Shock, horror, outrage and Aussie humour
(Excerpt from The New Daily Oct 24th, 2014)
Are teacup tempests and celebrity ‘nontroversies’ detracting from Australians’ ability to laugh at themselves?
Australians once disparaged ‘whingeing Poms’, but when it comes to whingeing, we have world-beating skills and panoramic tastes.
Over recent days, the nation’s attention and commentary have been aimed at such crises as the ‘Breaking Bad’ action figure toys (complete with tiny bags of cash and methamphetamine) and the suspiciously transformed face of Renee Zellweger. Mark Holden’s clownish meltdown on ‘Dancing With The Stars’ was the top local Google search of the week.
The counterpoints to these teacup tempests were Ebola, ISIS, a Russian spy submarine scandal and the emergence of home-grown terrorist youths.
If Google search figures are any measure, readers are more interested in Holden’s fart-pants rant as they are in what could spell the end of the world as we know it.
Is there something wrong with us? Why do we rush to furious judgment on issues great and small? Perhaps our mock-shock at things we should be laughing at relieves us of worrying about the things that make us genuinely horrified. The avenues for complaint, and the media’s hyping of every little thing may blind us to what’s really important. Or maybe we just like to whinge.
Voices of complaint are louder and more pervasive than ever. World events, entertainment trivia, media provocation and comedy can jolt us into irate apoplexy.
The hassle of writing and posting a letter of complaint has been replaced by the ease of tapping 140 characters of fury on Twitter. Once, a letter to a newspaper editor was the standard avenue for complaint. Now we can shout from the top of our mobiles to a worldwide crowd.
Comedian Barry Humphries was affronted by angry reactions in social and mainstream media to the emails of Barry Spurr, the chair in poetry at Sydney University. Spurr has been suspended for allegedly sending racist emails, purportedly of a jocular nature, to friends and colleagues.
“Has Australia gone slightly mad?” asked Humphries. “How could anyone take such deliberate touretting seriously? The answer, I fear, is that there are a lot of Australians these days who are totally bereft of a sense of humour. The new puritanism is alive, well and powerful.”
Spurr must answer for his emails, but Humphries may be right about Australian puritanism. Our proud ethos of a ‘fair go’ is hard to find in the clamour of tweets calling for Mark Holden’s expulsion from the TV dancing competition.
Comedy relies on (often subjective) truths that risk treading on toes. Comedians can be fearless in dishing out offence but aren’t immune to taking umbrage.
A young LA-based comedian/producer, Dean Watson, outraged comedians at this year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival with a simple suggestion: “You’ll become a stronger, more versatile, more audience-friendly comedian knowing that you can be funny, crude and clean.”
Watson rubbed salt in the wounded egos by suggesting: “It’s more cutting edge to be funny without swearing.”
Comedians were offended. They felt their freedom of speech was being attacked. One comic assured me Watson’s suggestion was “f***ing fascism”. Touchy, touchy…
Craig Platt, comedy critic for Fairfax, warned that comedians who avoided swearing to attract audiences at Watson’s suggestion could herald “a path to bland, middle-of-the-road comedy“. Presumably, an industry of broad and accessible comedy offends him?
No one knows offensive comedy like the newly re-formed comedy trio the Doug Anthony Allstars (‘DAAS’, of which I am a member). The ABC series ‘Shock Horror Aunty’ investigated controversies around ABC TV shows from yesteryear. Shawn Micallef’s headline-grabbing sketch ‘Weary Dunlop: Cross-dresser?’ and the naked rock band ‘Lubricated Goat’ were both blood-boilers (I thought both segments were funny, though I still worry about the goat).
Despite these efforts, the show’s producer told me “Without you Allstars, there would never have been a show”. Our old sketches on ‘Shock Horror Aunty’ received complaints again. It was heartening to see we still have punch.
DAAS remains a confronting and morally caustic act. We don’t consciously set out to offend but it’s inevitable. Comedy producer Marc Gracie told me: “Encourage the crowd to shower regularly and you’ll upset a drought-ridden farmer.”
Yet often audiences tiptoe through ouchy topics until confronted by a subject dear to their hearts. Once an American hipster chastised me for joking about cancer because his mother had it. I said: “So you’re okay with the gags about death, war and famine?”
“Sure,” he said. “But there is a line.”
US comedy theorist, Professor Peter McGraw, wrote about topicality in his book The Humor Code. He posits the scale and gravity of an event will affect how long it remains too sensitive for generally acceptable humour. So perhaps it’s ‘too soon’ for the DAAS ‘Ebola Bleeding Hearts Band’ sketch?
The flipside happens when a joke becomes ‘too late’. The sinking of the Titanic was tragic on a grand scale, but time has diminished its shock factor and topical sting, rendering most jokes on the subject safe from angry tweets.
People will often take issue with events and comments that don’t personally affect them. For example, my Multiple Sclerosis sometimes causes me to ride in a wheelchair. I find jokes about my condition funny, as do many of my friends in the disabled community.
Yet recently, an able-bodied friend bounded to my rescue when someone made a humorous comment about my dancing ability being no better than before. My mate was mostly concerned about my feelings. I thanked her for her kindness but assured her that my dancing was always lousy. A mean-spirited jibe is never welcome, but when it comes to our own troubles, it’s better to laugh than fume.
Perhaps the day will come when we’re all numb to offence. The strength to ignore the things that appall us may reduce their power, giving us clearer perspective. And maybe we’ll turn our anger at man’s cruelty into action.
Until then, we shall tweet and rant against the trivia and horror with equal abandon.
Yes, it’s an outrage.