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Australian comedy

Comedy is central to Australian cultural identity. Comedy forms the basis of many forms of popular entertainment from live cabaret with stand up comedians to television sketch shows.

The history of Australian comedy and the distinctly Australian humour, reflects the country's search for a national identity based on both Australia's convict origins and the convict sense of humour and also Australia's physical characteristics. Australia is a country of climatic and geographic extremes and Australian comedy often manifests itself as a comedy of extremes.

A hundred years comedy, circus and the Tivoli - 1850-1960s

From 1850 to the 1890s, comedy was the basis of the most popular entertainment of the time - pantomime, burlesque, vaudeville, musical comedy and circus. In 1892, English music-hall comedian Harry Rickards presented his New Tivoli Mistrel and Grand Specialty Company at the Opera House in Sydney. This had a far-reaching influence on the development of comedy in Australia.

Roy Rene as

Roy Rene as 'Mo'. Image courtesy of Australian Entertainment 'MO' Awards Incorporated

By 1900, the Tivoli Circuit grew to include Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth and promoted local and comic talent to spice up traditional comedy routines. These were the fore-runner of the modern day stand-up comedian, double acts and sight acts which relied on physical humour to elicit a laugh. Harry Rickards founded the Tivoli Theatre in c.1911 and the Tivoli continued its successful run of vaudeville and revue style shows right into the 1960s.

Roy Rene 'Mo' (born Harry van der Sluice in Adelaide 1892) was Australia's most successful vaudeville and variety star for three decades after joining the Tivoli theatre in 1916, before going into radio in 1946, performing sketches. Rene's character was Mo McCackie, a devious, ingratiating battler described as cantankerous, outspoken, overly successful and brash - attributes which can also be used to describe Australian comic characters decades later.

A white face and vaudeville-style costume of baggy trousers and battered top hat were Rene's trademarks, along with his catchphrases such as 'Strike me lucky', 'Cop this, Young Harry', 'One of my mob', and 'Don't come the raw prawn with me'. The Australian Entertainment MO Awards Inc., recognise excellence in live performance, in honour of Mo.

Live comedy revues to rival television - 1960-1980

The arrival of television in 1956 and its spread to Australian homes in the 1960s coincided with the demise of vaudeville in large theatres and the rise of intimate comedy revues.

At Sydney's Phillip Street and St. James Theatres... comedians of the calibre of Barry Humphries, Reg Livermore, Ruth Cracknell and Mary Hardy honed their craft in front of small appreciative audiences who were not afraid to laugh at themselves as Australians.

[In Melbourne] a live comedy revolution was brewing, however, in the most unlikely of locations, in the hallowed halls of the University of Melbourne. University comedy revues have proved to be a fertile breeding ground for comedians with many of Australia's finest satirists having first performed before their student peers. These group-devised free-for-alls are not for the faint-hearted - no topic is considered taboo and no audience member is sacred.
Carolyn Laffan, Curator, Performing Arts Museum, Victorian Arts Centre

Melbourne satirists Rod Quantock, Mary Kenneally, Steve Blackburn and Alan Pentland, originally performed as students as part of the 1969 University of Melbourne Architecture revue, presenting themselves as the Razzle Dazzle Revue. Cabaret-style comedy acts went on to perform in cult venues like the back theatre at the Pram Factory in Carlton, The Reefer Cabaret in Prahran and the newly opened Flying Trapeze Cafe in Fitzroy, Melbourne and came to influence Australian comic style.

Cabaret-style comedy, however, was an expensive business. As an alternative to cabaret, the Razzle Dazzle Revue-owned Comedy Cafe and its Banana Lounge stand-up room (launched in 1980) promoted the less financially demanding stand-up comedian. 'Le Joke (upstairs at the Last Laugh) and the Comedy Store in Sydney provided an outlet for emerging local comedians such as Richard Stubbs, Wendy Harmer, Mark Little, Vince Sorrenti and Austen Tayshus to strut their stuff'. (Laffan, 'Comedy - The Essay', Fools Paradise)

International comedy success - 1970s - 1980s

Dame Edna Everage

Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage.
Image by Greg Gorman, courtesy of Millmaine Entertainment

International success for Australian comedians has been based on both the export of the cultural cliche as well as turning these cliches upside down. Both of these things are true in respect of Barry Humphries with his characters of Dame Edna Everage as the frustrated 1950s Melbourne suburban housewife and also as the rabid trade unionist Lance Boyle. Humphries first presented Edna Everage to a London audience in 1969, and despite the qualms of earlier critics, went on to win a Special Tony Award for a Live Theatrical Event.

A landmark in the development of Australian comedy which saw a broader range of subject matter was the success of Circus Oz's 1981 European tour and Los Trios Ringbarkus' win of the coveted Perrier Award at the 1983 Edinburgh Festival. In 1988, some fifty Australian comedians took part in the Oznost invasion at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival.

One of Australia's most successful overseas comic exports is the cultural cliche of the Aussie 'ocker' male. The 'ocker', with his cork hat, was epitomised by Bazza McKenzie (1970s), Crocodile Dundee (1980s) and Ernie Dingo (1990s). The extent of the success of this cultural cliche can be seen with Crocodile Dundee (1986), starring comedian Paul Hogan which, at the time, was the most successful foreign film ever released in the USA.

Other comedy characters, like Norman Gunston (Gary McDonald) in the 1970s, turned the 'dumb Aussie' stereotype on its head. Rod Quantock describes Gunston as an important force in Australian comedy - he 'interviewed unwitting celebrities in 'daggy' clothes and shaving cuts'.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival - 1987 - present

By 1987, there was enough support for the comedy scene in Melbourne to launch the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, with 56 events. The festival's patron was Barry Humphries as the cultural attache Sir Les Patterson and the guest-of-honour was British comic legend Peter Cook.

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival now plays host to over 120 events each year. The reputation of Australia as a centre of comedy can be seen in the overseas performers as well as the visitors to the festival which total around 350,000 people annually.

Comedians on television and radio

Comedy was represented on Australian television throughout the 1960s and 1970s with In Melbourne Tonight, Sunny Side Up, The Mavis Bramston Show and later The Naked Victor Show and The Paul Hogan Show.

During the 1980s, comedians benefited from the wider exposure of television, especially through the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). The ABC produced Australia You're Standing In It (1983), The Gillies Report (1985), The D-Generation (1986) and later The Big Gig, with all of these productions featuring Melbourne comedians. Commercial stations followed suit with The Comedy Company and Fast Forward. Small but influential community radio stations such as Melbourne 's 3RRR also contributed to the public exposure of Australian comedians.

Sketch comedies peaked in the late 1980s with stand-up and sketch shows such as The Comedy Company, Fast Forward and The D-Generation. Situation comedies (a format favoured by Americans) have been less successful, with shows such as Hey Dad, based on the lives of a single father and his children, achieving only small success. The two most successful Australian situation comedies have been Kingswood Country, focussing on a suburban family, and Mother and Son, which followed the life of a man living with a mother who has Alzheimers disease.

Perhaps our most successful humourous look at life in Australia is Kath and Kim, an often cringe-worthy look at life in the Australian suburbs.

The influence of comedy on national identity

Multiculturalism is now part of the changing Australian national outlook and this experience has affected changes in Australian comedy as well as changes in Australia's perception of national identity.

In 2001, a Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) Television documentary comedy series - 'Aussie Jokers' looked at the relationship between ethnicity and humour in the work of nine Australian comedians including Austen Tayshus, Joe Avati, Hung Le and Tahir Bilgic.

A research project at LaTrobe University (2006-08) is looking at the way Australian comedy portrays Australian national types. For example, Crocodile Dundee was a character who was essentially a 19th century bushman living at the end of the 20th century. However, his relationship with the character played by Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil reflected changes in Australian culture. One of the questions the research team is asking, is how does multiculturalism affect the types of comic characters portrayed?

For more information, see the January-February La Trobe University Bulletin, page 7.

Useful links

Australian comedy

Broadcast comedy

List of sketch comedy groups

Other Resources

Last updated: 29th November 2007