This week's readings | Australasian comedies


Main screening
I write in my chapter on comedy that it's difficult to define comedy, except obviously in terms of its effect on its audiences: it's risible (which means "makes you laugh"). We can, however, profitably look at some different kinds of comedy, and at its interactions with other types of film.

The classic definition of "comedy" opposes it to serious forms like "tragedy" and "epic" - which do not normally descend to being funny. In the classical world, "comedy" refers to the low world of commoners as opposed to kings and heroes. So, whereas Shakespeare's "tragedies" are concerned with King Lear, Prince Hamlet, and the Thane of Cawdor, the main characters of his comedies tend to have everyday names like Rosalind and Celia and Beatrice and Olivia. (There may be comic episodes in tragedies, but they merely provide comic relief before the serious matters return again.)


If I had to describe the roots of comedy in one word, I could do worse than use the notion of "incongruity": two elements brought together which seem not to belong together. Seeing someone who takes themself too seriously being brought into ridicule, as the Minister is, for example, in Wog Boy. Killing someone who's already dead is an example we'll see in a moment. Listening to a gravedigger crack jokes while he digs up a corpse provides the comic relief in Hamlet, to give a classic example. Having sex is something usually taken fairly seriously, so it can be funny when it gets unzipped, as seen in Muriel's Wedding. [clip "zip" 37.45 - 41.37 legs]

Visual humour (and parody)

The simplest type of comedy is the sight gag. I have an example in my presentation on the musical, in a clip from an old George Wallace film, Harmony Row (F. W. Thring, 1933), in which a major comedian of the day plays a policeman who first tries to tap-dance and then falls over in front of two children. Sight gags like these depend on seeing someone or something out of control, out of place, like the archetypal slip on the banana peel - or a car driving through a busy shopping mall. Here is the opening sequence of Bad Eggs (Tony Martin, 2003). Note the timing. Note also that the presentation of the Zero Tolerance Unit is a parody (consciously exaggerated imitation of another type of film ... for the purpose of humour or satire). [clip "suicide" 0.20 - 5.08 main title and newspaper]

Situation comedy

The next clip seems to refer to Muriel's Wedding, in that it uses that motif of the bouquet flying through the air that you might remember from the beginning of the earlier film. But the bride in this case has a rather different attitude to marriage: she's a Russian Doll (Stavros Kazantzidis, 2000). Hugo Weaving is marrying David Wenham's mistress to conceal the infidelity. I love the cameo performance by the girl who catches the bouquet. [clip "wedding" 1.10.57 - 1.12.44 Hugo walking away]

Comedian comedy

We've already seen Mick Molloy. He was the star of a film released the year before Bad Eggs, in which another comedian, Judith Lucy, also co-starred: Crackerjack (Paul Moloney, 2002). Indeed, a feature of both of these films was that they featured faces which were well-known on the small screen: John Clarke and Samuel Johnson in the earlier film and Bob Franklin and Shaun Micallef in the later. Neither Molloy nor Lucy are required to do much acting: we have Bill Hunter in both films for that. These are "comedian comedies", which depend on a script being delivered by well-known comics. See how many faces you recognise. Comedic points to note: use of mock-heroic music - the Coronation Anthem "Zadok the Priest" by Handel (written for the coronation of George II in 1727 and used at every English coronation since then) - which stops for exaggerated sound effects; attempts to lift the hero to shoulders fail because admirers are too old. You might need to be told that the "flipper" was a ball that Australian cricketer Shane Warne famously used to bowl (not in lawn bowls, but). [clip "flipper" 1.19.43 - 1.23.03 John Clarke is "fucked"]


Australian comedy, in the Renaissance (from 1970), gets off to a pretty bad start with films like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Bruce Beresford, 1972) and Alvin Purple (Tim Burstall, 1973). I've tried to find a clip from Alvin Purple which shows what kind of film it is in the shortest possible time. You need only to know that Alvin (Graeme Blundell) is a water-bed salesman who is irresistible to women. There is a series of cameos in which women throw themselves at our hero. This one (Jenny Hagen) is the only one who remains clothed.

Satire and verbal humour

Films like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie display what is known as the "ocker": the archetypal uncultivated, boorish, uncouth, chauvinistic Australian (whose positive side is that he may also display good humour, helpfulness and resourcefulness). The word appears to be no older than 1965 (Macquarie Dictionary). Saying that this is an ocker comedy, however, is merely to refer to the kinds of characters found in it: those stereotypical Australians mentioned just now. More importantly, it's a satire, a sending-up of aspects of the Australian character. One such aspect is the gaucheness of the Australian male when it comes to understanding women and their needs. The cliche Aussie male would much rather spend his time drinking beer with his (male) mates. The clip I've chosen shows the arrival of Bazza in Earls Court, London, and something of his relationship with his best mate, Curly. It also gives many examples of Barry Humphries' verbal humour. The Barry McKenzie films (this one was produced by Phillip Adams) were based on a comic strip written (tho not drawn) by Barry Humphries.

Musical humour

The second film (so far) from the same team as The Castle is The Dish (Rob Sitch, 2000), and, while this one is more dramatic - being based on a bit of history and set on a bit of hardware, it is also in large part satirical. It's not easy to pick out comic clips, because most of the film is relatively serious. The first clip shows Australians being country bumpkins (the mayor is Roy Billings); the second includes a musical joke, displaying the alleged profundity of Australian ignorance in 1969. [first clip "lemon" 28.56 - 30.43 | second clip "anthem" 33:21 - 34.06]

Main screening

The six best-known Australian films of all time would almost certainly include The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997). I would be prepared to bet that more than half the people enrolled in this unit have seen it. The strange thing about it, from my point of view (having read a large number of essays about the film), is that when students write about it they talk about it as if the only meanng of the film is that a family's home is their "castle" - even if it is right next to the busiest airport in the country. However, there is no doubt that the intention of Rob Sitch and the team (including Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Jane Kennedy, who used to be well known for the brilliant Frontline, but are more recently perhaps better known for another TV show, The Panel): it is to pour their bourgeois scorn on the humble working-class values of Dale Kerrigan, of 3 Highview Cres Cooloroo, and his family.

New: 8 April, 2004 | Now: 19 December, 2010