The comedy Australia exports to the global stage is evolving. And, as Gary Nunn reports from Sydney, experts say it’s moving Australia away from past stereotypes and into thoroughly modern, woke humour.
The nation’s comedy has long punched above its weight overseas, basking in the success of cult classics and “ocker” humour – brash, endearing tales of an unpretentious Australia.
More recently, that humour has occasionally drawn controversy or been criticised as dated. It has paved the way for new players to enter the scene.
“We’re in a really interesting cultural moment where there’s discontent for comedy that punches down [to the powerless] instead of up [to the powerful],” says Dr Stayci Taylor, a screenwriting expert at RMIT university.
Whether the shift is in quantity, quality or tone, one thing seems clear: Australian humour is having a moment.
The new guard’s most prominent member is Hannah Gadsby. Her stand-up show, Nanette, won international acclaim for pivoting away from self-deprecation and into serious testimony halfway through.
Nica Burns, director of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, says Gadsby is part of a national influx: “In the last decade, Aussie comics have grown in number, talent, confidence and ambition across every comedy genre.”
She cites recent Australian winners of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe best comedy award – Gadsby (2017) and Sam Simmons (2015) – as well as Tim Minchin, named best newcomer in 2005.
“Given you’re a small population, you’re a seriously formidable group in comedy now,” she tells the BBC.
In a recent TED talk on how she “broke” comedy, Gadsby said: “I punched through [the punchline]… so the audience could hold my pain.”
Dr Taylor says: “Gadsby started as an outlier but then it became very apparent she’s leading an exciting new Australian wave which is subverting comedy.”
Audiences are more sophisticated and want to be taken further than before, she says: “There’s less tolerance for the dominance of the straight, white male position.”
What worked previously
Early successful incarnations in Australia’s modern comedy history include Barry Humphries’ character Dame Edna Everage, which gained fame in the 1960s, and the film Crocodile Dundee (1986). Both played off what many regard as now-dated Australian female and male stereotypes.
Then there was what Dr Stuart Richards calls “the glitter cycle”, a trio of Australian cult comedy films: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and Strictly Ballroom (1992).
“At heart they’re still ocker comedies – quintessentially Australian in their endearing lower-middle-class humour which develops empathy,” says Dr Richards, a screen studies expert from the University of South Australia.
Immediately preceding the newest wave of Australian comedy, and bookending the old school era, was a raft of exports which included Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High (2007) and Kath & Kim (2002-2007).
The former satirised Australian private v public school culture; the latter lampooned domestic suburbia. Both took aim at lower socio-economic classes.
Dr Ian Wilkie, lecturer in comedy writing at the University of Salford, says Kath & Kim joined with contemporary taste for “shows with a more dangerous ‘underclass’ family and non-metropolitan vibe”.
Lilley’s comedy won many fans, but some his characters and use of blackface caused controversy.
“It makes you wonder about comedy’s often inevitable bluntness,” Dr Wilkie says. “Its need for a target is problematic in making gentler, inoffensive, satire.”
More recently, comedians such as Gadsby, Minchin, Adam Hills, Zoe Coombs Marr and Josh Thomas have directly tackled topics such as misogyny, homophobia and disability discrimination.
The theme tune to this new era could be Minchin’s song Prejudice, which satirised opposition to political correctness with the lyrics “only a ginger can call another ginger ginger”.
Hills, who was nominated for an Edinburgh Comedy Award, has his own UK show, The Last Leg, a pun on the fact he only has one.
It’s popular with UK audiences, as Dr Karina Aveyard from the University of East Anglia explains: “It’s sensitive but also pushes the envelope – the disability of him and his co-stars gives him a platform to do a different type of comedy than if he’d been an able-bodied white male comedian.”
Dr Richards says this is reflective of the post-marriage equality era: “Australian comedy has become savvier, especially with Nanette and Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, which are boldly feminist and boldly queer. It has grown up.”
By contrast, he says, the reason for many poor reviews of Lilley’s new show Lunatics could be because his comedy hasn’t evolved: “It hasn’t developed empathy or grown.”
International critics have often lapped up recent efforts. A New Yorker profile sang the praises of Please Like Me as “a gorgeously made, psychologically observant comedy that lets vulnerable people own their jokes”.
Dr Richards says: “Part of Australian larrikinism is about self-deprecation – but more importantly punching up. Lilley’s characters increasingly have a bullying element, which differentiates his satire from other current Australian comedy.”
Humphries recently faced criticism for “punching down” when he described being transgender as “a fashion” and gender-reassignment surgery as “self-mutilation”, leading Gadsby to say he has “completely lost the ability to read the room”.
Dr Taylor says technology such as YouTube and Netflix has played a big part in the change.
“This new wave understands internationally spreadable media, and how that changes your audience from the broadest possible appeal necessity of yesteryear. These digital natives go out looking for minorities rather than avoiding them,” she says.
It also brings a wider diversity of “far-flung” Australia to the world, she adds.
Evolution rather than shift?
But not everyone views Australia’s comedy exports as progressing from a ribald, larrikin past.
Wayne Federman, stand-up and professor at the University of South California, says the shift is just a natural part of comedy’s evolution, and the deviation away from brusqueness isn’t so new.
“Jokes have gotten longer – it’s no longer set-up, punchline, laugh, repeat. Narrative comedy is in again.”
He also argues the Gadsby pivot isn’t new: “Dick Gregory did a similar thing. He gave up a lucrative comedy career in the 1960s because stand-up didn’t allow him freedom to speak as freely as he wanted about black civil rights.”
There’s another problem with labelling this new comedy wave as woke: it’s very white.
Popular local shows like Black Comedy and The Family Law, which showcase indigenous and ethnic minority talent, don’t yet share the same international recognition as others.
Experts say this is possibly because audiences don’t know enough about Aboriginal or Asian Australian culture to be in on the jokes. Either way, it seems there’s still a way to go.
Dr Taylor says that reading the room in comedy is the privilege of modern times. “It’s easier to laugh at a more equal society,” she says.