Is comedy still possible?

By December 2, 2017Other

When I was about seven years old I was allowed to go to the Saturday matinee with another boy my age who lived across the road. We walked there and back (perhaps a kilometre), and we each had six pence. Threepence would get us into the pictures, while the other three pennies were for sweets. A small ice-cream in a cone would require the lot, so I tended to buy a musk stick (1d) and a small packet of jubes (2d). What we saw, every Saturday, were cartoons, a Movietone newsreel and a Western. I don’t remember a serial, although I saw a lot of them later in another town.

The standout Western hero for me was Hopalong Cassidy. He didn’t sing, unlike Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey, his Saturday matinee rivals. His films had loads of action, lots of men falling off horses, and very familiar Californian scenery. I loved them all, and from about 1944 to 1949 I must have seen something like 250 Westerns, all of them the B-grade, black and white, no-romance films that kept kids going to the movies. In 1950 I got much more interested in tennis, and went to the Saturday arvo movies only when it rained.

Fast forward to the mid 1970s. Someone of a like age told me about a film he had seen, Blazing Saddles, that had left him sick with laughter. ‘Every cliché in the Western book,’ he cried. ‘You’ve got to see it!’ And in due course I did, and I laughed so much that I missed great chunks of the dialogue. Someone else told me that there were something like three thousand jokes or visual plays in the film, and I have seen it in the cinemas half a dozen times, and have my own DVD as well. But unless they’re my age no one else thinks it’s as funny as I think it is, and I’m sure the reason can be found in the diet of Westerns I watched every Saturday when I was a boy. You have to have been subjected to that exposure to really appreciate the film.

There are critics who think that it is the best comedy film ever made. I can’t speak to that, but Mel Brooks, who produced it, and acted as the corrupt Governor, has stated straightforwardly that you could not make such a film today. Blazing Saddles is about a black sheriff who encounters racism everywhere in the town whose citizens he is protecting. ‘What a nice day!’ he carols to an elderly lady in the main street. ‘Up yours, nigger!’ she retorts, and passes by. The crudity of the racism is the point of the plot, and of course the film is a straightforward attack on the overt and hidden racist culture of 1974 USA. Maybe things have improved there, as they have improved here.


But Mel Brooks’s critique of 2017 political correctness arrested me. I can’t find the original source, but the link above contains this: Society’s “stupidly politically correct” sensibilities will lead to the “death of comedy”, the veteran Hollywood comedian Mel Brooks has warned. Brooks, known for his plethora of acclaimed comedy movies, said political correctness was becoming a stranglehold on comedians. “It’s not good for comedy. Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks,” he said.

 Much comedy, like Brooks’s films, satirizes contemporary society by holding some of its current assumptions up to a strong light, and making fun of them. And comic geniuses, as Brooks implies, tend to run risks, for those satirised are often powerful. The French playwright Moliere (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) wrote brilliant satires about the France of Louis XIV and its society, and was always in trouble with those whom he satirised. Satire is as old as human society, and we can all laugh at the targets as long as they are not ourselves.

Mel Brooks thinks that ‘political correctness’ is strangling comedy. I’m not really persuaded. ‘Political correctness’ is present in all societies at all times, I think. It’s not something that we’ve never seen before. When I was young it was politically correct to behave in certain ways in public: stand for the King’s image that appeared before the movies; take your hat off in certain places (and we all wore hats); denounce, or at least disapprove of, Communists and the Soviet Union; go to church on Sunday, or at least not obviously devote Sundays to work in the public gaze. And so on. This sort of political correctness represented the views of the conservative side of politics, and people like Barry Humphries were soon to satirise them, and the social complacency that underpinned them.

What we have now is the political correctness of the Left in politics, because by and large the Left is in the ascendant. In most of human history the mockery of society came from those opposed to the current order — kings, courts and the bourgeoisie. When the mockers are in charge, however, who is to tweak the fads and fashions of the day? Matt Ridley, he of The Rational Optimist, despairs of there being anyone, and worries that the enlightenment might be turning into some kind of ‘endarkenment’. Again, I am not wholly persuaded. No set of ideas is ever in the ascendant forever, and already there are signs that the current correctness is waning. I would agree that it is much harder for mockers of the Left than it was for mockers of the Right, party because today’s media are already part of the correctness, and part;y because the traditional mockers are part of the Left . John Spooner, a cartoonist for The Age, managed a few cartoons that poked fun at the ‘climate change’. Suddenly, he and the newspaper had parted company. The recent ‘vote’ about same-sex marriage was greeted by the media almost with ecstasy, as though all Australians were thereby lifted from a wicked witch’s curse, rather than a desired change in possibilities for perhaps two per cent of the population had now become a reality. It would be hard to get in a cartoon sending up some of that fervor into any mainstream newspaper. A couple of years ago, however, I saw one somewhere in which the wife says to her husband, watching TV, ‘It looks as though gay marriage is getting closer.’ Still watching the set, he responds, ‘The poor things. Haven’t they suffered enough?’ I don’t think anyone would have published that little pin-prick recently.

In the former Soviet Union the state apparatus controlled all formal publishing, and little that was critical of the system was ever published. There existed an informal publishing industry that produced samizdat, usually anonymous tracts, sometimes quite long, which were passed from reader to reader. And mockery became verbal. Soviet jokes were all highly political, and cutting. They were called anekdoti, and listening to one, or worse, telling one, could come with risks. You can read a few of them by going to an earlier essay of mine.

Here is one that captures the essence of the anti-Soviet mockery: Which is better, you are asked, a communist hell or a capitalist hell? Answer: The communist one of course! Why” Well, there is always a shortage of matches and fuel, the heaters are out of order, and the devil and his creatures are busy with party meetings.

I expect to see more lampooning of current political correctness, at first just a little bit satirical, in the theatre, then more pointedly, in cartoons and newspaper columns. I’m happy to publish any good ones, always, of course, with the permission of the author.

LATER: Well, here’s one that seemed to me to fit the description of a jest at the current ruling orthodoxy:



Join the discussion 54 Comments

  • dlb says:

    Long live mockery of those who take themselves too seriously.

    Australian’s have generally been past masters of this, but I fear the killjoys of the new establishment may be changing this.

    I can see a pythonesque commission against humiliation in the wind.

  • JimboR says:

    “satirizes contemporary society by holding some of its current assumptions up to a strong light, and making fun of them”

    I think Shaun Micallef is brilliant at that form of comedy…. he can get so much across in just 25 seconds…

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    I am not convinced that Australian ‘racism’ was as vindictive as the American reference to the ‘nigger’. ‘Refos’, ‘wogs’, ‘ ities ’and the rest, did not, in my lifetime, mean a lot. They referred to a subset of the population, in the way we would talk about French, or Spanish immigrants. The most problematic groups, when I was young, were the Serbs and Croats, who really did cause trouble. I don’t argue that the descriptors were defensible, but I do not think that, by current standards, they were ‘racist’.

    The Australian idiom has always been casually offensive, far more so than in other English-speaking countries, and the currently politically-correct commentators have problems with that. Jokes about people, women, race, were always at least marginally offensive, or they would not have been funny. No American comedian has been funny for at least a decade, and there has not been an English comedian of note since Monty Python. The example of Bill Leak should be evidence enough of its impact in Australia.

    Let’s turn to films. The funniest, but least politically correct film I have seen in recent times was ‘Volcano’ (can’t remember the original title), that was offensive, or could have been seen to be, on any or all of the above grounds. But God, it was funny.

    When similar films cease to be made, or shown, Western civilisation will indeed be in decline.

  • spangled drongo says:

    There does not seem to be the equivalent, today, of the two Ronnies, Spike Milligan or Sir Humphrey to show us the way:

    • dlb says:

      Boring SD. Not for the likes of Jimbo and Marg who like their comedy a lot more contemporary and edgy.
      Also no F words to makes conservatives cringe.

      Now what was the name of that British comedian that used to chase the scantily clad women around the park to funny music at the end of the show? I’m sure Marg would enjoy him 🙂

      • spangled drongo says:

        This one, dlb?

        He said, “we’ll ‘ave it pasteurised cos pasteurised is best.

        She said, “Ernie, I’d be ‘appy if it comes up to me chest”.

        Poor ol’ Benny Hill got crucified for being so un PC as would happen to any comedian today who cast any aspersions on the learned left.

        But the stupidity is just begging to be plucked.

      • margaret says:

        No I much prefer Sir Humphrey …

  • margaret says:

    First Dog on the Moon is brilliant satire. Gentle whimsical comedy is not for these times. Angry pointed comedy suits the angry grasping cruel and divisive era we are in. But – Micalleff has a deft absurdist light touch and Rosehaven can be quite charming. Get Crack’n is pretty out there but spot on and The Letdown certainly has its moments.

    • margaret says:

      Of course, our ABC.

    • JimboR says:

      “Get Crack’n is pretty out there but spot on”

      Indeed, superb. Margaret, did you follow them in their Katering Show days? There was certainly nothing PC about their Yummy Mummies episode. And the Bondi Hipsters do a great job at taking the mickey out of the hipster coffee culture at The Closed Cafe. All of them available on YouTube for anyone who’s interested.

      “Of course, our ABC.”

      We get a lot for our 8c per day!

      • margaret says:

        I watched some Katering Shows JimboR but it’s taken me time to fully appreciate their clever satire and as you say, nothing PC about them so shock value is there. Now I’m completely won over and love the ‘Helen Bidou’ segments.
        I like the sound of The Closed Cafe, laughing already at the concept … will look on YouTube.
        Not everything funny is about national politics and nowadays it is such a joke in itself it’s harder to lampoon. I’d like to see someone write a satirical comedy about journalists and the press gallery.
        At the moment I’m taken by Gordon the Banking Sector Ibis.

        • dlb says:

          The Guardian seem to have an issue with ibis. Perhaps too many lattes knocked over by their long beaks?

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Again, yes, it’s funny. But it is the Left satirising the Right (so to speak). Is there a funny opposite number? Where can one find it?

          • margaret says:

            Maybe ‘the Right’ doesn’t have a sense of humour? 🙂

            You don’t need one when you’re in power.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Marg, in our halls of learning which house the gatekeepers of cli-sci, it’s the lefty proggies that are “in power”.

            And WRT sceptical SOH, you need to get out more:


          • Don Aitkin says:

            Margaret, see above. The coalition is in office but not, in cultural terms, in power.

          • JimboR says:

            “Is there a funny opposite number? Where can one find it?”

            Something like this maybe?

          • margaret says:

            I so enjoy those guys as a comedy team!

          • dlb says:

            Yes, one of my favourite “Chaser” skits.

          • JimboR says:

            I find the Chaser lads amusing no matter who they’re taking the mickey out of. I can’t say I even notice or track whether their targets are left-leaning or right-leaning; it must take a special type of viewer to do that. I guess another possibility is the satirists just go where the material is.

            “the ideology in command of our culture at the moment is ‘the Left’”

            Maybe whether you think our cultural commanders are captured by the left or the right simply comes down to your perspective, your starting position. Perhaps extreme left wing SJWs, environmentalists and socialists think our culture is being commanded by the right, certainly by folk to the right of them. Maybe our cultural commanders are pretty much where mainstream Australia are and it’s those on the fringes that think they’re left-leaning or right-leaning.

            One thing the SSM survey revealed is that there is no silent majority waiting to be unleashed. Australians are way more socially progressive than a handful of pollies and Archbishops would have us believe. Tony Abbott and Lyle Sheldon tried to appeal to the PC argument with their “it’s OK to vote NO” campaign, but the public weren’t convinced and instead voted to end discrimination. That the discrimination was only against 2% (Don’s numbers not mine) of the population is not really the point.

            Now that the social conservatives find themselves on the wrong side of the majority, they’re calling for a bill-of-rights to protect their religious freedoms. They want bits of some UN text on religious freedoms cut-n-pasted into our legislation. There’s nothing quite like suddenly waking up to find yourself in the minority to give you an appreciation of those UN mandated concepts. Ex Senator Jacqui Lambie (left or right – who can tell?) has been very vocal about protecting the religious freedoms of Tasmanian cake makers, while in the next breath calling for a ban on the burqa. There’s plenty of material for the satirists there and they’ll no doubt miss her presence in the Senate.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Jimb equates the religious “freedom” of being made to wear the burka with being allowed to decide for yourself who you wish to work for.

            He doesn’t get that one is the antithesis of the other.

          • margaret says:

            ‘Margaret, see above. The coalition is in office but not, in cultural terms, in power.’

            I think what may be happening with many younger LNP MP’s and voters is that they are culturally conservative but are more likely to also endorse social liberalism.

          • JimboR says:

            Or maybe this?

          • margaret says:

            That is definitely golden satire of ‘the Left’ by Francis Greenslade.

        • dlb says:

          Satirising journalists.

          I used to enjoy Working Dog’s “Frontline” taking the mickey out of commercial current affair shows.
          Who can forget the conniving and conceited Brooke Vandenberg and cynical Martin Di Stasio.

  • spangled drongo says:

    “We get a lot for our 8c per day!”

    Particularly when you get a 50% subsidy from half the country it doesn’t cater for.

  • spangled drongo says:

    That Cli-Sci predicts so much doom with so little evidence just as all the doomsayers of the past have [the next one to be right will be the first] with such a straight face, is one of the most convincing reasons to accept it all with a high degree of humour.

    When these predictions are also based on models that are already 95% wrong and getting wronger by the day, to claim this catastrophe without a degree of humour and scepticism is an unintentional comedy all of its own making.

    When comedy and humour are the banners of intelligence it says a lot about Cli-Sci.

    “Comedians are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world,”

    Groucho Marx

    But man, proud man,
    Dressed in a little brief authority,
    Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
    His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
    Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
    As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
    Would all themselves laugh mortal.


  • spangled drongo says:

    But the progressives want him banned

    Conservative Warrior Milo Yiannopoulos:

    “The tide is turning, and the era of social justice is coming to an end. All we defenders of common sense have to do is press home our advantage. Conservatism and libertarianism need an injection of good humour and mischief. So grow a spine, and grow a sense of humour. Australia, of all places, is not lacking in either courage or comedy.”

  • spangled drongo says:

    Comedy is still possible but not everyone gets it:

  • PeterE says:

    Yes, I love westerns – except for the politically correct ones like Dancing with Wolves or Soldier Blue. Of course, they pretty well killed the western off until good old Clint Eastwood came along with Unforgiven – about as politically incorrect as you could get and therefore an excellent western, a classic to rival Shane.
    I’m not so convinced of your referring to the blue rinse days as equivalent to the modern Human Rights Commission, a deadly unsmiling totalitarian wanna-be if ever there was one.
    Blazing Saddles, yes, of course, absolutely hilarious and good old Mel Brooks – he brought us so much fun and brilliance.
    A conservative satirist of the left? Well, there was Barry Humphries and there was the late Bill Leak. Shall we see their kind again? I hope so.

  • margaret says:

    Enjoy 🙂 – but it’s not funny

    “But that is not the whole story. Schoenberger has hidden a provocative thesis inside a Christmas present for Dad. She asks us to remember the beauty of masculine self-mastery as Ford presented it in his very best films. And yet, from the bulk of the evidence here, masculinity (like the Western) is a by-product of nostalgia, a maudlin elegy for something that never existed—or worse, a masquerade that allows no man, not even John Wayne, to be comfortable in his own skin.“

  • margaret says:

    The brilliant Francis Greenslade satirises ‘The Right’.

  • David says:

    The Right may not have many comedians but it does have lots of clowns.

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