Why do we pander to mediocrity and bad behaviour from male comics? Aboriginal comedy writer Angelina Hurley reflects on her disappointments
In 2018, the dominance of male mediocrity in stand-up comedy makes me sigh. It’s tiring sitting through shows where obvious analogy reigns. Those whose audiences laugh hysterically simply on the comedian’s entrance, way before he opens his mouth, way before a joke is structured. Those shows when you witness an anticipated tsunami of a punch line roll in like a little swell. The only rating I can award this type of comedy is “dry”. Or as Aboriginal peoples often say, ‘gammin’: fake, pretend, pathetic.
Across the board men get away with bad behaviour and are even rewarded for it. Look at Louis C.K.’s recent impertinent come back to stand-up. As an Aboriginal woman, my love of comedy and humorous analytical discourse is an embedded survival and healing mechanism. It has evolved as one of the ways of dealing with the ongoing historical repercussions of colonisation in Australia. Thick skin is married to my Blackness. This is why my favourite art form is comedy. This is why my favourite performers and artists are First Nations and peoples of colour. These are the artists and performers I like to believe I can relate to. Over the years, the inclusion of black international comedians in comedy festivals and their solo tours has always sparked great excitement for me and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fans of comedy.
So, when black comedians decide to cater more to majority white audiences, it’s profoundly disappointing. Comedy-loving Blackfullas wait in anticipation for years, as I do, for the opportunity to attend shows by black international performers. I am not saying that, just because you are a black comedian (or whatever kind of black), your focus should solely be about dismantling racism and race relations – even though these are my favourite topics, or that international performers should make direct comparisons with the First Nations peoples of Australia. At varying levels, we all have shared knowledge about life and other cultures.
It’s more that, with other minority black community sitting in the audience, I enjoy listening to rarely heard black experiences and perspectives. The lives of Aboriginal people are dominated by white opinions and voices. What interests me, what makes me laugh the most, and what I believe should be a focus and obligation, is for international comics to take the opportunity to educate through humour by drawing on truth in any situation. Not being scared to tell it like it is.
When Chris Rock first toured Australia in 2008, it didn’t include Brisbane. I immediately booked tickets, airfares and accommodation and headed to Sydney. To this day the beginning of his set in Sydney is one of my favourite moments, the most memorable of any comedian. The brother did his homework; what felt like a half hour opener was probably in reality only ten minutes.
I will never forget Rock calling out the treatment of First Nations Peoples by the Australian government and non-Indigenous Peoples. His disbelief that he himself was one of only eight black people he had encountered in Australia in eight days. I will always remember his dig at the government over Australia’s Stolen Generation history, when he said he was wary of giving a bad performance in fear of having his children being taken away. Then finally his shock and horror at the existence of an Australian law permitting the legal killing of Aboriginal people as late as the early 1970s, in the same era when most African Americans in Los Angeles were enjoying the birth of disco.
Rock’s comedic face slap to Australia was genius. I was in awe, in love. This was material that left a handful of black people laughing and the majority white audience sitting silently in shock. My cousin and I were in stitches. Unfortunately, the king of call-out irony couldn’t maintain it on his return to Australia in 2017. A two-hour whingefest about the demise of his marriage left me less than impressed. An admission of fault arrived halfway through the show when he remarked: “By this time you’re probably thinking, fuck you Chris.” To which I accommodatingly replied: “Yes, fuck you Chris.”
All the same, I will always love him for his stellar routine back in 2008.
I didn’t anticipate Kevin Hart as much as Rock, but I went along. I wanted to find out why he’s so successful. His comedy was based more on performance than content, with his hysteria-laced, high-pitched voice slamming the emphasis on punch lines to make them funny. The set had relatable stories across the board for all kinds of people to enjoy. From what I remember, it was mainly yarns about his kids, marriage, family life and crazy male friendships. There was definitely nothing that warranted the over-zealous security to prevent audiences from filming the performance. The routine was entertaining but not too funny. Still, my mob love him.
Dave Chappell was probably the most eagerly awaited by Blackfullas because of his repertoire of comedy gold at the junction of racism and race relations. Sadly, his repertoire never came to fruition at his Brisbane show. A seemingly lethargic and unenthusiastic Chappell left us Blackfullas disappointed. Absent were his famous skits mocking blatant racism and police brutality towards blacks. Where was the commentary on black and white relations, or any of his genius sketches like the one about Clayton Bigsby the blind black KKK leader? Although we might have given Dave a pass, considering the backlash to one of his sketches was one of the reasons he left his show on the Comedy Channel.
During the filming of one of his sketches on Chappelle’s Show, a white man laughed way too hard at the joke – rather than with it. Chappelle started wondering if maybe, instead of killing racism and discrimination by sending up stereotypes, he could actually be reinforcing them. It would have been a devastating realisation. So, yes, maybe a pass, despite everything. Except that Chappelle’s routine in Brisbane mainly included material that denigrated women, and made fun of Aboriginal culture with a lame didjeridoo joke. I thought, Dave, weren’t you devastated by the affects of recent stereotypes? The parallel was lost on him.
Speaking of stereotypes, the denigration of women and lame joke tellers, enter Trevor Noah, another so-called brother. Someone we wanted to embrace. “Offensive” is an understatement for his now notorious 2013 stand-up routine, in which he called Aboriginal women “ugly” and sexualised a traditional Aboriginal cultural practice. Putting that performance aside for a minute, his recent tour of Australia was nothing to rave about. There were predictable scenarios, schoolboy-like analogies and punch lines you could see coming a mile away. Admittedly, I did giggle at the obvious.
Trevor’s material was unashamedly appeasing to a white audience and inoffensively mediocre. He ridiculously compared our colonisation experience to that of a stolen laptop (I’m still trying to figure that one out) and totally failed to adequately recognise and pay respect to Aboriginal peoples whose land he was visiting. I waited for the moment of redemption, that moment when he made up for that 2013 routine, but it came and went too quickly. It was as disappointing as it sounds.
During the recent tour, Noah was interviewed on the radio show Wild Black Women, which I co-host with sista Dr Chelsea Bond on 98.9FM in Brisbane. To our dismay, Noah doubled down like a politician, parroting his explanation of the physical and sexualised comments made about Australian Aboriginal women during the 2013 show. He argued that politicians never say sorry and get away with that behaviour all the time. Indirectly, he was telling us, and the world, that he will not apologise for any of his previous bad behaviour.
However, Trevor is not a politician. Since when does a comedic or political profession exempt you from basic skills in humanity? He ignored the opportunity graciously given him to make amends with Aboriginal women by appearing on the Wild Black Women radio show. It was that brush-off that prompted us to leave his stand up show in protest later that evening. I felt a bit naive to assume there would be automatic solidarity between us as people of colour.
I love to laugh and laugh out loud. I totally understand and get the comedic rules around no-holds-barred and truth-telling. When I’m searching the programs of comedy festivals, more often than not the most enthusiastic response I can muster is ‘meh’ or ‘nah’. Comedy programs are dominated by men, and predominantly white men. Finding a person of colour is a surprise.
As the dominant face of comedy, men for too long have skated through on mediocre norms, by denigrating women and reinforcing stereotypes. I am so tired of men’s obsession with sex and their own junk. Sadly, the joyous belly laughs I want from comedy and await hopefully with every new performance aren’t coming from men.