Laughing, not sneering
IN the hands of writers and critics whose self- righteousness is greater than their sense of humour, comedy as social comment is more about ideology than entertainment. To see the difference between comedy as class warfare and making straightforward fun at human folly, consider the work of Christopher Guest.
Guest is perhaps best known as the creator of the classic comedy about an ego- enhanced, musically impaired and commonsense- destitute rock band, presented in the form of a documentary, This is Spinal Tap ( 1984).
Since then he has made a series of faux documentaries that are as amusing as they are savage in the presentation of human folly and vanity. And they are very, very amusing.
Guest is a Balzac for our age, an extraordinarily acute observer of the human comedy who takes a slice of life to illustrate the vanity and lust, ambition and folly, and ( very) occasional acts of generosity and compassion that shape the way we deal with each other.
He followed Spinal Tap most notably with Waiting for Guffman ( 1996), a mockumentary about a community theatre production; and, in 2000, Best in Show . This would pass for a real documentary about dog shows if it were not for the characters obsessed with what their dogs think about their sex lives. Then Guest parodied the survivors of the now distant fashion for folk music with A Mighty Wind ( 2003).
Last year he abandoned the documentary format with For Your Consideration, a straightforward social comedy about jobbing actors making a minor movie who convince themselves they are contenders for Oscar nominations.
Guest’s films are coruscatingly cruel in the way they capture human nature. But there is a great deal of difference between what he does and elitist comedy such as ABC television’s The Glass House , where panellists made jokes about style- free conservatives that their audience shared, less out of amusement than a sense of shared superiority. Having lost about every political fight they have got themselves into during the past 20 years, the cultural Left long ago started denouncing the electorate for voting for the two main parties instead of the Greens or that other mob — name starts with D — that used to be a power in the Senate.
The argument is obvious, if asinine. The Howard Government is so awful, only racists or idiots could vote for it, and its success in the previous two elections demonstrates that Australia has degenerated into a nation ruled by the whims of fools.
Comedians and cabaret artists performing in inner- city theatres and bars, rather than suburban clubs and pubs, know that ordinary Australians are fair game. As a blogger in The Age newspaper put it in April, ‘‘ Mainstream Australia is a nation of unrefined, unsophisticated, beer and chardonnay swelling yobbos and yobbesses whose lives revolve around the footy. We perceive Dave Hughes and Glenn Robbins as reflections of ourselves and relate to their ‘ humour’; I use the word loosely here.’’
This laughing at people who are amused for the wrong reasons or have incorrect ideas started with Crocodile Dundee ( 1986), which excited critical disdain for its celebration of the wrong sort of Australian identity. And one of the reasons Pauline Hanson’s supporters were so rusted- on was a response to the way inner- city sophisticates mocked her and, by extension, them. Ten years ago, the mere mention of her name would bring down the house with a roar of gleeful groans in the comedy clubs. But in regional Australia they decided the laughter was directed at them.
Although Kath & Kim is apolitical, people who loathe the life most Australians want to live laugh at, not with, the people of Fountain Gate. Even in that classic, The Castle , Darryl Kerrigan is presented as a bit of a dill, at least until he is semi- sanctified by realising his cause and that of the Mabo claim are much the same.
Consider the critical, as opposed to popular, response to two Australian films last year. Ten Canoes , a story of an ancient indigenous community, was lauded. Kenny , the mockumentary about a hero who carts crap for a quid, was largely ignored at the film industry awards, but guess which one made the most money?
There is no argument that commercial success, or dealing with ordinary people’s lives, puts anybody off comedic limits. The cleverest comedy is always cruel because it allows, entraps or encourages people to make fools of themselves. In any kind of comedy, from sitcoms to satire, everybody is fair game.
The way the ABC’s Chaser team makes fun of Bill Heffernan works because of what he does and says rather than because he is a bloke from the bush. And have a look at the songs cabaret artist Eddie Perfect has loaded on YouTube; they are cruel, arrogant and acutely amusing.
But the comedy of social observation works best when it explores the characters of people independently and does not rely on performers playing to their audiences’ political prejudices.
Which is what makes Guest such an acute observer. As well as establishing the genre of the faux documentary as comedy, Spinal Tap shaped the way the world looked at real rock bands. If you can’t find the film on DVD, scenes are easily found online, in which the band is almost too funny to be a fake.
That the group is re- forming to perform, for real, in an Al Gore- organised concert in July to publicise climate change probably says something about the state of environmental activism, although it is hard to say what.
But Spinal Tap is comedy made less with a broad brush than a battleaxe, which Guest has replaced with a rapier in his later films. In Waiting for Guffman he pokes fun at everybody involved in the sesquicentenary celebrations of a small Missouri town, from the talent- free gay director to the people whose ambitions are far greater than their ability. The only vaguely sympathetic character is the play’s modest musical director, unique in that he knows what he is doing.
Guest repeated the performance in his next mockumentaries, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, in which the characters’ vanity disconnects them from reality. This year’s Consideration was not as critically regarded, perhaps because it was a straight narrative without the pretence of a documentary format. But it is savage in the way it presents the vanity of actors and writers, and the producers, publicists and TV presenters who live off them.
And Guest did not need to mention any of their politics to make his point.
matchetts@ theaustralian. com. au