Melbourne Writers Festival: The Edge of Comedy

Posted on 16 September 2010

Is the comedy universe infinite or are there boundaries?

The 2010 Melbourne Writers Festival offered several sessions of real interest to comedians. Some of these sold out fast. I was lucky enough to get a ticket to The Edge of Comedy session with comedians Charlie Pickering (7pm Project, author Impractical Jokes), Tony Martin (D Generation, The Late Show, author A Nest of Occasionals), and Booker shortlisted author Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole). The session was chaired by Catherine Deveny (former Age columnist, standup comedian, author Free to a Good Home).

The position taken to the session’s question was: the comedy universe should be infinite, but the thoughtless keep putting up boundaries. This is hardly surprising given Deveny was recently fired by the Age for comments she made on Twitter during the Logies. Though interestingly, the discussion largely circled upon what happened concerning the “Make a Realistic Wish” sketch on ABC’s Chaser’s War on Everything.

Speech in Australia certainly does have boundaries. The practical boundaries on speech include: not being allowed to perjure yourself in court in order to ensure a fair outcome for trials, not being allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre so as to avoid public harm in case of a stampede to the door, truth in advertising and labelling to ensure you get what you paid for without any nasty surprises, etc. Not many people object to these controls.

The freedoms we wish to preserve, and that strongly affect comedians, are freedom of political speech and the freedom to express controversial ideas. For the most part we’ve had people doing a good job keeping the government in line when it comes to these freedoms (though we all have to remain vigilant on this score). Where things get tricky is the commercial world.

Steve Toltz brought up the concept of the “offenserati”: people who take offense for the sake of being offended. The Chasers sketch caused no controversy amongst their audience who actually watched the show that night. When the sketch was reported on by the commercial channels because of a press release sent out by the Make a Wish Foundation, the ABC then received a tsunami of complaints by people who had only ever heard about the sketch secondhand.

Charlie Pickering made the point that news is now a twenty-four hour and seven day a week entity in a way that was never possible before the Internet. As such the news may well generate controversy in order to report on it. The sad outcome of the Chasers sketch was that the ABC removed the head of comedy from her position.

Was this a form of censorship? Potentially yes, because by bending to a controversy created by the commercial channels, the ABC has given the offenserati the ability to create a chilling effect on speech and comedy. This is what certain religious groups are counting on when they intentionally go to Web sites that do not meet their standards, and then complain about them to the government and the ISPs in order to have them taken down. Fearful of public contention print, broadcast, and Internet media may then pre-emptively halt free expression and comedy. This seems to be what happened to Catherine Deveny at the Age.

Tony Martin remarked that he had written a sketch very like the “Make a Realistic Wish” one. However, the context was different and so people didn’t think to take offense. It matters who seems to be the “victim” of your comedy. People often do not want icons of goodness or innocence taken down a notch by closer examination. It’s always acceptable to make fun of yourself and your own family, but the moment you go outside your own “tent” (as Tony put it) you will need to be careful how you piss on someone else’s tent.

This topic lead to a discussion of “offensive” humour. Transgressive humour is an easy way to get a laugh. Most of us enjoy sending up authority in one manner or another. Young comedians trying to get away from cliche will often resort to shock humour.

Martin and Pickering spoke at length about this and how shock jokes can get boring after awhile. Pickering said he’s fine with shock humour, so long as it makes a point. Martin said that with age he wanted some truth to bubble through the shock and humor, so that it has a purpose. Pickering added that jokes always have to have some sense of truth, in that way you can stand by them with personal vigor.

All in all this was quite a deep discussion on comedy and freedom. I highly recommend comedians keep their eyes open for more discussions of this type, and in particular support the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Peace and kindness,


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