Features Australia

Lefty laughs

28 January 2017

9:00 AM

28 January 2017

9:00 AM

‘Why doesn’t the Left do humour?’ I asked a left-wing friend. ‘Why is it only conservatives who know how to mix comedy and satire with social comment?’

It’s a fact. You can search the dour pages of the Guardian or those unsold piles of the Saturday Paper or any other leftist publication or TV or radio production or blog and you won’t find anyone with the wit of Tim Blair or Roger Franklin or Rowan Dean or a dozen other amusing conservatives. You won’t find anything to make you laugh, except for the occasional flash of unintended humour such as Tim Flannery’s weather predictions or Paul McGeough’s despatches from the neverland he inhabits in which ‘the nightmare is over’ and Donald Trump is not President of the United States.

‘That’s a crock,’ said my friend. ‘We love humour. What about the Chaser?’

‘My point entirely,’ I replied. I was tempted to add that even if your requirements of a comedy program were so undemanding that you found the Chaser funny, you couldn’t classify it as leftist comedy because it’s on the ABC and the ABC, as it constantly reminds us, is strictly impartial as required by its charter (an assertion that counts as the only piece of genuine humour the national broadcaster will ever emit). But I forbore.

‘Anyway,’ my friend added, ‘there’s more to humour than television and bloggers. What about comedy festivals? Everyone I know goes to comedy festivals. We wouldn’t do that if we didn’t have a sense of humour.’

I had to admit he had me there. I hadn’t thought of comedy festivals. I’ve never been to one, but I suppose that with the prodigious taxpayer funding they get to recruit the world’s most gifted comedians, they’d have to be funny.

‘As a matter of fact,’ he went on, ‘LateSumma is coming on next month.’ ‘Late what?’ I asked. ‘LateSumma, Melbourne’s International Festival of Comedic Arts,’ he explained patiently, as though to a particularly obtuse child. ‘I’ve got a brochure if you’re interested.’

It was a lavish publication – it must have cost a fortune – and you could tell it was about comedy because it had a funny picture of Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the cover, beautifully photoshopped. Jesus was wearing His crown of thorns and peeping out of a pram wheeled by Mary. Joseph was pointing a finger at the reader, like Lord Kitchener in the recruiting poster, and had a balloon coming out of his mouth that read: ‘It’s too late for us to book in at Dr Marie but it’s not too late for YOU to book for LateSumma, Australia’s biggest bestest laugh-fest ever!’ (I later read somewhere that a conservative columnist who suggested that next year LateSumma might consider drawing on the Islamic faith for its satirical cover was denounced on Twitter as a ‘racist shit-stirrer’, among less printable epithets.)

The brochure spoke of ‘diversity’ as a ‘keynote’ of the festival but as I flicked through its pages a certain sameness was apparent. Almost all the acts were ‘stand-up’ monologues, and all were in one way or another ‘hilarious’. A ‘brilliantly hilarious’ monologue by Nimbin comedian Jarrod Bovine, the brochure proudly explains, has been selected by Griffith University as a set text for third-year English students. I quote an excerpt, to give the flavour.

So I sees this dude who’s building a house right next to the beach, for f*ck’s sake. Just where rising sea levels will wash it away. I says to him, ‘Are you a denialist like that asshole Trump?’

‘No,’ he says, ‘I’m an orthodontist.’

‘Well f*ck you,’ I says.

(Note the author’s skill, characteristic of many Australian comics, in reconciling American linguistic borrowings with a fundamental anti-Americanism.)

Certain names in the brochure stood out. I hadn’t realised, for example, that political commentator and all-purpose polymath Waleed Aly was also a comedian, but here he was, billed as Wacky Aly, revealing a new aspect of his genius with an impersonation, complete with rakish red fez, of that once familiar sight to sea passengers travelling to Europe, a dirty-postcard seller on the wharf at Port Said. ‘Side-splittingly hilarious as it is,’ said the blurb, ‘Wacky’s act is also an indictment of the evils of white colonialist exploitation, whose ugly face is now reasserting itself under Donald Trump.’

Another unexpected public name was that of our former army chief and ‘Australian of the Year’, General David Morrison, who last year had himself photographed wearing a stylish pair of women’s high-heeled shoes. This, apparently, was advance publicity for his LateSumma appearance as ‘General Gender-Bender’, in which this doughty campaigner for ‘inclusivity’ in the army ‘transcends binary constructs’ by marching around the stage in his slingbacks singing ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’. ‘David’s costume choice of general’s tunic and “hot pants” turns this provokingly hilarious act into a powerful anti-cis statement,’ comments the brochure, adding that as a finale the general kicks off his shoes and sings, ‘Kiss me goodnight, sergeant-major’.

General Morrison and Waleed obviously chime with LateSumma’s purpose of ‘showcasing new comedy talent’ and there were lots of acts by comedians I’d never heard of (although I felt that Magda Szubanski was somehow familiar, and I don’t know that I’d describe Max Gillies’s impersonation of Sir John Kerr as exactly ‘new’). But North African teenager Ben Menghistu certainly is. He invites audience members on stage to witness his dexterity with the baseball bat. ‘Watch the fun when he takes a swing at them and demands their car keys,’ enthuses the brochure, adding that this is ‘bravely hilarious comedy born of the tragic reality of asylum-seekers unwelcome in xenophobic Australia.’

So at my friend’s insistence, and as one who is not afraid to be proved wrong, I have agreed to go to the festival to see how funny the Left can be. I’m told the language can be pretty ‘adult’ but that’s the culture. Which acts to book for was an embarras du choix, what with, along with those mentioned, stand-up comedians Billy Foulis from Scotland (‘Watch out for Trump, lassie, or it’ll be “Donald, where’s yer troosers?” all right’); Lenny Smutter from New York (‘Trump is a four-letter word plus “p” for prick’); Marco Miasma from Milan (‘Trump? È Mussolini senza cervello’) (with surtitles) and, representing the older guard of Australian comedy, veteran Sydney mirthmaker Wendy Harpie (‘What’s the quickest way of getting rid of a Trump voter? Pull the chain’). If their combined efforts can’t persuade me that Leftists do have a sense of humour I don’t know what could.

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