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Australian satire looks set to survive John Howard’s end, Corrie Perkin writes
LABOR’S federal election victory last month presented Australian satirists with a fascinating professional dilemma. Suddenly a large chunk of their Howard government- focused repertoire had vanished. Where would the country’s funny men and women turn for inspiration? A sketch by the Wharf Revue gang Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott that depicts John Howard grooving with young people on YouTube suddenly seems dated.
As Forsythe says: ‘‘ We will certainly have to take a deep breath and look at what they’re ( the Rudd Government) going to do and how they’re going to do it.’’
Says comedian and writer Rod Quantock: ‘‘ I’m a bit ambivalent about ( Howard) going. On the one hand, you would like to drive a stake through his heart. I’ve even thought of beating him to death with Alexander Downer. On the other hand, he’s been great for comedy.’’
But the election result is unlikely to affect the present healthy state of Australian performance satire. As long as there are sacred cows to poke, writers will keep producing what comic talent Casey Bennetto describes as ‘‘ savage and cutting material, the stuff that makes you squirm and gets under your skin’’.
As master satirist and writer John Clarke says: ‘‘ I think the debate can shift and the public’s mood can shift, but you don’t give satirists the day off because there’s been a change of government.’’
The success of productions such as Bennetto’s satirical musical Keating! and Quantock’s recent, aptly named show John Howard’s Farewell Party , sell- out cabaret nights at the Spiegeltent in Melbourne and television programs such as the ABC’s The Chaser’s War on Everything indicate performance satire is infectious. It is also encouraging more people to seek it out for a good night’s not- so- easy entertainment.
Why now? Experts agree the trigger for the wave of activity — in particular, political satire — was 11 years of conservative federal rule.
Eddie Perfect says his work became more politically attuned after the 2001 federal election, ‘‘ when the Howard government was re- elected on the basis of a fear of people who throw their babies into the water. For me, that was a time of political potency and inspired a real push to want to do satire and domestic politics.’’
Jonathan Bollen, drama lecturer at Flinders University and president of the Australasian Association for Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies, agrees.
‘‘ It certainly seems to be the case that revue in the form of social and political comedy- based live performance is alive and kicking at the moment,’’ he says.
‘‘ I think the kind of oppositions to the policies of the Howard government has been good fodder for performers over the ( past) 10 years.
‘‘ There’s been the group at the Sydney Theatre Company, then people like Peter Berner, Rod Quantock and Eddie Perfect who, in their shows, have had political, quite critical commentary on politics in Australia.’’
In the 1970s, theatre restaurants were breeding grounds for satirical performers.
In 2007, cabaret is hot, although say that to many Australians and they may think you’re
the talking about the 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey.
Revues also attract loyal audiences, although mainstream Australia tends to associate them with university undergraduate work, and Christmas pantomimes are laden with social and political script references.
There’s no escaping this kind of rich, often challenging, humour, though. It’s everywhere in our daily lives: students who take off their teachers in end- of- year school revues; the Melbourne Comedy Festival would wither without it. It’s at the heart of FM radio talents such as Hamish Blake and Andy Lee. Peter Helliar’s Petespace on Rove , Clarke and Bryan Dawe on The 7.30 Report , The Chaser’s War on Everything , Kath & Kim, The Glass House and, more recently, The Librarians .
Meanwhile Keating! , Tim Minchin’s new show So F@# king Rock, and the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Wharf Revue: Beware of the Dogma plays to enthusiastic audiences across the country.
And the material is not always political. Traffic jams, public transport, detention centres, reconciliation, workplace agreements, consumer debt, pretentious Prue- and- Trude- esque accents, wealthy women who drive four- wheel- drive vehicles in affluent suburbs, even buying erect- ityourself beds from Ikea are among the targets for satire’s writers, musicians and performers.
Theatre commentator and writer Fiona Gruber identifies the asylum- seeker issue and the treatment of Aborigines as ‘‘ two of the ripest areas. But, then, social satire and middle- class aspiration is popular, too.’’
British- born Gruber adds: ‘‘ Coming from England, I’m always really struck by the fact that despite Australia calling itself a classless society, so much satire is class based, from Kath & Kim to Summer Heights High to The Librarians . It’s really very good, isn’t it?’’
Says University of Melbourne creative arts associate professor Angela O’Brien: ‘‘ I have to say, this generation emerging now is really fascinated by political cabaret. But they’re more interested in what I’d call broad political commentary as opposed to focused political commentary.’’ Such as? ‘‘ I think young people are recognising it’s less about who’s in power. There’s a cynicism about all political parties at the moment and they’re concerned with larger issues such as the environment.’’
Academic and performer Michael Sharkey says: ‘‘ It goes in waves, in terms of the political situation and what people are feeling more broadly. The rise in satire is the rise in frustration which satirists are picking up on and feeding off.’’
Performance satire is an energetic art form that dates back to the early days of European settlement. ( The first known theatrical production was at Port Jackson in 1789 featuring a convict cast in George Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer , an event organised to celebrate George III’s birthday.)
In her 1983 book Australia on the Popular Stage 1829- 1929 , Margaret Williams writes: ‘‘ The one constant in Australian pantomime is ( an) irreverence for policemen, politicians and the institutions of public life.’’
These performances poking fun at authorities continued into the 20th century.
Venues such as the Tivoli in Melbourne and Sydney’s New Theatre movement, which started during the Depression, picked up similar themes in works with titles such as I’d Rather Be Left , On the Skids , Soak the Rich , the 1943 war- time Let’s Be Offensive , Mere Witchhunting in 1948 and Snigger Mortis in 1949.
Revues flourished in the ’ 50s and ’ 60s with a strong showgirl element of dancing, singing and sketches. Venues such as Sydney’s Phillip Street Theatre, a hothouse for many exciting new talents including Gordon Chater, Reg Livermore, Ruth Cracknell and June Salter, and Melbourne University, which fostered Barry Humphries, flourished.
In the ’ 60s the fledgling television industry turned to Australia’s cabaret scene for on- air talent. Programs such as The Mavis Bramston Show , Graham Kennedy’s long- running variety program and The Naked Vicar Show further fostered performance satire and did much to redirect viewers back to live revue.
A creative university theatre scene in the late ’ 60s and ’ 70s spawned many great comedy and satirical talents who found outlets for their sharp comedy: Max Gillies; Quantock, his wife, Mary Kenneally, and other members of the ABC’s Australia, You’re Standing in It gang; the Ten Network’s Comedy Company ; The D- Generation ( now Working Dog) crew; Steve Vizard, Andrew Knight and their Fast Forward performers.
The 21st- century batch according to Gruber, ‘‘ a very broad church. I think there’s room for all kinds of satire.’’ In 2004 Gruber cofounded an invitation- only cabaret club in Melbourne’s inner north. Some interesting satirical cabaret performers have appeared at Gert’s Sunday Salon during the past three years, including Michael Dalley, Beautiful Losers, Bennetto, Perfect, Meow Meow and Minchin. In 2007, there is no single genre or style but, as Gruber observes, ‘‘ the one thing it has to be is absolutely on the money. There’s nothing worse than satire that misses.’’
‘‘ The best satire in the world is carefully written,’’ says Clarke, the man Bennetto admires as one who ‘‘ hovers above it all like a mystical spectre of mirth’’.
Clarke has his own heroes, and cites Humphries as ‘‘ a superb example of the value of writing. It is absolutely spectacular.’’
Performers agree that great writing makes great satire. So does material that shines light on the community, its foibles, authorities, behaviour and attitudes.
‘‘ One of the things which occasionally disquietens me is when folks turn up at Keating! and they’re all thinking the same,’’ Bennetto says. ‘‘ If everyone wants to cheer along with everyone who feels the same as they do, that’s fine. But what I call political satire has got to have a bit of a knife in it.’’
Perfect says when he performs his often- biting songs, ‘‘ I’ve learned to be suspicious if people are enthusiastic straight away. That probably sounds
is, a bit weird, but it works when the satire is like a little surprise slap on the face.
‘‘ I like the idea of it being a shock, a recognition, then a laugh. You want people to connect with the idea behind the song. It’s often about making people feel a bit uncomfortable. You want them to connect with the idea and say: ‘ Yeah, that’s true’, and if they can do that while laughing, that’s the perfect thing.’’
Bennetto says he doesn’t write much political satire, despite naming his hit musical after a former prime minister. ‘‘ But I really admire the folks who do write it. I have the crowd- pleasing gene embedded in me, that attention- seeking ‘ love me, please love me’, so I’m not inclined to pursue that kind of songwriting by instinct.’’
He adds: ‘‘ It is marvellous stuff, however, especially when it challenges the assumptions of the people it’s played to. To me, that’s the real stuff of political satire.’’
Why, then, do audiences enjoy watching cabaret when the performers’ aims are to challenge, make us squirm and blush, and poke fun at our lifestyles, political choices, religion?
‘‘ It’s kind of beneficial to have the eruption of laughter, especially if it’s political satire, because politics is serious and weighty and the consequences are substantial,’’ Bollen argues. ‘‘ When we laugh at what seems serious, we see things from a different point of view and often that’s what is involved in cabaret and revue satire.’’
Post- Howard, Australia’s satirists are confident that as long as there are figures of authority, dodgy politicians, private scandals and public stuff- ups, satire in revue and cabaret will be performed.
Some artists, such as Quantock, will have to find new material but, as he argues, ‘‘ I look at it as an opportunity. Howard has been fantastic for comedy, and for the degree of passions he arouses, and the extremes of passion he arouses. I suspect we’re going into a few bland months with ( Kevin) Rudd.’’
Quantock, the man whose friends contacted him after the political demise of former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett in 1999 and wondered if he was on his way to Centrelink, adds: ‘‘ This stuff doesn’t go away.
‘‘ If there are circumstances ( that) generate passion, then I think satire will thrive.’’
Scout’s honour: Phillip Scott plays Kevin Rudd
Suddenly dated: Scott wears a familiar pair of eyebrows in the Wharf Revue in Sydney