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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.