All Queens come from places of love, empathy, intuition. It’s not about gender, it’s about the source material. And you see it in Bourdain’s show, the way he never tries to make himself look better by humiliating someone else, the quality of his attention give to whoever he is talking to, his sincerity and frankness. He’s not trying to make himself look clever or like the expert about something (a Kingly attribute), nor is he a dilettante (a Knightly one). He’s a Queen.
The men who think they can be Anthony Bourdain, they think of him as swagger, as bravado, as dick-swinging, because that is what they themselves are capable of. They are not Queens and can’t be Queens. It wouldn’t even occur to them that was something to aspire to. Most of the time I feel like I am stuck in Knight mode, in bomb-throwing and self-righteous anger, but I see Bourdain’s queenliness, and I am aspiring to get there myself.
— Jessa Crispin
I was first introduced to Charlie Chaplin in an intermission between in-class assignments, my teacher gloating about his impact and waving her hand directively towards a screen. It was in a French lesson and by this point I had well and truly checked out—it was my teacher’s deft enunciation that did it. During this barely perceptible period in my early education we prioritised social understanding, but the stakes were never too high, my concerns were often superficial. The atmosphere of the general student body never held dramatics beyond the odd brawl between boys, or the times the principal stood before an expectant audience once a year to announce that, in fact, the trending trading cards of the year were getting banned because of unruly and unsportsmanlike student behaviour, and we would have to be held accountable.
Our very brash public primary school in the corner of the north-eastern Adelaide suburbs was canopied, like a great terrestrial awning, by age-old gum trees with arms that threatened to snap and fell us as we played. My intrusive day-terrors took shape in the anxieties they suggested, in the looming possibility of disaster. In my imagination’s past I hear my bones cracking at the same time as those hearty gums, dark things. All my breath wrung from my body. It was a premonition maybe, of the fists that later beat me into submission like a rendering mallet and broke me in half like a Siken lyric might. Because of something as innocent as a wayward glance, the men who were once those boys tussling on the gravel became the ones enacting the violence. I recognised there was always a thin line between their threats and the follow-up of punishment and I sigh one time before drifting into the ether, leaving that schoolyard behind.
Those little souvenirs of memory are painstakingly present for me, if I dare to recall them, like insistent sparks that catch on to dry grass. Take, for example, one frame from a larger negative of adolescence: the sensoriality that came from my teacher pushing the VHS in to watch that Chaplin movie, its satisfying drop into the VCR and ‘ah’, the sound of automatic rewinding that followed the click into the machine. It’s a snippet that makes me revisit something that arrived at the right time in the right place to deliver unto us a new image, or idea, or proposal of the world and its sociopolitics. A new dialogue. The anticipation of a pause before the program starting, the anxiolytic of ASMR lifting the stress from the shoulders of students as they realised they could get away with half-dozing off, lingering in obsequiousness. By the time I had graduated, French language classes were obsolete and Mandarin lessons had taken their place.
The jittering, forceful nature of Chaplin’s performance in The Great Dictator was a reaction to something too far away to ever feel worried about. Something like fascism was not a daily conversation but a far-flung historical advent. We sat underneath the boughs, the impossibly high ceilings of that building, and the heat wafted in through those large, streaked windows. We were privileged, cradled in that bucolic scene, with the pleasant backdrop of neighbouring classroom chatter making us all woozy. It was at that time when peer-driven laughter was mercifully communicative, a swallow of banter, open-hearted, raucously silly and only sometimes competitive. We cohabited joy like budding magpies, cawing with laughter, sometimes becoming very frustrating.
After watching the video, my teacher—a short Aquarian whom we referred to as only ‘Madame’—assigned us a task. The instructions were to comment on Chaplin’s imagery, his disconcerting realisation of slap-stick, how his face contorted in a way that seemed too quick to be natural, always becoming set alight at the meeting of surprise, like he had become sprung. While watching Chaplin through half-closed eyes my heart started racing of its own accord. As I reflect on the memory, it reminds me of the use of abject in the prelude of a thriller, before someone is inevitably gored—their plasticine blood reaching camp levels, teasing out the arrival of flesh: false starts of horror that acknowledge how the genre is not really funny at all. Now I hear John Berger’s refrain on Chaplin in response to that memory: ‘Today the global tyranny of speculative financial capitalism, which uses national governments as its slave-masters, and the world media as its dope-distributor, this tyranny whose sole aim is profit and ceaseless accumulation, imposes on us a view and pattern of life which is hectic, precarious, merciless, inexplicable.’ But this was not war, even if those forces were beginning to take shape silently across the globe. Post-Chaplin I went home, and as per Madame’s encouragement of historical scrutiny, began to notice evidence of the voice in every lingering part of Australian comedy and its continuity. How it had become so ubiquitous, caught in so many throats. I wondered, then, if it could ever be quarantined.
John Berger saw Charlie Chaplin like he had been pantomiming from inside the womb. It was as if the performer had embroiled through turmoil into social responsibility. Berger says that the relevance of Chaplin’s films at the time was tenable, but they are now ‘more relevant than ever before’. I only noticed Chaplin’s commentaries when I started really sitting straight and paying attention. He recognised fascism as an accumulation of male anxieties that became rapidly dangerous to new generations, and he identified them in his work. Bifo Berardi called it a phenomenon of the past century, the ‘upheaval of aggressive young men who believe in the glorious future of violence.’ I saw warning signs of proto-masculine horror in my dad’s form of sub-sociality, in the nervousness before any social outing, hindered by tenseness that hid any hint of real connection. That glut of social impotence. He met with his friends on any given day and clutched his stubbie too hard, the glass sweating more than he did. He took on a different character to the father I saw combing my hair, walking me across roads—his hand gripping mine like a vice—and crying in his bedroom or on his knees in a chapel. To me it seemed he so badly wanted to be gentle. Perhaps I wanted to see it in him as I saw it in myself.
I see the same horror in the episodes of the now archival Hey Hey It’s Saturday that my family watched together, the mode of rapid chit-chat and comedic baseness capturing us at our most lethargic. Hey Hey was unique for its all-encompassing Australian modernity, and it left its trademark as a staple of the 90s, spawning copycats like The Chaser, Rove and now The Betoota Advocate. But it was a long-winded progression from the type of humour that Roy Rene or his sidekick ‘Stiffy’ crafted during the Great Depression, to the comedy my father and our family saw on screen every Saturday night. A Jewish Australian, Rene reflected the Australian battler back to a disenfranchised and dispirited working class. It made sense at the time. But while that vernacular he developed as shorthand held on, the conditions that gave rise to it changed. For The Lifted Brow Alex Griffin writes that ‘in Violence, Žižek makes the prescient point that without language, we couldn’t hate our enemies, since all communication carries the risk of excluding someone in more or less egregious ways’. Sociologist Michael Billig contends that ridicule actually lies at the core of communal social life, as it ‘ensures…members of groups routinely comply with the customs and habits of the social milieu.’ But that hegemonic stance—where someone has to be scapegoated to make sure the joke lands—has never served everyone past the moment of the joke itself. Now Rene’s Mo McCackie, the prodigal son of depression-era comedy, stands frozen in mid-cackle, laquered in bronze on Adelaide’s Hindley Street. In his near life-likeness, he has lost the ability to court those unconscious energies of an Australian proletariat and quell them. He has become as vague as he is obvious.
These humourists of the past share something: their championing of the virtue of the larrikin. Men of all kinds (progressive men, even) might not be as outright violent as their everyday peers in their comedic vocabulary, but like a skin one slips into, they inhabit its brutal shell. They enjoy occupying it with the bravado of the settler who has a place to mark. It is interesting to think of whether this has repercussions. Many do not see it as irreverent, or rather, think that its usefulness rests on that telling. They make conceitedness profitable, turning their voices in on themselves. The masculinist directly challenges naivety while still remaining in its husk, dancing between ignorance and authority. As Merrit Kopas once tweeted, ‘I have a hard time keeping up with the priorities of twitter jokeboys’. Funnymen are not just craftsmen of offcut jokes, but also experts at setting a precedent for the way in which we are supposed to receive the larrikin’s intent, thus separating us from the language we need to deconstruct it. In short, we mustn’t permit ourselves to become too highly strung or to protest any mistreatment at their hands. It’s not even post-modern irony—it’s just conveniently acceptable cultural distance. This echo of humour is always too slippery to be found culpable.
Walter Benjamin would have seen this in a similar framework, writing about it in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility. He noted how the budding seeds of violence were beginning to activate their potential and worm up from under the soil, and he observed how people laughed because it was all they could do in the face of such evil. He said: ‘the countless grotesque events consumed in film are a graphic indication of the dangers threatening mankind from the repressions plicit in civilisation.’ With all undue propulsion (predicting the flattening of global culture and ideology that solidified in the 90s with the Disney uplift) he noted that our entertainment, our punchlines, the cartoons and figurines imbued with life and story and laughter, were a generational coping mechanism. So much so that they seemed to alter our sense of reality. It was Mickey Mouse’s perma-smile that was somehow to blame, the wellspring of all corruption and satire.
What we are seeing now, on all sides of the Australian political comedic spectrum, is the return of American crudeness in its most well-oiled vehicle—larrikinism. It’s the type of humour that Rene built his career on, taking queues from satire but only half delivered. It explains why he was so successful in the States even as he kept himself firmly on Australian soil. It provokes a specific kind of hoarse laughter. In my own life I found the larrikin among my grandparents—the contradiction of the face they showed to the world versus what happens behind the curtains (a disquieting slippage) and the ways in which they learned to conceal their latent panic. The Australian comedic catalogue stems from that place, and continues to find resonance in a number of public fields.
Australianism/larrikinism has upheld itself on vehicles of anachronistic gendered models, which are then potently brewed into civilisations, pulled taught and then refined like a damper. The kind of archetypes that are built upon heavily characterised interpersonal histories are taught by association, passed down from generation to generation through socialisation. In the media, online, and in the skirmishes of public discourse, the masculine stereotype is consistently translated into heroics. It is rarely questioned as morally inaudible. It finds its nirvana in talkback radio, where domination becomes its final destination, while on television we become doe-eyed upon its arrival in the form of boys who behave with no idea of where they stand alongside other men. It is sheafed in a forcefulness that arises as if on cue. The laughter it provokes is cheap, asked for, not rewarded—the kind of canned type you buy at figurative department stores. Its laugh-track, or sometimes the unsettling lack thereof (like when you look up a clip of Friends on YouTube consisting of only the dialogue without the soundbite laughter) is distressing and distant in its nothingness. I hate watching the pained laughter of men especially. It’s all over the place, in the way men talk over each other and attempt platonic intimacy, but I’m equally scared of how we would react if those same men attempted even the slightest amount of vulnerability. It’s the encouragement you give to the hosts of The Footy Show when they cannot hear you, but sense your complicity anyway. It’s this kind of straddling the line between living room humour and more garish, balls-to-the-wall locker room trash talk that reigns supreme in Australia.
But, how is it that gruffness succeeds when many, if not most of the men depicted across the media spectrum are from middle-class and upper-class families? They hide behind a caricature of Australianess as protection. Is the working-class fantasy of a gruff persona a safety net, a totally constructed common ground? Is this reproduction a kind of false equivalency, of a dated fantasy of labourer masculinity that never made it past the historical advent of automisation? Does this humour acknowledge the so-called impotency of those same labourers as they come to terms with the fact that their contributions are becoming easily replaceable, whereas feminised labour—of all iterations—is not? Are all the exhibitions of Australian masculinity in a state of panic by default, mostly stripped of an obligation to harsh labour, hunting, courtship, war and combat? I never know what authenticity means anymore, especially in this context, and Australians have little grace when it comes to reconfiguring class to their own image.
In a sense all of this hardly matters because the programs in which these men are upheld are made for their backgrounded-ness, played between 7:00 and 8:30 and never before or after. They’re made to be heard only as accompaniment to the clinking of utensils against plates, as scenery, and never as something to be taken at its word. The true power of the time slot! Their influence was standardised because of this. No-one is watching with the same amount of attention they would a sitcom, meaning those attitudes that are advertised become normalised, sitting in the backdrop, never coming into contact with things as foreign as ‘accountability’ or ethicality. When something becomes panoramic, like elevator music, it becomes that much more difficult to tune it into focus in order to deconstruct.
When I was getting older I began to notice parts of this attitude in Chris Lilley, with his gleeful renditions of stereotypes that exist adjacent to Australian-ness. The most eggregious was the young Tongan boy who apparently exists only in a troll-like, monkey-esque body, ie: the natural culmination of all of our moral dissatisfaction toward the other, rendered into cultural puppetry. Because the male voice in Australian ascendancy is the default point of objectivity, it took a long time for anyone to recognise this at face value. it is highly debatable whether Lilley’s humour actually criticised the racist terrain of our culture as much as it merely reinstated it, belittling and further stereotyping racial minorities in Australia. We are realising this forlornly, and only in retrospect. The need to simplify tropes and to appeal to specific subsections of Australian audiences, to be apolitically and childishly ‘objective’ (especially in humour), seems to infiltrate even the most seemingly forward-thinking comedic practices. It’s easy to use that objectivity as social cachet when you’re not in the thick of those lived consequences.
In the space between beginning this piece and now, a flurry of think pieces about the podcast Chapo Trap House have risen rapidly in popularity. This series collates (mostly US) leftist concerns into punchy hour segments with regular guests, and is apparently the source of inspiration for the SBS comedy alumni and the respective, now defunct platform. Chapo works because of its hearty, party-ready humour, and because it actively avoids the dated factionism that makes other leftist outlets so taxing. But Jeet Heer comments that ‘Socialism isn’t just about equality for its own sake, but also the lived experience of fraternity and sorority, of politics as the work of brothers and sisters joined together to make a better world. It’s hard to square the professed socialism of the Dirtbag Left with calls to “bend the knee.” Beyond violating leftist ideals, dominance politics seems like a tactic doomed to fail. Politics is about persuasion and coalition-building.’ This is just one perspective and many critiques of the show’s overtly masc whiteness have even been written off as liberal jealousy. Eve Peyser writes that ‘The issue w leftist twitter dudes joking abt how they’re all white autistic straight dudes is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ For the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino notes that 80% of Chapo’s listeners are men—an overwhelming statistic—while the majority of the people who feature as guests on the podcast are also men. This seems pertinent and not-entirely-accidental, and the podcasters often take pleasure in the avoidance of responsibility to address or prioritise it.
The disconnect from a potential audience who see their attitude as bullshit is clear. In her words:
Particular strains of “Chapo” invective can be hard to take—people are “pussies,” or they’re “retarded.” Botanical gardens are “gay,” Hillary Clinton is “a freak.” The caricature of the “Bernie bro”—an aggressively disaffected white guy who hates Clinton ostensibly because of her neoliberal incrementalism but deep down because of her gender—occasionally seems to apply. The very name of the podcast—as well as its theme song, a vaporwave remix of Gucci Mane—suggests a dismissive attitude toward identity politics.
Tolentino’s concerns aren’t just cosmetic—members of Cum Town, a similarly minded platform, on any given day, can be seen humiliating women who share their stories of sexual abuse online. Which is not to say this virility of put-into-practice politics shares differences with Donald Trump’s vituperation, for example. But they still sit in deeply entrenched positions of social mobility, gleaning entire careers and social cachet from their podcasts. What she is describing is adjacent to the idea of Poe’s Law—an internet based concept concerning the post-truth landscape, because without context and familiarity with the subject, the implausibility of an extreme joke is to its own benefit. ‘When social networks used to be bounded by interests, the joke teller could expect that their audience was in on the joke,’ says Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Internet Culture. The repercussions of something like a rape joke, for example, actively bolster the confidence of silent abusers, whose success functions on the assumption that their behaviour is implicitly accepted by wider society. Misogynists and violent homophobes may be similarly inclined.
Men in these positions are useful as case studies because they are perpetually seen as unassuming, yet they are often the quietest on some of the more immediate and pressing issues. Many them may contribute little to activism, yet they are the loudest every other time. The tasks of organising, spending time on administration and performing general care are relegated to women, to girlfriends. Even to air a view as uncontroversial as ‘men on the left are sometimes incapable of holding their peers accountable’ for example, would be grounds for ostracisation, and it’s madness.
When news of The Greens protecting the identities of multiple rapists within its ranks in Australia went public, the silence from male leftists was palpable. In turn their followers take note, too, of what is acceptable. Marginalised people within these circles have good reason to read certain behaviours as red flags, moving through the world with an ambient sense of dissatisfaction and distrust of their allies. This reinforced detachment is antithetical to true solidarity. What distinguishes them from other men aside from mimicking leftist facades for brownie points or even careers, and never applying those values to the necessary practice of their life? I’m fortunate to know many who aren’t like this, but the catch cry against identity politics from threatened male careerist/twitter leftists is so often a form of discomfort about the emancipation of black women, trans women, and queer people; something that has eclipsed the problems of masculinity in the political dialogue. Still, we haven’t identified the issues of masc-centrism in any complex way beyond laughing them off.
Language is relied upon as comedic safety net. It’s hard to imagine the same men who quickly jump to call out marginalised people that they disagree with—not just the Julia Gillards of the world, but women and non-binary people who are socialists, those who would most benefit of a distribution of wealth and opportunity—actually investing time to support them. It’s hard to image them uplifting minorities who are being unfairly levelled in the here and now, with sound policies, and actually putting in the time to spotlight and support women who share their views of a better democracy. They still want to be the ones up on the podiums, hogging the mic, because it puts an abrupt end to the boredom and self-reflection that comes with listening, from silence.
When Roy Rene took on the role of the public gagster, he was emulating a certain brand of working class jovialism and hardiness that the public of Australia responded to with enthusiasm. Imagine light bouncing off a myriad of different reflective surfaces, returning to the sources, so refracted from its journey that its primary source has become immeasurable. This is middle-class white men imagining what working-class white men look like so they can parody them, and working-class white men believing this representation and becoming it. The simulacra of abject masculinity continues to grow. Simultaneously, Rene’s strand of ‘immodesty’ was successful precisely because it disregarded women, using them as the punchline for most of his jokes. In essence, he was scapegoating voiceless working-class women in order to appeal to the previously powerless men who laboured under near-totalitarian conditions. It seems working-class men relied upon misogyny like anyone else—discrimination exists all along the spectrum—and through this comedic identity, they were granted permission.
Can we envision a sort of laughter that doesn’t look toward anxiety, that serves to distract from our collective discomfort? The quasi-nationalist masculinist kind of humour that meets us at every corner is one to alleviate our moral panics, to save us in the nick of time from dreaded self-analysis. Or at least, it increasingly feels like that’s its only function. Our comedic vernacular is one that has been established to allay the tension. It’s always protecting men, buffering them.
But then again, humour works to carry oneself across the mire—I think of how Nakkiah Lui hits back at cultural stereotypes and warps harmful thinking in her comedy until it becomes a source of power for her, how Zoe Coombs Marr parodies the male skeptic, so that—in the words of Gabrielle Jackson—she makes inclusive humour funny, not in a ‘subtle, smile-to-myself, oh-isn’t-she-clever kind of way, but in a knee-slapping, snot-escaping, snort-laughing, bend-over-cover-your-mouth hilarious kind of way.’ In direct contrast to the larrikin archetype, many people who experience marginalisation have learned to develop a new dialectic of resistance: a sort of humour that is gleeful, sincere, wholesome, that sees revolution in the distance, that doesn’t necessarily exist to make fun of anyone or to insult someone’s intelligence or appearance.
Frustratingly, this voice remains niche within our culture simply because we’ve been taught to shirk from it. Some things just truthfully suck, and it can be difficult to sugarcoat that with humour. There is a sort of psychic, insidious pain that comes from having to constantly disconnect from the marginalisation minorities experience on a daily basis in order to keep swallowing it. Continual fatigue from this trauma does not accommodate humour and detachment. That is not to say all people with experiences of oppression are blushing daises. But we can’t tell this story without owning it. Toni Morrisson knew it—she told us that things like racism were time wasters, that people could spend their whole life disproving those myths, and increasingly become received as fun-ruiners and stoics. It demands all of our time, energy and attention, is the lining of our every experience. It begins to feel like some things just don’t have the necessary lubricant to be laughed about. Maybe that’s okay.
Australian satirical humour relies on laughing at the expense of others as a result of the wide-reaching discomfort we have with sincerity in this country. This attitude is directly correlated to the politics of happiness: who is allowed to enjoy it and explore it, who ‘has to be happy’ even when their existence is made light of, disregarded, or passed on to someone else to handle—someone who interprets their feelings in a more ‘palatable’, less threatening way. How much of our humour is a cultural construction and less of an objective emotional response? There is no doubt that the stringent irony of Australian comedy has been a welcome and effective method of exposing and revealing the weaknesses of discrimination. It’s not something I want to paint with a broad brushstroke, but it has both critiqued and upheld it, blurring the lines between ‘punching down’ and ‘punching up’.
Laughter—in the face of abject silence, is always something of a compromise—when I feel it coming up from inside my chest, it threatens to bring everything else out with it. Like a glottal stop, with the snap of the throat enunciating a quickening, a shortening of an end; abruptness at its most vocal. Or like a sharpened funnel, its opening slamming shut to weed out all the debris.
Social hierarchies have always existed and clamoured in this way, but there is something about this voice that feels modern and contained to the new ways we regard each other and relate to each other. I look down, and see that the bar has been set so low. I fear I may trip over it.
Jonno Revanche is a writer, cultural critic and multi-displunary artist and settler living on Gadigal land. They create syntax which bridges distance, belonging, connection and the minutae detailed within rural queer life and imperceptible sub-cultures. They have written for Teen Vogue, Krass Journal, Seizure and Cordite Poetry Journal.