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What’s so funny about right-leaning politicians, said the Abbott to the Bishop

Spoiler alert: This article is not very funny. At first glance, Australian PM Tony Abbott is God’s gift to political comedy. Like George Bush Jr he gives at the personal level: his swimmers and his vocal…

Back in 2003 as Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott was already providing comedy gold. AAP/ Alan Porritt

Spoiler alert: This article is not very funny.

At first glance, Australian PM Tony Abbott is God’s gift to political comedy. Like George Bush Jr he gives at the personal level: his swimmers and his vocal fry, malapropisms and political doublespeak (a feminist! Classic Abbott!), and his unreconstructed young fogey demeanour provide satirists a wealth of material to draw upon.

Abbott’s government is similarly comedy gold: his rise has let the reactionary right off the hook with some entertaining results (Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson apparently complaining he’s subject to discrimination because only black people can call each other the n-word, what a crack up), while his idiosyncratic style of decision-making permits for genuine ridicule of policy thought bubbles such as the reintroduction of knights and dames.

Tom Ballard. MICF

This year’s Melbourne (until April 20) and Sydney (April 22 - May 17) comedy festivals are overrun with comics such as Ronny Chieng, Tom Ballard, Rod Quantock and the Political Asylum troupe whose material is inspired by today’s political climate.

Despite our reputation as the jesters of the academy, political scientists are sceptical of the democratic role of humour, emotion in politics being commonly associated with manipulation and propaganda.

Political humour promotes cynicism

Sydney University political scientist Michael Hogan’s analysis of political cartoons in New South Wales is illustrative. Through historical analysis Hogan demonstrated the tendency for politicians to be represented as corrupt, self-interested and elitist, our institutions as insular, self-indulgent and wasteful, elections as pointless and boring, and voters as irrational idiots.

The risk is clear: political humour promotes cynicism. Similar arguments have been made of political comedy on TV, with Monash political scientist Simon Cooper taking Rudd-era satire The Hollowmen (2008-) to task for its focus on the shallowness of the political class and lack of policy substance.

In these readings of comedy, cynicism is seen as caustic to participation, undermining important rituals and institutions, and therein reducing political legitimacy and governability. Even the normally whimsical Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek is down on cynicism, arguing it’s a contemporary malaise that serves elite interests because of its inherent acceptance of the status quo: we roll our eyes, but do nothing.

Colbert roasts Bush.

But cynicism is at the heart of comedy’s power to hijack the memes of political speech. Its deliberately critical gaze permits alternative readings of bald-faced political nonsense, such as representing massive job losses in the car industry as “liberation” for the to-be-retrenched.

Faux-ultraconservative American political satirist Stephen Colbert famously roasted a vacuous president and the journalists that soft-balled his drumbeat to war in the first significant pushback against the “War On Terror”. It was dark, cynical and uncomfortable for those in attendance, but also deadly accurate, breaking a stultifying uniformity in the public sphere.

University of New South Wales social scientist Mark Rolfe argues a degree of public cynicism serves to ground aspirants to high office. Thus, the Australian Executive has resisted the pomp and deference of the US Presidency because our leaders know they shouldn’t be “better than they are”.

The result of this is that policies such as Operation Sovereign Borders never receive the type of universal fawning coverage that Bush’s military adventurism received.

A natural bias

A second set of concerns about the democratic impact of political humour is that it might be biased towards one side of politics. This view argues we should pay serious attention to comedy’s substance, in the same way our national media policy ensures an equality of political voices in mainstream political news (…only joking!).

Tina Fey & Sarah Palin side-by-side on SNL. TaraLivesOn

In the US, the rise of “soft news” comedy programs such as Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show has prompted questions about ideological diversity in comedy. American comedian Tina Fey’s defining parody of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin has been attacked by conservatives of evidence of liberal (progressive) bias in mainstream media.

While conservative American humourist PJ O'Rourke can be seen as a counterweight to this claim, no other conservative comedians spring to mind when listing the most influential voices in American comedy.

To some extent, this bias is a natural one. As University of New England humanities lecturer Marty Branagan observes, political comedy tends towards anti-establishmentarianism because of humour’s role as social critique. Humour permits the expression of the kinds of ideas society normally sanctions, allowing the smug centre the possibility of self-critique in a healthy way. Branagan also suggests comedy can also serve as a cultural glue for social movements and political fellow travellers.

But humour can also reinforce the dominant. The sexist menu for Liberal politician Mal Brough’s fundraiser in June 2013 fits into this category: aggressive, system-maintaining humour. “Hey, the PM has not only a vagina but a large one!” Basic rule: if you are forced to add “just joking” after your punch lines, you’re not very funny. See what I did there? Self-referential irony, textbook comedy.

Political comedy in Australia

A second source of comedic bias is structural. Live comedy tends to be comparatively expensive and therefore the preserve of the middle classes. It’s distinct from the British tradition that, in addition to the Cambridge University alumni such as John Cleese and Stephen Fry, also produced many great working-class club comics (of whom Scot Billy Connolly would probably be the best well-known in Australia).

In Australia, our political comedians are more likely to be products of university and the review system.

Chaser comedian Craig Reucassel attempts to ask a question of Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader in 2012. AAP Image Penny Bradfield

A quick survey shows this is the case, from comedic pioneers such as Rod Quantock (who studied architecture at Melbourne University), through to Rob Sitch (Medicine, Melbourne University) and Tom Gleisner (Law, Melbourne University) of Frontline (1994-97) and The Hollowmen fame, Judith Lucy (Theatre Studies, Curtin University), Shaun Micallef (Law, Adelaide University), The Chaser team (Sydney University), to newcomers such as Tom Glasson of ABC’s The Roast (Law, Sydney University).

Not only do educated people tend to be more left-wing, thereby shaping the marketplace for comedy in Australia, one of the reasons why these comics are often so insightful is that they share the education and background of their targets (law and humanity degrees). Possibly, therefore, the only divide between comics and politicians is the societies they joined as freshers.

Rod Quantock. MICF

For television humour, the ABC dominates political comedy (assuming that Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt is not Australia’s Stephen Colbert). This stems from economic pressure on free-to-air commercial broadcasters who have shifted production towards reality formats over expensive scripted material.

The ABC, liberated from the same economic realities, has tended to retain a greater mix of comedy in its domestic content. This choice is, in turn, supported by its more educated audience.

Does this matter? To some extent the anti-establishment bent of comedy ensures that both sides get their licks when in government. From comedian Amanda Bishop’s At Home with Julia (2011) to the advertising panel discussion Gruen Nation (2008 onwards), comedy will continue to poke fun at our political tall poppies.

If the PM feels hard done by by a plethora of left-wing comedians, he can be comforted that it’s a natural expression of supply and demand.

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival runs until April 20. The Sydney Comedy Festival runs from April 22 to May 17.

Further reading:
Funny how? Where women and stand-up meet for laughs
Sex, rape and role models – how women in comedy perform

Join the conversation

26 Comments sorted by

  1. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    I just realised my standard definition of an oxymoron 'military intelligence' can be replaced with a far better phrase - 'political scientist'.

    There is no science or humour in the above article.

    Gerard Dean

    1. Phil Dolan


      In reply to Delma Clifton

      I was going to point out that the article did have some humour in it, but you did it for me.

      And there could be another reason why right wing politicians get laughed at more.

    2. Mike Hansen


      In reply to Peter John Chen

      Gerard is an Andrew Bolt fan. Bolt's fans are usually in a state of permanent outrage at refugees, "white" aborigines, climate scientists, environmentalists, the Greens, (apologies for leaving out any group who have been a target of Bolt's hate campaigns). That does not allow much time for humour.

      Twitter is also a great source for political humour.

      As ultra conservative Murdoch columnist Chris Kenny who famously quit Twitter in a fit of pique whines "The unbearable lightness of Twitter, as I have explained previously, helps skew political commentary to the lunar Left by providing a green-Left echo-chamber"

      Coming from Kenny's vantage point on the political spectrum, I would take that as a recommendation.

    3. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      C'mon Gerard lighten up! I thought it was quite funny but then I am more to the left of the political spectrum than you obviously are.

    4. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Yes Gerard's contributions seem to follow the Bolt fan club's mantras as it is full of emotive stuff designed to target those who are concerned with anything even slightly to do with the environment.

      Seems we are all hypocrites on climate change with our refusal to live in caves as evidence of our commitment.

  2. Alan Kesby


    Political humour might be easier to explain if we drop the out dated "left" and "right" tags. In today's politics, there is commercial/self interest and public interest.

    It is very difficult to make jokes in support of commercial interest. For example, "look at a coral reef - wouldn't it look better with an oil refinery on top? Yes, but we must not draw attention to it, or the profits, just the jobs".

    Satire in support of the public interest is much easier. Such humour can examine what we have, what we have lost and now much more we are about to lose. And the benefit of a large audience, and sadly, plenty of material.

  3. Susan Nolan


    Along with "A fair go" and "egalitarianism", Australia has always had a healthy scepticism - nay cynicism - about politics and politicians, expressed with wit and humour.

    Some of this is no doubt due to that egalitarianism which sees all those who puff themselves up with self-importance (and few politicians don't) as being fair game for such cynical humour. It has served Australia well.

    Me - I bemoan the loss of wit and humour within the parliament itself - there's nothing like Killen and Daly, today. Even Pig Iron Bob got into the wit stakes. We desperately need many more outbreaks of laughter, whether infectious or otherwise.

    1. Sebastian Poeckes


      In reply to Susan Nolan

      Sometimes reality throws up some of the most humorous incongruities. For example, can you imagine a more apposite name for a politician than that carried by the Victorian state politician of the late 19th/early 20th century - Tommy Bent?

    2. Susan Nolan


      In reply to Sebastian Poeckes


      SIR Thomas Bent, if you don't mind!

      Can't omit knighthoodly honorifics, in these dark times.

      Must thank you for this - I'd never heard of him, before. Had to look him up.

      He's described by Wikipedia as "one of the most colourful and corrupt politicians in Victorian history."


  4. Andy Nehl

    TV Producer

    Hi Peter,

    interesting article.

    Just letting you know you have an error in a couple of the links. The links to Tom Glasson of The Roast mistakenly link to another comedian, Tom Gleeson.


    1. Alix Bromley

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Andy Nehl

      I'll fix that up Andy - thanks for pointing it out. Cheers, Alix

    2. Katharine Thornton

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Alix Bromley

      Hi Alix,

      While you're in fixing mode, you might correct this: "one of the reasons why these comics are often so insightful is that they share the education and background of their targets (law and humanity degrees)" - humanities, please.

      Kind regards, kate

  5. Brandon Young


    "cynicism" and "undermining important rituals and institutions, and therein reducing political legitimacy and governability"

    Which comes first?

    1. Ian Morley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Brandon Young

      Indeed. I'd rather not be cynical, but the relative impotence we face in trying to shift the Fed Govt's quite anti-egalitarian agenda is hard to live with. Labor's ineffectual communication and desire to backpedal could only invite cynicism.

      Listen to BBC Radio Four and you will hear cynical scorn as the only outlet for the disappointment directed at the pathetically weak attempts at promoting Liberal Democrat principles in their coalition government.

  6. Doug Hutcheson


    "(assuming that Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt is not Australia’s Stephen Colbert)" - oh, wouldn't it be wonderful if Bolt 'came out' as really just pulling our collective leg? Actually, he's funnier exactly because he takes himself seriously, not realising the rest of us don't.

    1. Ian Morley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      I'm convinced that he is, in a way. He is playing a character role and being well paid to do it. If it wasn't him, there would be someone else peddling his nonsense as a distraction from other subtler forms of divisive politicisation.

    2. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ian Morley

      Yes, idots queue up to become shock jocks. It would be hilarious, if it weren't true.

  7. Pog Throgmorton


    It was just a minor point in the article, but I was intrigued by the claim that "educated people tend to be more left-wing". The reference in the article was to a book (i.e. I couldn't read it on line) so I consulted professor Google. Found one article with particularly fascinating results.

    Some truth to the positive education-left wing relationship, it seems, but there are two riders. First, in general the more educated tend to overestimate their actual degree of "left-wingedness". Second…

    Read more
    1. Brandon Young


      In reply to Pog Throgmorton

      Interesting comment. Another interpretation is that the political spectrum is about open-mindedness and collective interest on the Left and closed-mindedness and self interest on the Right. Education can open minds, while relative wealth or status can close them, because of the need to deny the irrationality and injustice of inequality.

      So, thinkers to the Left, believers to the Right. In this view, the Left do not blame society or anything else for that matter - blame and belief are irrational qualities of the Right - thinkers would rather find true cause and effect, and actually solve problems. Nor do the Left care about irrational norms like social acceptability, which is an arbitrary construct that distributes power amongst the believers and harms collective interest.

      It would seem that across Australia at the moment, only about 10% of the population can be considered to be on the Left, and this explains why we are collectively sleeping as we rapidly head into oblivion.

    2. Pog Throgmorton


      In reply to Brandon Young

      Thanks for your reply, it's an interesting topic. To continue the conversation, I see a couple of problems with your alternative explanation.
      Firstly, traits like self interest & the desire for social acceptance seem pretty universal, although we may learn to temper them (think of Freud's id, superego, and ego). Secondly, it seems a bit self serving to see all the positive traits on one side of the debate and all the negative on the other - can it really be so? Does the world really work…

      Read more
    3. Brandon Young


      In reply to Pog Throgmorton

      Being on the political Right is not wrong for the individual person, but having a political system that is very much dominated by the far Right is very wrong and very dangerous, and this understanding is what is behind most political satire, and why it is generally anti- Right wing.

      Marx adamantly declared that he was not a Marxist. Thinkers on the Left create new ideas, but it is those on the Right that build narratives out of the new ideas and weave them into ideologies in the pursuit of political…

      Read more
    4. Brandon Young


      In reply to Brandon Young

      "The thinkers can see catastrophe is coming, and can see solutions to avoid it, but they just can’t penetrate the ignorance of the herd."

      Perhaps satire is the most effective approach available.

      I think Shaun Micallef does it pretty well, and I have a sneaking suspicion he trawls sites like this looking for material.