Black Comedy: the best Oz sketch comedy in years

There are many reasons ABC TVs Black Comedy series is on the podium as one of the all-time greatest Australian sketch comedy shows. And it’s not least because its quota of laugh-out-loud moments is higher than watching Cheech and Chong at a horticultural convention.

In a world where so much conversation about films and TV programs exists in the context of seen-it-all-before and here-we-go-again, here’s something that’s fabulously and irreverently one-of-a-kind.

Is there another show where a line like “What’s with you voting for Liberal you fucking coconut dog?” could be so funny, and completely inoffensive?

Or one that not only gets away with having two gay indigenous characters repeatedly berating each other with use of the word “slut” but manages to turn them into a pair of popular favourites – sort of adorable, unofficial mascots for the show’s brazen brand of humour?

The original series gave us – among many other zany morsels – the aforementioned coconut dog scene, where poor Wayne Blair was brought to tears by his indigenous GPS system. It berated him for dressing in business clothes and shacking up with a white woman.

The writers imbued this moment with fantasy historical revisionism, imaging an alternative society where indigenous culture is more entrenched in contemporary western things such as GPSs. In that sense it resembles several scenes in the second series, which premieres this Wednesday and sees the show rolling alone in fine form.

One features Jack Charles as a modern-day tracker. In this alternative universe, use of trackers is so widespread they are enlisted in hardware stores to locate items for customers.

When Jack’s character abandons his customer because he has no cash to pay him, the now stranded bloke squeals in horror with the realisation he must find his own way back to the counter. An awful lot is happening underneath the surface of such a simple scene.

The humour is broad, from sight gags to pop culture references and various forms of farce. Like any sketch show the jokes are a little hit and miss – such is the nature of the format. But underlining everything is an extremely interesting perspective: what the cast and crew see as preconceptions of indigenous Australians ripe for satire.

Thus we have the return of the emergency response unit “Blakforce”, deployed in an Aboriginal community when people are reported for not behaving Aboriginal enough. It’s styled in the manner of a Cops parody; two no-nonsense authorities raid the house of somebody hosting a barbeque who allegedly (gasp!) has not burnt all their meat.

“We’ve got an under-cooker,” one of them cries. The cop is appalled by a confession that the offender was inspired by Master Chef as he puts the stereotype-breaking sod in cuffs.

There’s also – among many more breezy titbits – some fine Godfather-esque parodies. One has warring Aboriginal factions locking horns over who gets to perform Welcome to Country ceremonies, drawing up boundaries of ‘power’.

Black Comedy is part of a recent number of programs that show Australian television is a smidge ahead of Australian cinema in terms of diversity (particularly on non-commercial networks). These include The Principal, Maximum Choppage, The Family Law and Channel 9’s upcoming Here Come the Habibs!

But Australian television still has a big problem with not nearly enough colour-blind casting: the process of hiring an actor without considering their ethnicity.

In scripted programs especially (reality TV fares a little better) colour-blind characters – average people in the shop down the road, for example, or sitting at a desk in a workplace – are almost always played by the same kind of (white) actors.

Non-white people generally get stereotypical, caricatured roles. This not just feels false because it is unreflective of modern Australia; it’s also boringly vanilla casting.

Perhaps Black Comedy is addressing this in its own bonkers way. In the third episode of series two a (white) advertising team has been assigned the task of ‘’rebranding Aboriginal”. The word is old, they say, it’s dated.

After a roundabout discussion the team decide that “White is the new black”. They create a television ad depicting sexy white babes in white bikinis, frolicking on the beach while seductively repeating the word “Aboriginal” again and again.

A strange sight indeed. Also a sharp commentary, perhaps, on how whitewashing comes naturally to a certain kind of gatekeeper in the entertainment industry.

Any kind of racially-charged comedy has the potential to badly misfire. When it does, the feeling is generally as unsubtle as a bazooka exploding in your face. But if Black Comedy was a risk, it has paid off. The show is smart and edgy, powered by a sense the writers and performers are part of something genuinely unique.

Deborah Mailman and Elizabeth Wymarra in the Housewives of Naorromine in Series One of Black Comedy.

2 responses to “Black Comedy: the best Oz sketch comedy in years

  1. After watching the show, it has become quite evident of the stereotypes that are commonly blasted on Indigenous Australians, even in contemporary society. However, more of a grammatical error, the term ‘Indigenous’ should be written with capital ‘I’. Terminology is incredibly important when speaking of Indigenous Australians or Indigenous matters. Thank you

  2. I was really excited when I heard about this show last year, but it was not that funny.
    In terms of colour blind, it hits that mark, there is plenty of diversity in the aboriginal cast. The concepts were really cool too, it just came across as a little clunky, and lacking in … laughs. Maybe its a slow-burn, I will try again this year – hopefully it gains its stride in the second season.

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