This has to be the world’s worst comedy gig. Welcome, you naive antipodean, to the Tunnel Palladium, Tunnel Ave., Westcombe Park SE, 108 bus (the tube doesn’t go this far). I’m pacing around the pool table trailed by Malcolm the cigar-puffing MC who’s selling me down the river: ‘We’ll give yer ten quid more to get ’ome if yer go on…they’re just in ’igh spirits, that’s all…come on, they’ll luv yer.’
Yeah, sure Malcolm, me old mate. We both know it’s a blood pit next door.
There’s three hundred ‘high spirited’ black-clad punks with haircuts and boozy soccer fans in there waiting for next course. Fay Presto the magician has disappeared—the door on her magic cabin has jammed; Miss Bliss, the transvestite opera singer, has stomped off calling the audience ‘a pack er cunts’ and the acapella singing group has beaten a hasty retreat halfway through ‘Summertime’. The walls of this old pub are reverberating to the marching war chant of ‘fuck off, fuck off, fuck off’.
It’s your turn now, Miss Harmer, all the way from your cosy middle-class Melbourne suburb, go and tell the boys and girls what it’s like playing with dolls and celebrating Christmas in Australia.
My first word, ‘gidday’, is the cue. They’re on their feet: ‘Give us a suck on yer Fosters, cobber…kangaroos…hullo Bruce…pineapples’ and the old standby in any culture: ‘Show us yer tits then.’
What does a red-blooded Australian girl do? Remember Bay 13, remember The Hill, remember Gallipoli…perhaps not…remember that outdoor performance at Moomba. Yell back.
So for the next twenty minutes we engage in what Malcolm might call ‘a nice bit er chat’. Then we arrive at a mutual understanding and somehow, God knows how, they listen to me blather on about everything from school lunches to Greenpeace. They listen and they laugh in the right places. What good this weird dialogue, odd communication, is doing I’m stuffed if I know. And the whole time I’m doing it till when I pay off the cab driver his fifteen quid I’m thinking: Why the hell am I doing this?
What makes a girl at twenty-eight give up a nice, promising career in journalism? There was the regular pay packet, the comforting anonymity of a by-line. The respect of being a specialist in a worthy field of urban affairs and local government. Think of all those council meetings to go to; the State Planning Department documents to precis; press conferences with town clerks. Play your cards right girl, you could end up in the Canberra Press Gallery.
Every night before I tread the stage I silently remind myself: ‘Remember, you don’t have to do this for a living.’ And every night someone else whispers: ‘No, there’s that PR job with Telecom you could have applied for.’
While doing the occasional theatre review for the Melbourne Times and the National Times about five years ago, the door opened for me on the wonderful world of Melbourne Cabaret—Los Trios Ringbarkus at the Flying Trapeze Cafe; Quantock and Keneally at the Comedy Cafe; Circus OZ and the Whittles at the Last Laugh. It was extraordinary, mesmerising. Growing up in the country I’d never been to the theatre and what I’d seen since I got to the Big Smoke had been pleasant enough; but I’ll never forget the night I saw David Argue on roller skates play a foam piano; the time when Steve of Los Trios swung in on a rope through the door of the Fly Trap to serenade the octogenarian songbird Elsa Davis who, laden with diamantés and pearls, was tap dancing on a bit of masonite. Call me a hick, but it took me back to the times when my father, fresh out of the shower, would draw on a moustache with Mum’s eyebrow pencil, part his hair down the middle and, wrapped in a towel, do his impersonation of the man off the Worcestershire sauce bottle. It was a joyful, funny time stolen from an all too sensible world.
So I became a comedy groupie; armed with a new boyfriend who was manager of the Fly Trap I must have watched hundreds of shows. I realised that here was a chance to really say what you wanted to say. No subeditor telling you that your little satirical effort wasn’t suitable, wasn’t funny, was most probably defamatory and definitely wasn’t going to get a run. There was the more altruistic reason of wanting to say something about women. So often the women would be playing the token parts, stereotyped as the cute prop, and the women in the audience were never directly addressed. Then there were the more personal reasons—seeking approval, wanting to prove something to myself, saying ‘look at me’—whatever they were, and I’m still not sure, they made me persevere through often appalling odds.
Now, to my unceasing amusement and surprise, I find myself a full-time professional comedian. Now the journalists ask me: ‘When are you going to do something serious?’ For, as Woody Allen once said: ‘Writing comedy is not sitting at the grown-ups’ table.’
Perhaps, seeing as I’m in quite a unique position here, I might interview myself with the other questions I’m most often asked. At least I won’t be able to bitch about being misquoted.
What’s it like being a female comedian?
Difficult that one, I’ve never been a male comedian, try again.
Is there such a thing as women’s comedy?
I’ll probably buy an argument here, but no, I don’t believe there is. Joan Rivers has been heard to say: ‘If something is funny, it’s funny. Dorothy Parker would have been considered just as funny if she were a man.’ That probably sounds a bit simplistic, but it seems true. Obviously there are realms of experience which are peculiar to each sex. Men sometimes tell urinal jokes and women menstruation jokes, but if you are a good humourist your material can pretty well be understood by all, because the best humour deals with emotions we all share. For example, you can talk about the intricacies of the world of the Barbie Doll with men if what you are finally talking about is the mystery of sex viewed by a child, or rebelling against authority at home and school and feelings of social and sexual inadequacy as an adult. Being able to communicate and bring your female world to life for men seems to me the point of the exercise. All-male or all-female audiences are usually tedious. Illuminating the misunderstandings between the sexes is half the fun.
And, in the end, no matter what the subject matter, the mechanics of the tale—the set-up and the pay-off—remain the same. The joke you can tell about the hammer is pretty much the same as the one about the mixmaster.
Do women have a different way of communicating their humour?
Offstage they probably still do. Watch men and women in a social group and often the men will start, ‘Did you hear the one about…’, while women will begin, ‘I was so embarrassed the other day…’ Men’s humour in Australia is still often of the bar room ‘I can top that’ variety, while women’s has often been of the self-deprecating, anecdotal type.
However, the professionals who change the way we think about humour don’t seem to take their gender into account. In Australia today you will find Barry Humphries and Sue Ingleton cross-dressing (I want to be there when Edna Everage and Bill Rawlings go on a date); Rod Quantock and Victoria Roberts share a delicate, artful whimsy; Richard Stubbs and myself fill a double bill with the same brand of anecdotal stand-up humour; and who wears the pants in Tim and Debbie? What do the vastly differing styles of Joan Rivers and Woody Allen say about the sexes?
The ‘women’s comedy’ phenomenon has been a useful marketing exercise; it has also been a very necessary form of positive discrimination for the women comics who have found it difficult, especially in Sydney, to get a fair go in male-dominated beer barns. Any woman who has attempted to battle it out in Sydney’s Comedy Store will testify to a hair-raising experience among the buck’s night parties. But as our comedy scene matures women need their special category less and less. Most of us are happy to stand toe-to-toe with the blokes without the concessions. How often have you watched Monty Python and thought of it as ‘men’s humour’? One day I’ll be thought of as a good comic, not a good female comic.
Are you a feminist?
This question is close to getting the award for the question most often asked and hated most. What do you mean by ‘feminist’? Every person has their own definition and I can no sooner fit your idea than you mine. After a couple of years of performing and being criticised in some quarters for ‘sending up’ women and showing them as ‘victims’ you have to take on board that you can’t please everybody and nor should you try. Portraying the correct-line, caring, sharing woman on stage would be as boring as hell. That said, I try to make positive statements about women, avoiding self-deprecating humour while still showing that women are worthy of portrayal in a funny way. I recall one chap saying after a show: ‘That was great. It showed that women are human beings too.’ A fairly primitive comment, sure, but he was saying he was appreciating women as funny for the first time. I often feel that being out there and winning over a male audience is on the front line of feminism. However I won’t join in the backlash against the women’s movement—it’s the reason I perform today, it gave me the courage to believe I could enter a primarily male domain. The people I object to are on the ratbag fringe of the women’s movement. The ‘thought police’ who want to tell me what to say and usually appear in droves to sit in the front to give or withhold their correct-line stamp of approval. Their dead humourless hand makes them the target for some of the best satire.
How do you relate to the men in your audience?
When I first started doing stand-up comedy, as distinct from character work which I tackled first, I thought it was very important to look almost genderless. I wore jeans and a shirt and I talked about subjects like fast food and television so that I could avoid the whole area of confrontation with men. Then one night a male friend said: ‘You look good when you dress up. Show your legs.’ And I thought, yes, when I’m at a club I wear earrings, make-up, the whole bit, so I should wear them on stage. I noticed a very different attitude. The men started to relate to me in a sexual way, I responded and the work moved into a different realm. The men had to reassess the way they dealt with me. It challenged their ideas about ‘femininity’. ‘Ladies’ don’t tell jokes about sex, they don’t pull funny faces, they certainly don’t come out on top in a heckling match. It’s been said that some men are frightened of women stand-ups because they always fear that the bottom line is that the woman on stage will make fun of their sexual prowess. Maybe that’s true. I’ve found it a useful standby if they start on the ‘show us your tits’ routine. My answer to that is: ‘You can always tell the bottle-fed boys. Never mind sweetheart, you might get a girlfriend one day, she might show you hers.’ This comeback aimed at the ring leader of a rowdy group of Aussie yobbos is usually effective. ‘Ha, ha, she got yer, Thommo’ is often the response and a grudging respect follows. This is not sophisticated stuff we are talking here. This is war.
I’ve sometimes been tagged by men as being ‘aggressive’, but this usually comes from having to signpost that you will be able to handle it if proceedings get rough. They do get rough. Often men are surprised to find that I’m not as tall as I look on stage. All this said, men are very responsive once they realise that you aren’t out to castrate them in front of their wives and lovers. And, cajoled along by their women, they can take a good deal of being sent up. I have a routine about the ultimate date—a blow-up male doll—which I recently performed to an all-male audience. They hated it. The next night in a mixed audience they laughed like drains. Men often find a way into my work through their women friends and I’m finding less and less that women check with their male partners to see if it’s okay to laugh. One of the greatest rewards I have in my job is sharing female experiences—like a visit to the hairdresser—with other women. We haven’t had the jokes in the bar after work and it’s a wonderful relief to hear that laughter of recognition and know that you weren’t alone after all.
We funny women have been here all along, we were just waiting for a break in the conversation.