square inch than a month-old mango”.

We loved Humphries for it. But not any more. In 2019, the Melbourne Comedy Festival dissociated itself from Humphries not because he’d lost his sense of humour but because he failed to realise that comedians were now meant to champion identity politics. After Humphries committed the sin of describing transgenderism as a “fashion” in 2018, the festival changed the name of its highest annual accolade from the Barry Award to the more serious-sounding Melbourne International Comedy Festival Award. It was a sign that Australian culture was changing, and not for the funnier. Or as Stan Cross would put it, we have stopped laughing because this is serious, for gorsake.

The bemused self-deprecation Humphries taught us to embrace is now replaced by self-loathing. In “Nanette”, a series of performances in 2017 and 2018 delivered at the Sydney Opera House, only metres from where the convicts and crew of the First Fleet disembarked, Tasmanian comedienne Hannah Gadsby delivered a monologue that now defines Australian comedy. Gadsby was molested by a relative as a child, beaten up by a man in her teens and raped in her twenties. She is also gay, and had to come out in a society where 70 per cent of people thought homosexuality was a sin, and was indeed a crime until 1997. As a child, she learned to hate herself. All of this trauma is mentioned in her stand-up routine, and forms the foundation of it. It’s a tough set-up for a comedian, and the jokes are sparse, but that’s not what her audience came to hear. Like Lindsay in the darkest days of World War I, Gadsby is addressing issues that are beyond a joke, or at least beyond the power of comedy to address.

Comedy, even of the self-deprecating kind, could only partly alleviate her pain, she said. “Self-deprecation from someone who exists at the margins is not humility, it’s humiliation,” she said. “I put myself down in order to seek permission to speak. Punchlines need trauma because punchlines need tension and tension feeds trauma.”

In a dramatically silent moment towards the end of her monologue, Gadsby told her audience that she had outgrown comedy. “I’m still ashamed of who I am. I need to tell my story properly,” which was not by laughing about it. “This is bigger than homosexuality. This is about how we conduct debates in public about sensitive things. We think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of the people we disagree with.”

It doesn’t occur to Gadsby that it’s possible to be both, which is a reflection of how much Australia has fragmented since Humphries could get a laugh, as Sir Les, merely by winking and saying, “Are you with me?” Appealing to other people’s humanity never used to be so fraught, or so provocative. And comedy never used to be so humourless.

You wouldn’t know it now, but the ABC was for decades our most prolific and often successful incubator of comedy. It began with the creative surge that followed the four-year Dix Inquiry into the ABC, which published its findings in 1983. “The ABC is now nearly 50 years old, and in the last decade its record has faltered,” the report said.

It has tried to maintain an idea of Australian society even after that idea has undergone change. The ABC is at a turning point. Australian society, which itself is undergoing rapid change, expects no less from its institutions.

That same year, the ABC launched Australia You’re Standing In It, which became an instant hit cracking the sort of gags that weren’t heard in the “cultural or educated elite” to which the corporation had previously been catering.

Among them were Tim and Debbie (Stephen Blackburn and Mary Kenneally), whose “Brain Space” segment unwittingly became the progenitor of ABC wokeness, although in their case they were at least being deliberately funny. Their schtick was to dismiss anything mainstream or commercial while naively falling for anything “amazing”, such as the “unemployment industry” and the sexual and cultural rights of dinosaurs. We laughed at them then, but who’s laughing now?

In a skit about Melbourne’s lacklustre tourist attractions, comedian Rod Quantock ridiculed a Victorian tourism advertisement’s claim that the city was “cultural, clean and multicultural”.

“Well, one out of three’s okay,” he said. “It’s definitely a multicultural city. I mean some days it’s like Channel 028 (SBS) in 3D.” Okay, so it’s not the funniest gag the ABC ever broadcast, but it was one of the last to condescendingly feature the m-word.

One of the harshest criticisms in the Dix Review was of the ABC neglecting the nation’s migrant and Indigenous demographics. “In our view, broadcasting for these two sections of the population should be of special concern to the ABC,” the report said.

The ABC itself had acknowledged this in its submission to the inquiry, saying: “Their contribution to Australian life will be effective only if they are participating fully in the affairs of the nation, and not confined to enclaves.”

The nuance of this submission should not be overlooked. The ABC was saying migrants and Aborigines should be part of the culture, not treated as separate interests. But that’s not how things have turned out. When the ABC’s charter was rewritten to incorporate the Dix recommendations, it included a condition that the broadcaster should reflect “the multicultural character of the Australian community”. (Presumably, this includes Indigenous culture, which isn’t explicitly mentioned.) Migrants and Australia’s Indigenous population have been sensitive issues ever since. Sadly, Australian society is full of “enclaves” now, which makes life tough for comedians, as Hannah Gadsby discovered.

The solution for comedians is to either develop an overtly politically correct conscience, give up comedy altogether or, as Gadsby has done, both. Either way, the results are not very funny. Australian comedy has become formulaic, humourless and, worst of all, timid. Where once comedians ridiculed the powerful and lampooned the ordinary, now they pander to both. Environmentalism, identity politics and, in the post-Covid world, the benevolence of authoritarianism dominate Western culture, and comedians obediently praise their virtues. The villains, meanwhile, are conservatives, who are deplorable, racist, climate change deniers who, by opposing an ineffective lockdown against a pandemic, are also insensitive to the lives of the elderly.

The way some people on the left have been thinking has changed – they’re looking for any kind of signal that underneath you’re actually a write-off. One slip of language, one slip of behaviour, and that shows you’re in the bad camp, and you’re just suddenly excluded.

So said moral philosopher Tim Dean, from the University of Sydney, in an episode of comedy show Tonightly With Tom Ballard, on ABC TV in 2018. But before you imagine this is a rare moment of self-reflection from the humourless, hypercritical left, I should point out that he was at the time talking to self-proclaimed left-wing comedian Jazz Twemlow in a video intended to instruct leftist ABC viewers (but I repeat myself) how to push back against the “alt-right” and their “online misogyny and the push for a pan-national white empire”.

Dean suggested leftists should “stop being outraged, virtue-signalling prats”, but it was too little, too late. By then, social media had long been the main driver of moral outrage and nothing an academic said on the ABC could reverse the new culture of vilification and offence-seeking.

It’s made the job of political commentary more trepidatious than ever. Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Blair says the problem is that the left has no penchant for nuance. “The communications realm has been taken over by literal-minded people,” he says.

They don’t have any other gear, they’ve just got one speed. These people are confused by jokes, or even verbal tricks. Jokes are bad to these people, they may as well be in a different language.

John Spooner, a cartoonist for The Australian, was recently hauled before the Australian Press Council for a cartoon that showed a black Antifa protester on the knee of a prone Statue of Liberty, as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin notoriously did when petty criminal and drug user George Floyd died, sparking riots around the world. The protester is saying, “I am fighting for the right to do what I hate,” while Liberty is complaining, “I can’t breathe.”

The left interpreted it to mean that black people don’t have the right to protest about being murdered by police officers, and labelled Spooner a racist. The fact that other people, both white and black, were murdered during the worldwide riots didn’t occur to them. “Generally speaking, a cartoonist shouldn’t have to submit himself or herself to an adjudication,” Spooner says.

But insofar as racism is a criminal offence, I had a sincere interest in refuting that, and a pretty good forum to do that is the Press Council. The people out there are quite rabid. I was annoyed that they were so stupid as to not understand the point I was making. I was invoking a time-honoured left-wing preference for non-violence in political discourse. That’s going out of fashion, isn’t it?

The Press Council didn’t share the mob’s rabid fury. It accepted that the cartoon was “clearly about the hypocrisy of rioters and did not excuse police brutality or attacks on peaceful protesters”, and dismissed the complaint.

But that doesn’t stop the left, who are as determined as ever to misinterpret and punish conservative commentators. When the late Bill Leak published a cartoon in 2015 depicting Mohammad in Heaven with God, gently joking that a large-scale war is imminent if Mohammad’s followers don’t lighten up, he received death threats that the federal police confirmed were legitimate, and needed to sell his house and move to a safer location. Norman Lindsay – whose vilification of the Germans was infinitely more graphic and vitriolic – would have been horrified.

Not deterred by Bill having his freedom of speech thus infringed, the Australian Human Rights Commission then went after him for a subsequent cartoon that was, like Spooner’s, egregiously and deliberately misinterpreted. Leak was stunned, saying that

While less murderous than the tactics deployed by Islamist terrorists, the actions taken by the AHRC were no less authoritarian and they sprang from the same impulse: to use whatever means at its disposal to silence those with whom it disagreed.

The process of defending himself was the punishment. If he didn’t have the backing of the large corporation that employed him, the legal cost would have been financially ruinous, he said. The warning to less prominent or wealthy commentators could not have been clearer.

The tendency to defer to authority is only a recent development in Australian culture. In Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country, American humourist Bill Bryson noted that:

It is an interesting fact, and one that no doubt speaks volumes about the Australian character, that the nation never produced a law enforcement hero along the lines of Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson in America. Australia folk heroes are all bad guys of the Billy the Kid type.

In the two decades since that book was published, the left in Australia has gathered behind a new generation of folk heroes who, contrary to Bryson’s observation, are the Australian Earps of the 21st century, policing modern crimes with the sanctimonious zeal of a frontier sheriff gunning down card cheats. We used to have politicians who were adept at the art of the laconic put-down. Now we have humourless overlords who tell us what jokes we can tell.

But while the commissars of thought-conformity grow more and more powerful in the public square, can they silence ordinary Australians in their everyday lives? They certainly want to. The AHRC’s former president Gillian Triggs once lamented that, “Sadly you can say what you like around the kitchen table at home.” If only the AHRC had that power! The Victorian government recently took a step towards doing so, criminalising the advice parents might give their children regarding gender and sexuality in the privacy of the home.

I’ve travelled around Australia a lot in 2021, on a couple of occasions in cunning defiance of our state border closures. Alarmingly, I can’t recall meeting any fellow Australians who sympathise with, let alone behave like, the outlaw folk heroes we once idolised. Laconic conversations and encounters with ratbags used to be a daily occurrence in Australia, but these days we seem cowed by the increasing zealousness and power of the thought police.

The closest I came was on a flight from Perth, when I watched a burly biker in a black t-shirt and covered in tattoos (one of which, on the back of his hand, reminded him to “Trust no one”) board the plane without a face mask. “You must wear a mask,” the steward told him in a tone that sounded like Oprah Winfrey reprimanding Queen Elizabeth for not employing enough black footmen.

“I’ve got a letter from my doctor – I’m suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. If Ned Kelly featured in any of the tattoos under that black t-shirt, I imagine he threw off his helmet and buried his head in his hands in disgust. When even bikers are forced to kowtow to the elite’s ubiquitous new authoritarianism, our rebellious culture is in deep trouble.

There are two glaring ironies here. The first is that the left have become what they once ridiculed. In 1995, comedian Magda Szubanski performed a brilliant skit for the all-female show Big Girl’s Blouse. In it, she competed in the “Women Philosophers Taking Offencing” event, in which she found pretentiously academic reasons to be offended by an innocent remark. The offences she takes, based on the patriarchy and capitalism, were absurd then, but are passe now, having been overtaken by even more sophisticated academic iconoclasm involving identity politics and radical ideas of race, gender and sexuality. In other words, Szubanski’s own friends on the left have become the punchline to one of her best ever jokes.

None of this would have happened if we hadn’t started taking ourselves so seriously. It’s alarming to think that if the Governor-General sacked the federal government today, there would be no Norman Gunston to storm Parliament House with his greasy comb-over and shaving cuts, demanding obsequious interviews; that if Australia won another event like the America’s Cup, there’d be no Prime Minister to tell the nation to chuck a collective sickie; and that our film industry is better at making American films than trying to create a modern equivalent of Crocodile Dundee.

The second irony is that Australia is more ridiculous than ever. If the useless desert landscape and giant rats on Rottnest Island looked absurd to Hartog and Vlaming in the 17th century, they’d be even more shocked by what has become of the continent today. Sure, we have one of the highest standards of living in the world, but we also think that digging up coal changes the weather, judge people by the colour of their skin, slam our state borders shut because of a virus with a 99.7 per cent survival rate, arrest pregnant women in their home for organising a meeting, and accept migrants who not only have no desire to assimilate into our society but in some cases are explicitly driven to cause us harm. Australians used to be the world experts at mocking this kind of idiocy. If we don’t start doing it again soon, then the only happiness left to pursue will be scoring likes on social media.

It’s time to Make Australia Funny Again.

This article is from Volume 1 of Essays for Australia and is written by Fred Pawle, a Producer and Journalist at Sky News Australia, and the Author of Die Laughing: The Biography Of Bill Leak. To find out more, head to ipa.org.au/essays.

Essays For Australia - Book Cover
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