First published on 6 Apr 2008. Updated on 9 Aug 2008.
Looking across the board, from Alvin Purple to Kenny, most Australian humour pivots on the antics of the humble dag. This harmless clown is too self deprecating to even hope for a brain. Few have dared to try for something smarter, edgier. And why should they? We’ve sold the dag, especially when he’s a girl, to the world.
The big three Australian film comedies most people think of first, are Muriel’s Wedding – in which Toni Collette made dagette history in that XXL satin pantsuit as she danced to Abba; Strictly Ballroom– in which Tara Morice played a bumblefooted dagette transformed into a swan by Paul Mercurio’s rhumba and The Castle – in which an entire family of dags sat in the flight path of Tullamarine Airport clutching their souvenirs of the plane trip to Bali.
The dag can be cut from many cloths – even crocodile skin, as in the case of Paul Hogan’s enterprising outback super-dag of the 1980s, Crocodile Dundee. The dag can even sport a few spangles, as in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, in which three big dags all dressed as divas travel to the outback in an old bus (how daggy is that?).
Clearly the dag is reasonably versatile. So why don’t we churn out modest little hit comedies full of dags at least once a year? Many recent attempts to exploit the dag have fallen short of their ambitions: BoyTown, in which middle-aged dags dress up as rock stars; Bad Eggs, in which daggy police pursue even daggier crims; The Nugget, in which total dags from the country fool about with lumps of rock.
While our television comedy has flourished, the feature industry has struggled to produce so much as a romantic comedy, let alone a funny film, in the past ten years. The exception, Kenny, proves the rule. Kenny is the ultimate cuddly, non-threatening, pear-shaped big dunny dag of them all –but if potty jokes don’t swing it for you, where do you turn?
According to Rob Sitch, one of the brains behind Working Dog (Frontline, Thank God You’re Here, The Castle, The Dish ) “spoof movies are hard to sustain. It’s telling that The Simpsons have done hundreds of half hour episodes, but only one film. Length is brutal on comedy.”
It’s also difficult for our comedy writers, such as Mick Molloy and the rest of the Working Dog stable, most of whom sustain a living from television, to adapt to the longer form. “A lot of us get to 45 minutes” says Glenn Robbins (Kath & Kim, BoyTown), “and we’ve played all the party tricks.” Speaking of BoyTown, Robbins adds, “the audiences didn’t take to it as much as I thought they would. But I was really happy with the way I pitched my character.”
Virtually in a category all his own, we have Barry Humphries’ (The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and dozens of stage and television shows), the only satirist cited as a key influence by comedians as different as Austen Tayshus (the proverbial six foot angry Jew), and Glenn Robbins (the classic loveable Big Anglo Dag).
“Humphries is caustic, cultivated, worldly and very condescending,” explains Tayshus to Time Out. “He’s probably got a bit of Jewish in him! He’s full of chutzpah.”
Humphries is just about the only Australian comedian Tayshus respects, apart from himself. “The rest are all beige, politically correct rubbish!”
Animator Bruce Petty is one Australian humorist who taps into a comic tradition which owes more to the wit of Marcel Duchamp and Monty Python than the classic Aussie Dag. But he’s a cartoonist, and as he says himself, “I can get away with far more than an actor ever could.” Petty, whose latest film Global Haywire opens next week, grew up listening to radio, and clearly counts The Goons, and Monty Python as a major influence.
If Australian comedies struggle to connect with local audiences, the international market also proves elusive. A bemused Rosemary Blight, one of Sydney’s most successful film producers (Fresh Air, Clubland, Eternity Man), stood by and watched the Americans re-package her recent feature Clubland, (starring the indomitable Brenda Blethyn as a washed up comedienne), to suit the American market.
“They changed the name to Introducing The Dwights,” she recalls, “which I think was an attempt to sell it as a Meet The Fockers.” Needless to say, the strategy misfired.
As Clubland’s director Cherie Nowlan observes, “the Americans do that sort of comedy so well, and they have such big stars, like Kate Hudson, Ben Stiller and Steve Caroll attached, sometimes I think why bother? Comedy is hard to direct, but it’s even harder to write. The Americans spend a lot of money developing the scripts.”
“The level of writing in the US,” agrees director Darren Ashton (Thunderstruck, Razzle Dazzle),” is absolutely outstanding. That’s why Juno was a hit. Comedy in film has to be more sophisticated. It needs strong heart, not just gags.”
But as producer Colin South (Let’s Get Skase, and the yet to be released To Hell & Back) points out, it definitely helps to have a profile in the US first.
“Paul Hogan had already buttered up the American market with his ‘Throw Another Shrimp on the Barbie’ campaign for Tourism Australia. Crocodile Dundee’s huge success took off from that.”
Comedy is essentially, a matter of timing, says South. “Unfortunately Christopher Skase died just when we released Let’s Get Skase, and suddenly everyone felt sorry for him. If we’d come out a year before, we’d have done much better,” he says.
There’s also a large chunk of Australian humour which hasn’t yet made it to the big screen. Writer/director Richard Frankland (Harry’s War, The Circuit) is a Gunditjmara man from Victoria, who has just finished directing his first comedy, working title To Hell & Back, starring Leon Burchill and Luke Carroll.
He believes that “a lot of that laconic classic Aussie humour is actually sourced from indigenous culture. It’s that ability, when the chips are down, to find some way – any way – to have a laugh.”
Frankland promises a pretty outlandish road movie with To Hell & Back. “It’s incredibly important that indigenous Australians are given the right to laugh at themselves. We’re always portrayed as the noble savage, or the victim. We’re all that. But we can be funny buggers too.”