28 January 2020

Why comedians are vital to the future of a civilised world

If I went back to university I would love to study comedians, if that was an actual curriculum? I don’t know…so I had a wee look around, but to no avail. Their understanding of what makes us laugh, their timing, irreverence, ability to develop simple ideas, make us uncomfortable, and still keep us engaged is a fascination of mine.

I have marvelled at the guts comedians show in getting up in front of a live crowd, or via media, to make us laugh. Yep, it would be intoxicating to be able to do that but to break the ice must take so much practice and talent.

Think about it. You can’t go about repeating the same joke, like a musician can play the same song. It needs to be fresh and new. Sure, if they do a tour they will repeat gigs, but it soon becomes an old joke.

Then there is parody, and satire (an extension of this craft) which can be offensive and super-uncomfortable. However, taking offence is a privilege when it comes to humour. Where is the boundary? Who knows? That’s all part of the gig. Sometimes it’s not even funny and yet still brilliant.

They can be tortured souls these comedians. Beneath their funny exterior often burns a very complex and intelligent being wanting to shout at the world. Spike Milligan comes to mind here.

To me, laughter is a lubricant and makes my life so much more enjoyable. I will often search YouTube for great comedy, especially after a tough week. If I had to choose to watch only one type of media for the rest of my life, it would always be a comedy!

So why write about this now?

Because right now a couple of comedians are taking on the establishment and making an impact. Another (recently deceased) had ‘predicted’ the troubles in Australia for quite some time.

Let’s start with Ricky Gervais, who came to fame writing and directing The Office. He comes from a very humble background and is very proud of that heritage. Never leaves it behind him, and it is very much a part of who he is.

Gervais has risen through the ranks, from being a cringe-worthy comedian to a highly insightful observer and brazen commentator on his contemporaries. I have often heard him say to his colleagues – don’t be giving advice to the masses, as you have no credibility to discuss what normal people think and do. You are only entertainers, and nothing more.

Recently I think he hit an all-time high at the Golden Globe Awards 2020. It’s the fifth time he has hosted the awards and he was at his best. In case you missed it, here is the clip (if you are short of time (or don’t particularly like him) skip to 6:30).

In his speech he likens Amazon, Apple, and Disney to ISIS, because of their corrupt practices behind the scenes. He said this to some of the most powerful people in entertainment, including the CEO of Apple – Tim Cook.

He then tells the actors not to give political speeches if they win an award, because they essentially work for corrupt companies and so do not have a credible platform to do so – all to their faces.

It’s one of the ballsiest things I have ever seen, and big ups to him. This is not sledging on social media – this is live to the world with nowhere to hide.

He has called out Weinstein in the past and now the mates of Epstein. This is so uncomfortable because most others are not. The privileged go along to these awards all the while turning a blind eye and not calling high-status people out. Think Prince Andrew – how many knew about his behaviour and yet how many young women were victims of his?

The next comedian I want to highlight is Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of Ali G and Borat, and a whole bunch of other great work.

I watched the film Borat three times when it came out. It was so brave to go into the USA and take apart some of the most iconic institutions – such as the bible belt and rodeo folk.

This man is a genius at exposing flawed thinking amongst people all over the world. I have heard people say they didn’t find Cohen’s characters funny – my reply was ‘it doesn’t need to be’ and ‘sometimes that’s the whole point.’

Recently he has been calling out Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for the effect he is having on democracy and escalating hate speech. I believe this is more impactful than the senate hearings conducted over the last couple of years, as it connects directly with the heart of the issues.

Cohen (who is Jewish) has suggested that if Facebook existed in the 1930’s it would be promoting the Nazi Party, and suggesting it was just freedom of speech. It’s a hell of a thing to say, and incredibly poignant. His first speech out of character is a ripper. Brave, clear and eloquent.

All the hallmarks of a great comedian.

Let’s come a little closer to home with the late John Clarke, and New Zealand comedian and satirist who lived in Australia. Like Cohen, Clarke started out with a frivolous character Fred Dagg, and became more edgy with his TV show The Games, and then a series of interviews as a range of characters in Clarke and Dawe.

Have a watch of this. Remember Clarke has since died and the clip on climate change below was filmed in 2007, but it’s absolutely on the button:

He had much to say on other environmental issues too: The US Oil Spill (2010), The Front Fell Off (2010), and It’s the Planet, Stupid (2016).

Like the previous comedians, Clarke had a huge social and environmental conscience and was game enough to use his genius to do something about it.

So, what do we all need to develop in ourselves to call out issues we care about? The tool that all these comedians use is the ‘bridge’ of humour – it keeps us engaged while they deliver a very clear message.

I’m pondering on what bridge can we, the public use? Just being righteous is not enough to get the message across. In fact, it can achieve the complete opposite. For me, I’m going to be more aware this year of the opportunities I have to influence and, I’m going to start by being better informed and less judgy.

What are you going to do?


7 February Postscript
Well, if you’re Anna Guenther, you would call me out for this blog having too much of a white and male focus (which I was aware of, but I hadn’t come across suitable material (so I thought) Was I looking in all the wrong places?).

Anna introduced me to these two artists and is OK with me adding them as a postscript to this blog crediting her as the source. Thank you Anna.

Please watch these. Two different comedians, two totally different styles that use immense bravery to get across some fabulous messages.

Hannah Gadsby on comedy and tragedy

Nazeem Hussain at the 2019 Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Ian Harvey (Harv)


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