If there’s one aspect of the perceived “Australian character” that most of us are proud to claim as our own and export to the world, it’s our collective sense of humour. While the world mightn’t think of Australia as a great breeding ground for culture, and our reputation as a kind and open nation might be taking a bit of a beating at the moment, the image of the “larrikin” (as poor a representation as it is for such a diverse bunch of people) persists. We might have a Prime Minister telling the world we’re sick of being lectured to by the United Nations on human rights abuses, but at least the rest of the world reckons we’re laid back and enjoy a few laughs.
So the ABC’s comprehensive three-part documentary series Stop Laughing… this is serious feels like it’s been a long time coming. Narrated by Eric Bana, it features new interviews with 60 of our finest comedy and entertainment personalities (everybody from Toni Lamond and Barry Humphries up to Nazeem Hussain and Julia Morris) covering the history and evolution of modern Australian comedy. The series is executive-produced by Jennifer Collins of Screentime, who previously served as ABC TV’s head of entertainment, and written and directed by documentary filmmaker Stephen Oliver.
The first episode, which looks at how comedy has been an integral part of our nation’s rebellion and the way that we challenge authority, begins with the iconic footage of Garry McDonald’s Norman Gunston at the Whitlam Dismissal. It is an image that says everything you need to know about how comedy and politics are intertwined in Australia. Immediately following that footage, the series leaps forward 32 years to the Chaser’s infamous 2007 APEC stunt, described by Nazeem Hussain as a watershed moment in comedy where the comedians were again on the front line.
It also covers the slightly gentler but no less direct political satire of figures like Max Gillies and, more recently, Shaun Micallef. And Julia Zemiro perfectly explains why the Clarke and Dawe format works and exactly why John Clarke can play a different politician each episode — because they’re all speaking the same rubbish, and we can use our imaginations to fill in the rest.
But our challenges to authority extend beyond the political, as the series demonstrates with Graham Kennedy’s infamous goading of the censors as he sent up the sponsors in his hilarious infomercials and impersonated a crow screeching “faark, faark”. And then there’s Rodney Rude’s long battles against charges of obscenity in the mid-‘80s. The right of a comedian to be offensive mightn’t feel like the most pertinent social issue, but it’s a clear reminder that freedom of speech has remained a vexed and complex point in Australia for decades. As the series leaps back and forth in time, it draws clear parallels between our comedic roots and the comedians working today.
It also looks at the diverse worlds from which our comedians are drawn and the diverse ways in which skills are discovered and honed. It covers the broad impact of the Pram Factory and La Mama theatres in the ’80s and the short-lived (in fact, there was only a pilot) but seminal Aboriginal sketch show Basically Black.
It focuses a little too heavily on television comedians, but that’s where the best and most comprehensive footage is available. And despite airing on ABC, the love is spread pretty well among the various networks, covering the commercial comedy boom of the late ‘80s and ‘90s with shows like Full Frontal, Fast Forward, Big Girl’s Blouse and The Comedy Company. Of course, the ABC has been a more consistent home for television comedy over the last several decades than any other network, and it’s currently dominating the field (four of the five nominees for this year’s Most Outstanding Comedy Logie are from the ABC), a fact that still comes through clearly in the series.
The series is almost entirely made up of tightly edited interviews of comedians reflecting on notable moments, interspersed with archival footage. While it’s not the most exciting or innovative way of telling the story of Australian comedy, the interviewees offer some interesting insights into the thought and motivations behind our biggest laughs, and the footage is full of gems (even if hardcore local comedy fans have seen most of it before). There’s even footage of a very young Magda Szubanski and Jane Turner at Collingwood’s Last Laugh club in the early ’80s.