Australian humour has a long history that can be traced back to our origins as convict colonies. It is therefore no surprise that a national sense of humour quickly developed that responded to those conditions. This unique sense of humour is recognised (although maybe not always understood) the world over as being distinctly Australian. Our humour is dry, full of extremes, anti-authoritarian, self-mocking and ironic.
The country itself is the ultimate joke; the wave you body-surf into shore after a day at the beach could contain a shark or a rip-tide and, when you get back, your house could have been burnt to the ground in a bush fire. That's where the whole 'no worries' thing comes from.
Humour is seen in the Australian use of slang, and across media from cartoons in print, as sketches on radio, as comedy series on television, in films and with witty observations of life in Australian literature.
A screen shot from one of Australia's most enduring sources of humour – Dad and Dave. Image courtesy of Classic Australian TV.
Styles of humour
A black sense of humour
Australians can have a very black sense of humour. While in many cultures it is considered poor taste to find humour in difficult circumstances, Australians tend to look for this lighter side. This is perhaps our strongest reference to our brutal past, where humour was a means of coping with a bad situation. A (perhaps unintentional) example of this is the naming of the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Pool in Melbourne after a Prime Minister who disappeared whilst swimming in the ocean in 1967.
Mocking the wowser
Mocking the wowser is another common element in Australian humour. Wowser is a term that refers to a person who is highly moral or politically correct. In 2002, a lawyer called O'Sullivan expertly demonstrated this aspect of Australian humour in the courtroom. Defending his client, who was charged with baring his buttocks, or 'mooning', at a policeman, O'Sullivan argued that 'mooning was accepted Australian behaviour and should be seen as a national icon'. The prosecutor, Michael Purcell, responded in wowser fashion by asking 'whether bare buttocks should replace the emu and kangaroo on Australia's coat of arms.'
TB East, Billy Blue, 1834, oil portrait. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW.
Australians also have a very strong anti-authoritarian sense of humour, again a reflection of our past. This aspect has been in evidence since colonial times where the ability to make a policeman or other authority figure laugh often meant the difference between the gallows or harsh labour and freedom. A convict of West Indian origin named Billy Blue (who arrived in Sydney after stealing a small amount of sugar) was notorious among officials for his creative and humourous explanations of his law-breaking - a talent that kept him from being locked up on many occasions. One example of his antics was his explanation, upon being caught smuggling alcohol, that he just kept finding liquor floating in Sydney Harbour and had been caught before he could report this to the authorities. The authorities 'believed' this explanation and Billy was free to continue his adventures. Billy Blue later went on to become friends with Governor Macquarie.
Australians also have a strong tradition of targeting themselves as objects of humour. A regular on the stand-up circuit is comedian Steady Eddy, who has cerebral palsy and uses his disability as material for his routines. One of his gags talks about how hard it is for him to find love – whenever he sees a beautiful woman, he finds himself wishing ' if only she had a limp'. Australians from ethnic backgrounds also use this type of humour very effectively. Television and stage shows such as Acropolis Now and Wogs Out of Work have honed this form of humour to an art, with performers mocking their ethnic backgrounds and traditions.
In Australian literature
One of the great novels in Australian literature is Such is Life , written in 1903 by Joseph Furphy. It is a witty, dry, to the point and slightly cynical look at the world and what it has to offer. The work is described by the author as 'a tale told by a vulgarian, full of slang and blanky, signifying nothing'. The title is reportedly the final words of bushranger Ned Kelly before he was hanged. This novel represents a series of comic and tragic variations based on Furphy's own life as a failed selector, a bullock driver ruined by drought and a foundry worker.
This tradition of humour in literature continues today. Whether writing witty observations of life, as in the works of Kathy Lette and Clive James, or critically acclaimed literature, such as the novels of Tim Winton and the poetry of Les Murray, humour is a central theme in Australian literature.
Most of the successful Australian film and television comedies use Australian humour to present aspects of Australian identity. Films such as They're a Weird Mob (1966) (a film about an Italian arriving in Australia to work for a magazine) shows the foibles of courtship in a different cross cultural situation as the hero tries to win over the father of his sweetheart who hates immigrants and bricklayers. Similarly, Muriel's Wedding (1994), and The Wog Boy (2000) allow Australians to laugh at themselves and their cultural differences. In contrast, the internationally successful Crocodile Dundee (1986) found humour in gently mocking American culture and foreign perceptions of Australians.
Other films have found humour in mocking authority. Strictly Ballroom (1993) and The Castle (1997) are prime examples of finding humour in situations where the little guy stands up to authority and wins.
Humour on Australian television reflects the comedy of extremes. One of the most successful Australian situation comedies on televisions is Mother and Son . Mother and Son is a comedy about the relationship between a newly divorced man (Gary McDonald) living with his mother (Ruth Cracknell) who is suffering from dementia.
Cynical social commentary has also proven to be a successful formula for depicting Australian humour on television. Frontline was a successful 1990s program in this genre, with its often biting look at the news media. The Chaser series, commencing in 2005, has also been successful, with a cynical take on the worlds of politics and media.
On the radio
Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton hosting on radio 3AK in the late 1960s. Image courtesy of www.bluehaze.com.au.
Since the 1940s, humour has been an integral part of Australian radio. One of the most popular radio comedies of the time was Dad and Dave , based on Steele Rudd's book On Our Selection . The series ran for more than 16 years and achieved extraordinary ratings for its humorous look at life on the Australian land.
With the advent of television in the 1950s, humour on the radio turned from radio plays and series to become more personality based. One of the first of these personalities was the late Graham Kennedy.
Nearly every major commercial radio station in Australia boasts a morning show that is humour-based. Hosts are often drawn from the world of stand-up comedy and a radio gig is often a springboard to television and wider national recognition. Comedians such as Roy and HG, Rove McManus, Mick Molloy and Wendy Harmer have all brought their unique brand of Australian humour to the radio and beyond.
- Australian humour
- The Chinese in Australian humour
- Melbourne International Comedy Festival
- Australian authors
Film and television
- Kath & Kim - Australian Television Information Archive
- History of the ABC
- Australian programming - Museum of Broadcast Communications
- The history of Australian television
- Cinema in Australia
- Sketch comedy
- Australian film comedy - Senses of Cinema
Last updated: 17th December 2007
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd