Much conversation has been being sparked by a recent growth and competition in Aboriginal and Torres Islander comedy. Not since Basically Black, which screened on ABC Television in 1973, and Babakeueria, in 1986, have we really had a good dose of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander humour in mainstream entertainment.
Current examples include Blak Cabaret, a recent hit at the Sydney Festival and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, and the Black Comedy sketch show on ABC.
Opinion is rife on what Aboriginal and Torres Islander humour is, and how it is expressed – even though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have delivered humour on a platter for centuries.
It has flourished via various media from humorous visual arts imagery, slapstick in dance (e.g. Djuki Mala nee The Chooky Dancers), satire in sketch (e.g. Basically Black), parody in life (see Babakeueria), the black comedy of history (e.g. Bindjareb Pinjarra), cabaret in performance (e.g. The Mary G Show), and most commonly the tradition of oral story telling with funny, true, made-up, exaggerated, dry, corny, obviously analytical jokes and yarns of the mob (e.g. Deadly Funny).
The diversity of our humour is prevalent and exists embedded within the diversity of our culture. Amusingly enough there has been a lack of awareness among non-Indigenous peoples about our humour, as discovered by Professor Lillian Holt on researching Aboriginal humour for a PhD, during which a documentary filmmaker stated that:
As a whitefella, I’ve never equated Aboriginal people and humour. It seems to me so incongruous.
Our communities – like all – are a mix of genders, ages, languages, religions, and beliefs. Humour can be situational, regional, age and gender relative. Unless you’ve been privy to it by making an effort to coexist and communicate with our people and culture, it has remained mostly covert within Indigenous communities themselves.
Continued ignorance about us as “people” and the human quality of humour and comedy that we have can be annoying. Anthropological and ethnographic views and analysis continue even about the existence of our sense of humour.
Across the board we as humans know that “if you don’t laugh, you cry”. Shared values among indigenous peoples worldwide note humour existing as a resistance to oppression, an expression of identity, a means of survival and a tool for healing. Many areas of Australian Indigenous life and culture continue to be misunderstood, unheard, misinterpreted, appropriated and even stolen.
Considering the impact of colonisation, racism, conflict and oppression, the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples prevails through humour. So yeah, we have a sense of humour! The question is what should the principles of Blak comedy for mainstream audiences be?
Laughing ‘with’ or ‘at’
Are we giving permission for non-Indigenous viewers to laugh at us or with us? The challenge for Blak writers is this: how do we defuse and resist commonly held stereotypes and misconceptions?
Comedy is an opportunity to bridge the gap. For it to be successful there has to be universality, something audiences can relate to. It should provide moments that continue to challenge ideas of privilege and identity in Australian society without becoming assimilated for the viewing pallet of mass audience appeal.
What’s allowed to be said and what’s allowed to be laughed at? Some may argue that we can take power back via the use and ownership of words and stereotypes – such as the word “gin”. For others this word is still entrenched in trauma and the sexualising of Aboriginal women. By using derogatory terminology back on ourselves can we really empower and remove the historical damage?
Such debates are still needed generally in Australian society. Comedy does have it’s place in this debate, but the wider “race” debate also has it’s place in Australian comedy. A significant challenge for Blak humour in breaking the mainstream is: “Who really owns the humour?”
Obvious analogy, exaggeration and repetitive storytelling is commonplace. What black fulla hasn’t engaged in one of the many common jokes about “Closing The Gap”.
If we accept that Blak humour is unique to the Blak community, intellectual property and copyright presents real challenges for Indigenous writers and performers to not only manage the storytelling responsibilities from and to their communities, but also to protect theirs and their communities IP.
Of course, comedy is hard to write and perform; it’s said that good comedy offends as much as it amuses. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander humour does both and does it well. We just need to see more of it. The journey of moving away from modern-day minstrels is happening.
Indigenous Australians as a group need to continually reflect and participate in the process.
Babakiueria uses role reversal to satirise and critique Australia’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples. Aboriginal actors play the colonisers, while white actors play the indigenous Babakiuerians. The filmmakers have fun presenting Australian cultural stereotypes like the barbecue and football as strange ‘native customs’ seen through the eyes of an ethnographic observer, presenter Duranga Manika.
According to director Don Featherstone, the question of how to portray both black colonisers and white colonised was the subject of a lot of discussion during development. Ultimately, rather than involving any profound representation of their respective cultures, the transposition is literally skin deep: black people colonising a land of white inhabitants.
The ruling Babakiuerians demonstrate a paternalistic, patronising attitude towards the 'natives’, even the well-meaning but comically condescending presenter Manika. In some cases, Indigenous cast members based their characters’ mannerisms on white Australian public figures – for instance, Featherstone says Bob Maza based his Minister for White Affairs on Queensland’s premier at the time, Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
At the heart of the story is a single white family, who are subject to attitudes, laws and social experiments drawn from the past 200 years of Australia’s history. These include being branded as lazy, having their daughter removed from them and then their home.
Babakiueria was made in 1986, two years before Australia marked its bicentenary of white settlement with extensive public celebrations. In reference to this, Babakiueria’s dominant culture prepare to celebrate their own anniversary of colonisation. Meanwhile Babakiueria’s central indigenous white family respond to their situation with helpless containment, seeming loath to reveal their true sentiments to the cameras. Other works exploring the bicentenary include the documentary One People Sing Freedom (1988) and comedy series D-Generation – Series 1 Episode 1 (1985).
The relationship between subjects and camera is an important element. The mockumentary form allows Babakiueria to approach its serious themes with a light touch. The film has the appearance of a contemporary documentary but also recalls the tone of early ethnographic films, photography and written reports.
Featherstone’s experience as a documentary director is why producer Julian Pringle approached him for the job. Featherstone approaches the film as a documentary, using a tripod-mounted camera for interviews and hand-held cameras for more ‘unexpected’ moments. The film is largely shot on location. Notably, a scene at the Anzac Day march was filmed at the actual event.
Recent Australian mockumentaries include feature film Kenny (2006) and Chris Lilley’s TV series We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year (2005) and Summer Heights High (2007). Kath and Kim (2002–present), while not purely a mockumentary, also uses elements of the form to poke fun at Australian suburban life. Rob Reiner’s mockumentary This is Spinal Tap (1984, US) made international waves not long before Babakiueria’s release.
Screenwriter Geoffrey Atherden wrote the landmark sitcom Mother and Son (1984–93) about a man’s relationship with his aging mother. It is interesting that one of the aspects of white culture that he singles out for comment is the abandonment of elderly people in homes.
Babakiueria was produced in-house for the , as part of a series of stand-alone short dramas. As well as screening on ABC television, it screened for many years in the Australian Museum. Internationally, it was awarded a 1987 United Nations Media Peace Award.