Laugh­ing, not sneer­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - STEPHEN MATCHETT

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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