Big tar­get strate­gies

Aus­tralian satire looks set to sur­vive John Howard’s end, Cor­rie Perkin writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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