There is something endlessly hilarious about youngish men showing off their brilliance by testifying to an audience about the vagaries of their very important lives. Apparently. The aesthetic of stand-up comedy is strong in this year’s edition of Best Australian Comedy Writing, edited by Luke Ryan, and that’s where the weakest stuff in the anthology comes from.
On the page, the post-adolescent rants lack the ambient force of voice and personality that help them to funny in a pub; moreover, the middle-aged literature academic writing this review lacked the necessary blood-alcohol level while reading.
For some of these allegedly best pieces of writing, I suspect you had to be there and at least a little off your face. The charming, naughty, funny-guy rant seems to be the default setting for comedy in Australia. And I, for one, am over it.
2016 has been a very long year spent in a very unsatisfactory version of reality, and it’s the texts that achieve some degree of fictional comic imagination that provide real comic relief. Clearly topical satire has had no effect on public opinion, or Donald Trump’s run for the presidency would have foundered months ago. So it’s the well-written flights of intellectually provocative fancy that impress.
On balance, that means that the women are funnier than the men. Who needs more reality, however wryly or laconically observed, when we can have ice cream so cool people take the 50% risk of death in eating it (Julie Koh, “Cream Reaper”), or Little Women turned into a pornographic romp (Lorelei Vashti, “The Little Women”)?
Koh and Vashti write as if they have something to prove, as if they have to craft something tonally and structurally ingenious to earn a laugh. They don’t assume that they are effortlessly funny, and those lads that do assume it (no, I will not name names) really should work a bit harder. Craft, timing, and imagination are the hallmarks of great comic writing, and spontaneity should only ever be a hard-earned illusion.
If this uneven anthology turns up in your Christmas stocking, there’s enough to justify a steady browse. Some long established writers like Shaun Micallef and Amanda Keller have not released their best work, but writers of the next generation like Koh, Vashti, Sarina Rowell, Em Rusciano, David Thorne, Tracey Spicer, Robert Skinner, and Josh Earl do well. John Clarke is as pitch-perfect as ever.
Some of the clichés of Australian humour are blessedly absent from the collection. In particular, the laconic bushman of the Federation era has been replaced by hapless escapades in a dominantly urban landscape. Self-mockery is a comfort zone for most of the writers, however, and it always brings a risk of self-indulgence that different readers will compute more or less harshly.
Rusciano’s account of bodily hair and unrequited love for the cool boy in school (“A Hobbit with a Taste for Glitter”) is a good example of walking this tight-rope. The story works because the urge to identify with the narrator/author’s travails is consistently undercut by a wild sense of her emotional and physical absurdity. It teeters on the edge of a “please like me” sort of emotional sweet-tooth, and a lot of other stand-up derived comedy just sails on into schmaltz.
We live in a nation pompous enough to have a government-sponsored definition of “Australian Humour”. There we are told how mocking, anti-authoritarian, and “black” our humour is. This seems to me humourlessly self-congratulatory. The best of this anthology of “best writing” strips back this sort of pride skilfully and with comic discipline, so the book is worth the trouble.
If it runs to a 2017 edition, however, I recommend the editor really focus on the quality of the writing and set much higher standards for anything that looks too much like a transcription of a stand-up routine. Unless you happened to be there, and can supply the tone of voice, they just aren’t comically alive enough to get up off the page and make the silent reader laugh.
Best Australian Comedy Writing (2016) is published in Australia by Affirm Press and is available now.