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.