THE FO­RUM

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - TONY MOORE on leftie laugh­ter

DOES the Left need a sense of hu­mour? I ask the ques­tion af­ter be­ing named and shamed in The New States­man by agony aunt John Pil­ger in an oth­er­wise thought­ful ar­ti­cle about Abo­rig­i­nal deaths at the hands of white jus­tice. My crime? Be­liev­ing any Aus­tralian pa­tri­o­tism should above all take the piss, laugh­ing at the pow­er­ful and our­selves.

Pil­ger prefers to mourn vic­tims, but I ask him to con­sider the role of satire as a way of com­ment­ing on, and in­deed chang­ing, so­ci­ety. From the con­victs on­wards, hu­mour — irony, the send- up — has been one small weapon in the ar­moury of the op­pressed, the out­cast, or those sim­ply fed up with cul­tural uni­for­mity. Abo­rig­ines’ use of wry and ironic hu­mour against au­thor­i­ties is a form of re­sis­tance.

It is no ac­ci­dent the Howard Gov­ern­ment is an es­pe­cially hu­mour­less en­tity, and I be­lieve the pro­gres­sive forces here would do bet­ter to join the many or­di­nary Aus­tralians, span­ning many eth­nic­i­ties, in tak­ing the piss out of its mem­bers.

Pil­ger’s sanc­ti­mony has its fans among judg­men­tal pun­ish­ers who come not just from the Right, but also from the Left. Means shape ends, and if you can’t laugh I don’t want to be part of your revo­lu­tion.

So has po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness cru­elled com­edy on the Left? Hap­pily, in this coun­try there has been a long and cheeky dal­liance be­tween pro­gres­sive types — those who Man­ning Clark called the en­larg­ers — and hu­mour. But rather than left- wing ag­it­prop, the mes­sage- by - num­bers satire beloved of un­der­grad­u­ate re­vue and street theatre, it’s a com­edy of an­ar­chic sub­ver­sion and lev­el­ling vul­gar­ity, a space where work­ing- class rab­ble- rous­ing meets a lib­er­tar­i­an­ism that ap­peals to free spir­its on both the Left and the Right.

This home- grown tra­di­tion, which I call the lar­rikin car­ni­va­lesque, had its apoth­e­o­sis in the Fos­ter’s- guz­zling Barry McKen­zie movies of the early 1970s. But it stretches back into colo­nial Aus­tralia and is alive and cheeky in Howard’s Aus­tralia, as the pop­u­lar­ity of the ABC’s The Chaser’s War on Ev­ery­thing tes­ti­fies.

The Bazza movies re­main funny not sim­ply be­cause so many of the sa­cred cows they satirise are still graz­ing in our cul­tural pad­dock, but be­cause the stand- off be­tween an ar­ro­gant, com­pla­cent elitism and an un­con­trol­lable, demo­cratic lar­rikin­ism are peren­ni­als in Aus­tralia’s creative and po­lit­i­cal life.

In this strug­gle I’m unashamedly on the side of Bazza and his mates, and be­lieve the films’ hos­til­ity to power and po­si­tion make them rad­i­cal and life- af­firm­ing.

The term car­ni­va­lesque was coined by Soviet lit­er­ary aca­demic Mikhail Bakhtin in ref­er­ence to the topsy- turvy spirit of ri­otous fes­tiv­ity un­leashed in the car­ni­vals of Europe in the 15th and 16th cen­turies, when the lower or­ders de­ployed misrule, play, hu­mour and vul­gar­ity to sub­vert author­ity, if only tem­po­rar­ily. Bakhtin ar­gued car­ni­val had the po­ten­tial to make rulers squirm by ridi­cul­ing the mys­tique of power. He must have been on to some­thing be­cause Stalin ex­iled him to Kaza­khstan.

This form of dis­sent has deep roots in Aus­tralia where it’s of­ten re­ferred to as our ‘‘ lar­rikin streak’’. The orig­i­nal lar­rikins were work­ing- class, delin­quent youths who dis­turbed the peace of city streets. Lar­rikin­ism came to be ad­mired by artis­tic and po­lit­i­cal lib­ertines in the 1880s and ’ 90s as a marker for non- con­form­ity, earthy hu­mour and dis­dain for author­ity.

The lar­rikin streak was found in the jour­nal­ism, bush bal­lads, jokes and car­toons of the early The Bul­letin , and shapes both the Ned Kelly and Anzac leg­ends. Be­tween the wars, lar­rikin­ism typ­i­fied the big- city tabloid sen­sa­tion­al­ism of Smith’s Weekly and the com­edy of hu­morist Len­nie Lower and vaudevil­lian Roy Rene.

A lar­rikin lib­er­tar­i­an­ism was strong in the bo­hemian Syd­ney Push sub- cul­ture of the 1950s and ’ 60s. It fed into un­der­ground satir­i­cal publi­ca­tions, such as Oz and the weekly Na­tion Re­view , the theatre of David Wil­liamson’s The Com­ing of Stork and Don’s Party as well as films such as Tim Burstall’s Alvin Pur­ple and to Paul Ho­gan and Aunty Jack on television.

Since then the bo­gey­man of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness has never had a chance against the lar­rikin. The ocker mask has been worn with style by philo­soph­i­cal sports jesters Roy Slaven and H. G. Nelson. When the Work­ing Dog team pit­ted a fam­ily of lov­able bo­gans against the big end of town in The Cas­tle , they struck a chord in the sub­urbs and at­tracted huge au­di­ences. The An­glo- Celts lost their mo­nop­oly on lar­rikin­ism in the ’ 90s as ‘‘ wog hu­mour’’ emerged from the sub­urbs. Kath & Kim has con­firmed Edna Ever­age’s se­cret that women in­deed rule the child- like men of the sub­urbs, not by shush­ing male plea­sures but by out- ock­er­ing them. To­day, SBS’s Pizza , a show about vul­gar, sex­u­ally ex­plicit, hip- hop­ping home­boys of Mediter­ranean or Mid­dle East­ern ap­pear­ance, out­rages mid­dle- class good taste, es­pe­cially when it makes Aus­tralian­ness it­self ridicu­lous.

How has satire faired un­der the new PC, the ‘‘ pa­tri­otic cor­rect­ness’’ of the Coali­tion, where dis­sent might be la­belled un- Aus­tralian? The Howard years of resur­gent wowserism, cul­ture wars and min­is­te­rial dou­ble- talk have been good for left- of- cen­tre satirists — think of John Clarke and Brian Dawe, for­mer ABC pro­gram The Glass House , Guy Run­dle and Max Gillies’s show You’re Dream­ing and that ha­gio­graphic hit Keat­ing! The Mu­si­cal .

But it is The Chaser team that chan­nels to­day’s truly sub­ver­sive el­e­ments of the lar­rikin car­ni­va­lesque — an­ar­chic anti- au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, Dada- es­que stunts, the par­ody of other me­dia — while flirt­ing with ob­scen­ity and of­fences against good taste. What makes The Chaser fresh satire for our time is its ex­po­sure of the spin, man­age­rial gob­blede­gook and cor­po­rate hum­bug that an­noys ev­ery­one.

To­day’s guerilla satire is driven by the new dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies that en­able hoax­ing and cul­ture jam­ming. Defama­tion laws are a risk, as the ABC dis­cov­ered when it broad­cast the Pauline Pants­down par­ody of the for­mer mem­ber for Ox­ley. And a ques­tion mark hangs over the sedi­tion laws. But de­spite a tight­en­ing of cen­sor­ship, ob­scen­ity and blas­phemy re­main favourites for lo­cal satirists. On the cam­puses, in the burbs and on the blogs, funny young peo­ple are busy de­vis­ing ex­treme com­edy to shock us all. To do oth­er­wise would be un- Aus­tralian. Tony Moore is the au­thor of The Barry McKen­zie Movies ( Cur­rency Press). Turn to Rear View for an­other take on the pol­i­tics of com­edy.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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