Aboriginal comic writer Angelina Hurley shines a spotlight on three of her favourite comedians
As women, we know very well that the favouritism shown to men is not based on supposed talent, but on the social privilege awarded them. Tina Fey gave one of my favourite comebacks to negative male opinion on the comedy of women. Her response was simply: ”We don’t f***ing care if you like it.”
Over the years as an Aboriginal woman working in various fields, I’ve experienced the inequities placed on the worth of women’s voices, particularly Indigenous women. Direct engagement is a well-known Indigenous protocol and communication requirement. It is an important and necessary part of relationship-building process that establishes trust and understanding between peoples. To only acquire knowledge of us through texts and online research is inadequate.
Enter the arts! What better way to practice direct engagement than through performance, music, theatre, dance and spoken word? What better genre to do this through than comedy? I want to shine a spot light on three of the funniest sistas I know. Steph Tisdell, Roxanne McDonald and Maggie Walsh are three Murri women from Queensland who need to be heard. They have a lot to say and are very funny.
‘As sistas we make people laugh. We laugh loud. You can hear us coming. We’re out there.’Maggie Walsh
Steph Tisdell’s country is the Ydinji nation in the Atherton Tablelands. However, she was born in Mt Isa and completed her schooling in North Brisbane. Since winning the Deadly Funny Competition at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2014, Tisdell has become a rising star in the stand-up comedy circuit. From tokenism and stereotypes to sexism, Tisdell reflects on her experience so far.
“Saying controversial things is a difficult space to be in. People don’t wanna hear it from a woman”, says Tisdell.
She has encountered bias in the spaces she has to work, reflected predominantly in audience reactions on social media. The common advice is to never read the comments, but that isn’t always easy to apply. For Indigenous performing artists, the potential of this platform is the positive impact in areas of education, interaction, relationship building and cultural understandings. There is the hope that deeper and amicable empathies arise. “It’s the principle for me”, she says.
Speaking about feedback and how hard it is not to read commentary about herself, Tisdell identifies a few familiar double standards. For example, on social media men are automatically perceived as funny. For women, personal comments about their appearance is very common.“What do looks have to do with it? Men are never held to the same standard,” she says. “If you are a woman, you can’t talk about do pap smear jokes but men can do dick jokes and it’s ok.”
She also encounters political dismissals thrown at Indigenous people, notably the old standby “we said sorry” or “get over it”. They are statements Tisdell says are hard to ignore, and these are conversations sparked by her routines.
“Tick-a-box diversity”, as Tisdell calls it, is another area of contradiction for her. It’s when her presence means that the venue is getting two for one, ticking two boxes at the same time. “It’s like they want diversity but they don’t,” she says. “They’ll have all white men on a line up and then me as both the woman and the token non-white. I am usually the two for one. It’s a lazy booking.”
She also speaks of the political expectations that happen before she even walks onto a stage. These can be hard to break for an Indigenous woman with commentary that audiences are not ready for. “In a recent show I was doing context to our history in the archives, when I saw a white man in the audience roll his eyes. The online commentary was, I knew what she was going to say before she opened her mouth,” Tisdell says.
She admits to a fear of being stereotyped, but refuses to be trapped in tokenism. She is embracing a growing confidence in who she is, she knows what she is doing and that she is good at it. She says that she has a feeling of responsibility for broad representation, of having to be across every point and issue in Indigenous lives, which she describes as an interesting space to be in, and an extra and common burden for Indigenous peoples in the public eye.
She thinks that black women are funny because they are storytellers, just like men. “There is men’s and women’s business,” she says. “No one is better than the other we are just different. We have so much to say that has never been heard by mainstream audiences before.”
We know as Indigenous peoples that engagement with our perspectives comes with shock and surprise, and that a key skill with our comedy is to break this tension with a punchline or funny yarn.
The resurgence of Indigenous comedy, its growth and popularity, is due to many factors. But, as a non-Indigenous friend of Tisdell’s observes, maybe it’s simple. “I think people are just sick of hearing white men noticing shit.”
Roxanne McDonald is one of our most beloved Indigenous actors and storytellers. This Mandandanji and Darambal woman has been treading the theatrical boards for decades. Her impressive stage and screen resume may have begun in 1990s but her comedic roots derive from her family and cultural connections.
Indigenous humour is considered unique due to the social collective experiences that narrate our history and identity. McDonald touches on this through her experiences as part of a big immediate and extended family of “blackfullas who are way too funny,” naming her father as the big joke teller and mother as the one who used to make everyone laugh. “We have gifted comedic people in our culture. Whatever has been placed on us, we have had to roll with, but humourously we’ve had our input,” she says.
Another key skill is that of adaptability. McDonald believes the ability of Indigenous peoples to adapt to change, to go with the flow and to survive, has created better understandings between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. “A circle of humour defends against ailments like depression,” she says. “Laughter is air that you need to breathe.”
The theatre is McDonald’s favourite artform. It has been a natural haven for her acting and expression of comedy and humour. Having had roles that relate specifically to the struggles and adversity of female experiences, she believes women are naturally funny because it’s part of their coping skills.
“I’ve always been crazy,” she says. “I was a crazy kid, and I don’t apologise for any of it. I don’t mean to be funny sometimes, but it just comes out naturally.”
Her favourite performance mode is collaboration, which has resulted in her best experiences. Bethel and Maude, a production of Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts, was first staged in Brisbane for NAIDOC Week in 1997. McDonald acknowledges her fellow actor and close friend Joanne Close as her kindred spirit. “We bounced off and ignited the funny in each other. You need the right chemistry as a comedy duo. She is irreplaceable, I couldn’t do that show with anyone else.”
‘A circle of humour defends against ailments like depression. Laughter is air that you need to breathe’Roxanne McDonald
The vigilance of voice and creation is the stake that puts women in a better place beside men and a position of equality in the industry. McDonald believes that comedy comes from real life and real life situations. She believes the specifities of female perspectives is what makes them funny. Noting the wealth of material on offer, McDonald is inspired by all viewpoints. Working with women over the years has inspired her to explore other avenues, with a desire to start writing.
She finds it easy to make herself laugh. Even in the current Coronavirus isolation, from TikTok to bin challenges, she notes how Blackfullas have joined in and created a reprieve from the seriousness and boredom. Even the theft of protective gear to combat the virus straight out of her own trolley on a recent trip to the shopping centre had her both dumbfounded and laughing. “I just believe that blackfullas are naturally funny. I don’t know too many who aren’t. There is so much untapped talent out there,” she says.
McDonald has never been solo on her artistic journey. She loves that people learn from each other, especially young people. Her personal experience is that individually we don’t have all the answers or all the stories, and when we join together we are richer for it. So if anyone is looking for a deadly sista, an old Aunty or Nanna, as McDonald puts it, she is up for the call.
Maggie Walsh is a Bwcolgamon woman from Palm Island, but was born in Townsville. Walsh is an author and poet. Her book Sunset (2016) introduced her nationally with readings at events and festivals. Walsh has recently turned to stand-up comedy. After entering the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Deadly Funny competition, she won her local heats in Brisbane and performed at the finals in 2018 and 2019.
“I had been wanting to enter Deadly Funny for a while. I finally got time in 2018 and couldn’t believe it when I got through to the finals in Melbourne,” says Walsh. “It’s a great experience.”
Walsh says the exposure provided by the Deadly Funny competition gave her opportunities to do more than just extra stand-up and MC work. As another in her family who is also dubbed the joker who makes people laugh, she mainly performs comedy for the fun and love of it. Walsh’s style of observational comedy is seasoned with a special flavour of Indigenous perspective. She hilariously unmasks aspects of everyday life easily recognisable to the mob, but that may take everyone else a little while to register. She thinks that migaloos (“white people” as Walsh says) may find her comedy a bit daunting. She consciously attempts to apply a balance that everyone can relate to.
“It is different with your own family. You have to be mindful of your audience,” she says.
Walsh doesn’t hold back, and uses the occasional swearword as a means of catharsis. If she does so, she’s simply letting her hair down, saying it keeps her balanced and sane. The way blackfullas marry the serious and the funny is observed as an icebreaker. Knowing that non-Indigenous audiences may be seeing her for the first time and don’t know what to except, Walsh views her performances as educational.
‘What do looks have to do with it? Men are never held to the same standard’Steph Tisdell
“Education helps people see a different sides of us. Especially people who don’t want to know us. People come up to you after the shows to let you know when they’ve changed perspective,” she says.
Walsh describes comedy and humour as a healing. The therapeutic benefits of which are well known. It can aid both performer and audiences in dealing with social disorders or with anxiety and depression. As she says, it helps people get through the everyday stuff.
She talks about going into a “zone” while performing, of melting the external and internal into one character. Like many performers she is also self-critical, never replaying and looking back in the mirror, just letting the art be what it is. She reminded me of the quality I believe to be held only by true comedians, the ability not just to make yourself laugh, but to also be able to securely laugh at yourself.
“I like to make myself laugh. When I am at home I will laugh loud. I’ll kill myself laughing when I write something. Sometime I do look at myself and say to myself, I can’t believe I did that,” she says.
With her stand-up comedy being a place of cathartic expression and her poetry writing being a haven of peace, Walsh’s inspiration is drawn from everyday subjects that she says choose her. Her favourite role, however, is being a grandmother, acknowledging all the funny that grandparents bring to the table. From facial expressions, to gestures, to outlandish takes and commentary on life, she credits them as the real characters and creators of comedy through simply being are who they are.
Feedback comes from family gatherings and her audience is her grannies (grandchildren). Walsh performs for them, knowing that her legacy and what she leaves behind is how she will be remembered. “It’s spirit that jumps out, and leads you on your path and intended direction,” she says.
Walsh says that women have their own ways of telling yarns, and suggests that men perhaps are more out there. She doesn’t like to get too personal, as she is conscious of how she makes people feel. She wants people to laugh.
She points out that women wear many hats – they are grandmothers, housekeepers, timekeepers, counsellors, nannies, delivery drivers, teachers and Elders. “As sistas we make people laugh,” she says. “We laugh loud. You can hear us coming. We’re out there. There are more of us now, the movement is coming.”