What¢â¬â¢s funny?

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Around Christmas time I downloaded and listened to a podcast of a lecture at the Adelaide festival of ideas by Kathy Laster called “The Dark Side of Kath and Kim“. I really disliked the lecture which argued that Kath and Kim was a very dark expose of contemporary materialism. Laster finds little to like in most of the characters.

I was going to do a review and critique of her lecture, but never got round to it I’m not going to spend the time refreshing my memory now, but will make a couple of observations of impressions I have though it’s possible my memory is not entirely accurate.

Here are a couple of points.

1. It’s full of 70s soft-left ideological cliches. For example, she mentions that Centrelink is now often located in shopping centres. I’m not sure if she says baldly that this is a bad thing, but there’s an ‘It’s come to this’ flavour of what she’s talking about. How terrible that Centrelink and other government services are delivered like commercial services! I remember wondering why Laster thought that the standard street full of shops with the odd post office and government office was somehow less commercial than a shopping mall. (Declaration of interest someone who shared my surname and whom my father thought may have been a distant relative, Victor Gruen, designed the first shopping mall!).

2. She says that Kath and Kim is ‘about’ materialism. It’s a critique of materialism. Well yes that’s true, but I don’t think it’s a strident critique of materialism. It seems to me it’s also a celebration of it. It is I think an affectionate picture of the lives of the alter-egos of the script-writers and actors in today’s materialist world. It contains no political barbs or suggestions that things could or should be different. It’s a comedy of manners.

I wouldn’t have bothered posting this if I’d not seen Shaun Micallef’s enjoyable article in yesterdays’ Age about funniness. I think there are two types of comedians in the Australian comedy firmament (and I presume that of other countries). There are those that have not escaped a sense of humour that is heavily influenced by a peer group whether it be a social one (adolescents, undergraduates) or an ideological one. Then there are those who have gone beyond that and have something original to offer – usually some presentation of a particular personality and/or sensibility. In this classification (at least as applied by me, in The Glass House Will Anderson and Corinne Grant are the former type of performers, whereas Dave Hughes is the latter type of performer someone who’s gone beyond peer group driven humour.

I also think that good humour is very often driven by a kind of affection for characters even when it’s black humour and even if the characters or their actions seem odious. Dame Edna and Sir Les are pretty odious characters but we like them (though I’m not sure I’d say I have an ‘affection’ for either.) For those old enough to remember the old man played by Wilfred Brambell in Steptoe and Son is a dreadful selfish manipulative bastard. But we’re not really invited to dislike him. He’s just a given. And we understand him that way, and empathise with his son Harold’s predicament.

Anyway, I’d definitely put Shaun Micallef amongst the second (good) class of Australian comedians. I think he’s terrific so I was pleased that he agrees with me about this. And I don’t think he’d think much of Laster’s interpretation – but who knows?

This is the key, I think. No matter how funny your material is and no matter how much funniness you are blessed with, unless they like you it’ll all be for naught.

Glenn Robbins, Russell Gilbert, Jane Turner and Gina Riley, Lano and Woodley are all comedians I’ve seen perform whom, it would be fair to say, the audience not only laughed at but really liked – if not loved.

These comics all run that terrifying risk of rejection from an audience by offering themselves to them apparently unarmed. There’s a sense of these comics stepping onto the stage like children; naive, blinking from the dazzle of the lights, pitching themselves as just one of the audience, or even less than the audience sometimes. No hiding behind suits and ties and desks and microphones and irony – that’s not to say this colder approach won’t get you laughs, it just they tend to be harder won; obtained more on a joke-by-joke basis – though, hey, I’m not complaining – just as long as they’re there somewhere.

I’d be interested in others’ views on all this.

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meika
15 years ago

I’m afraid even if your splitting of comedians is correct (and I accept it as a good enough description) I find Hughsie funny but Micallef about as funny as a wet sock.

This could be (horrors) a generational thing. I _am_ Hughsie, I see the Hughsie in me, but I can relate to Micallef about as much as I can to Martin Bryant or, better for this cohort analogy, David Flint (though, of course, he is a joke without being funny).

If it is generational then your splitting has just been re-clumped. There is no escape from cultural context, merely how narrow or broad a comedian’s audience might be. A comedian may escape but still not be funny.

meika
15 years ago

.. still not be funny to me.

that should finish!

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

I’ve never been able to see Kath + Kim as anything more than a thinly-veiled sneer at the working class (“bogans” or “westies” or whatever) by a couple of uni snobs. I find it pretty offensive, much like the rest of the ABC’s Australian comedy.

Steve Edney
15 years ago

Working class? They’re not working class, they are effulent.

meika
15 years ago

i always knew yobbo was a leftie really, its all about what you do with the opportunities on offer, you are as effluent as you feel

okay, he’s a goose, I don’t find geese funny? Hughsie is a goose too, him I find funny.

Shaun, I reckon he aims at the blue rinse set meself, I wasn’t really thinking of his real age but the audience cohort.

Paul Watson
15 years ago

Nicholas said

“Can’t see why it’s generational. Shaun M is a fair bit younger than me – though older than Hughsie”

Peter Smith
Peter Smith
15 years ago

I’m with Yobbo (!)

The K & K writers hold their characters in comtempt. That always makes me uncomfortable. See “Keeping Up Appearances”, etc.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
15 years ago

I’m afraid I can’t contribute much becasue I’m sitting on the fence on this one. I’ve actually pondered it myself previously and Nick has expressed my thoughts better than I have to myself.

I have actually thought about the performers in the glass house and I too made a distinction between grant/anderson and hughes. There IS a difference and your explanation is a good one. I have thought that Hughes seems more secure and has a bit more empathy for people.

Yet , I also have thoughts along Yobbo’s lines. Perhaps the writers of Kath & Kim quickly formed a liking for their characters, a genuine fondness but I do feel it was probably a contemptuous snobbery that was the heart of the creation of Kath & Kim (also Dame Edna and Les Patterson). Perhaps the all these seducedtheir creators and became people rather than conduits for some kind of negative message. Perhaps it was the audience who took the characters to their hearts before the creators did.

What about Pru & Trude? I read somewhere that the writers themselves admitted they were vehicles for their own bitchiness in the sense that they existed purely to be despised [ these are my words describing what I read as I remember it]. If this is a true we have a snobbery in the genesis of Kath and Kim that was eventually over turned at least on the surface. Not so poor Pru and Trude – inverse snobbery is still AOK.

Tiny Tyrant
15 years ago

I believe you may need to be a little sensitive and perhaps be unable to see those traits being portayed, by the K&K regulars, which exist in all classes (or whatever the category split), to be offended by this stuff.

According to Glenn Robbins, he based his doddering old-fool character, Uncle Arthur, on his own Dad. He loved his Dad! It’s obvious that these guys know their characters and have an affection toward them.

A friend of mine found ‘The Castle’ offensive. What can you do?

Micalef is a genius, hopefully with Kerry dead, we’ll see him back on 9, with his own show.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
15 years ago

I think that cultural pisstakes are always far more engaging than ‘cutting-edge’ political satire – compare that bitter old lemon squeeze, Rod Quantock with Glen Robbins. It’s a pity that Jane and Gina haven’t utilised the Kathy Laster persona – a kind of esoteric, humanties/law, know-all, permanently shocked at finding Centrelink offices in shopping precincts – in Kath and Kim. The reason that Kath and Kim actually works is because it’s about suburbia and Australia is a suburban nation. It’s the familiarity of it all that engages. Prue and Trude are also suburban of course (albeit of the pearls, collar turned up, ex prahvat school variety) and while Hunter and Riley might be accused of doing a Carlton/Fitzroy take on Fountaingate and Toorak it’s all too close to most of our homes to be personally offensive. Laster rails away in the podcast about Sharon being the only really decent person in the show – “she volunteers!” Not surprisingly, Laster reads this – and her lack of interest in shopping – as the rationale for Sharon being the undeserved butt of every joke. Who is this woman? Clive Hamilton in drag? You’d really want to pop round to Kathy’s and check out her consumerist tendencies. And I noticed that she had absolutely nothing to say about Sharon’s passion for Warney. Typical.

Hughes works because he does that familiar, slightly daggy Aussie everyman schtick very well while Anderson and Grant look like you’re in the way of their imminent departure for an A List drinks party.

Cultural pisstaking can be incredibly dangerous – Little Britain gives licence to laugh at co-dependent relationships between selfish, egotistical faux cripples and their self-referentially sanctimonious carers, not to mention fat teenage mothers and professional poofs and part of the laughter is about being on the edge in territory that’s familiar but usually protected from pisstakes.

The Office worked because it portrayed the true – yet familar – horror of workplace social interaction.

The Games worked for similar reasons.

It’s not easy to do the familiar well – the tendency to over-egg the caricature is ever-threatening and at times made Kath and Kim uneven – but it’s great when it does work.

Robert
15 years ago

Micallef is a genius.

… and that’s pretty much all I can contribute right now, but it had to be said.

Phil
15 years ago

I’ve never liked K&K as I find Kim’s character so odious – it simply ruined any value the show might have for me. Similar for Keeping up Appearances. On the other hand, Basil Fawlty was odious yet I loved it, probably on the back of Monty Python which used the concept of ridiculous juxtapositions – eg gay Mounties, spot the brain cell etc. This in turn was the same basis for the Goons, still the best at insane juxtapositions. I think the ‘everyman’ character also appeals to us, hence I love Carl Barron. Go figure, as we now say.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

” particular thing I find unfunny about Micallef is his pervasive sense of upper middle-class complacency and entitlement … this is an extremely “generational”

insomnia
insomnia
15 years ago

PAUL WATSON SAID

Talking of “Kath and Kim”