Anyone who saw last year’s Sydney production of Jack Hibberd’s great bucolic play A Stretch of the Imagination — and anyone who saw the box office figures — had to face a single sad fact. There is no longer an audience in Australia for rural humour. There is no longer an audience which can comprehend extended reference to the natural world, or a joke with a provenance extending beyond the city, the suburbs or the last twenty years. Rural humour in Australia is as good as dead. Lousy films and television with idiotic rural stereotypes have assisted in its demise, but this is by no means the main reason. Rural humour died with the decline of the natural elements in our lives. Its basis was the contest between humanity and the elements on the march to civilisation. It died at the conclusion of the march, along with God as we used to know Him.
Rural humour derives from the experience of impotence and incompetence in the face of the elements. It involves animals — we will call animals elements for the purposes of the argument and because, some readers will recall, it was God who created them on the fifth day. Rural humour concerns dogs of genius and great savagery, dogs in hats and boots, simple-minded dogs, dogs with dynamite, wild cows and bulls, mishaps in castration procedures, peculiarly clever sheep, possums in chimneys and tanks, wombats, bandicoots and kangaroos. It concerns roosters, including ventriloquial roosters, goannas and snakes. Snakes and dogs are without doubt the major animal actors in rural humour, although in Queensland, where much in life is inverted, crocodiles and cane toads play leading roles.
Birds, particularly the parrot family, the emu and lyrebird (a solitary bushland stand-up comic and mime) are brilliantly represented in the rural comic genre. Even vegetables play a part in areas where the topsoil is substantial enough to support them. I have heard a tale of an avalanche of pumpkins — the entire crop was lost and an old man’s hip was broken, but great merriment was had at the time and for years afterwards. Similarly, potatoes have been a source of humour through good years and bad. Soft fruit and apples, having the capacity to fall, have served us well. There are few jokes about greens, though again the Queenslanders are contrary and see something funny in the avocado.
Animal jokes sometimes have an anthropomorphic gist, but more often they are based on the simple premise that there is something unnatural about a wild animal in a kitchen. Or a dead animal in a kitchen. Many jokes involve unsuccessful attempts to exterminate animals. Remember Dave (or was it Joe?) dressing up as a kangaroo and hopping off into the maize paddock with a butcher’s knife. Of course you don’t, and it is likely you have forgotten or never heard the hilarious tales of calamities in the pursuit of rabbits with guns, gas, poison, smoke and ferrets. It is very easy to forget the ferret — and the fox, and the hen and the duck.
And mice, single and in plagues. I have also heard a story of a koala which mistakenly climbed a tall Dutch Presbyterian dairyfarmer named Kreeno Doff. Only the quick thinking of his wife, Josephine, saved him from serious disfigurement. She placed her gum boot over his head and backed him up against a blue gum. In acknowledgement of the necessity to adapt to his new land Kreeno changed his name to Jack. In these tales the animals win a temporary victory against humanity. Humanity laughs at its fecklessness. That is what makes them jokes.
Another element in rural humour derives from counterposing poverty and gentility, or necessity and gentility. This is predominantly a Protestant form of humour I suspect. The stories concern parsons preaching on dung floors. They are about maintaining dignity when rats are scurrying audibly in the walls: dead cats or possums in the ceiling on the day of the Ladies Guild luncheon.
Finally in the pantheon, there are those intractable elements: a tree or stump, heat, cold, wind, rain, fog and gravity. The famous ‘Stop Laughing. This is serious!’ cartoon is a city joke about gravity with a million rural antecedents. It is when you consider the elements that you realise how ludicrous the rural stereotypes of modern film and television are. For there is no national farmer. The traditions of a mountainous or hilly region will be quite different from those of the Mallee or Western Plains. Objects roll in hilly areas. There will therefore be jokes about runaway jinkers, logs, milk cans and pumpkins. In flat areas the difficulty is to make them roll. Low as opposed to high horizons, climate, land use and natural vegetation all alter both the rural type and the type of joke.
But the basic elements remain the same. You will find them in Lawson, Paterson (a master of the hill joke) and Rudd, and in George Wallace as well. Wallace performed to city folk for the most part, but he maintained the themes of rural humour. He danced brilliantly but, unlike his Hollywood counterparts, with his shirt hanging out and the cuffs of his trousers over his heels. Sure, many Hollywood performers did the same, but Wallace danced as if he wasn’t sure that he should be and as if he expected something to go wrong. Gravity was his enemy. Just when he was beginning to look good he would fall down.
Defeat is the essence of Australian rural humour. It is nature mocking our intentions. Consider the kookaburra laughing at the selector with his axe or his wife going after blackfish for their tea. Rural humour is the solitary figure — or the entire family — wrestling with the stump in the front paddock. Or the storm which one night blew the lavatory clean off the new schoolteacher’s wife. It is Providence — unknowable, irascible, capricious Providence. In the Australian bush God was a satirist.
In America, at least in Hollywood, He was an ingenuous creep. Comedians like George Wallace couldn’t compete with Hollywood. Hollywood was a huge lie as we know. Party to the American creed of manifest destiny, it lied most spectacularly about Providence or fate. There is no humour in manifest destiny unless it is not fulfilled, unless it goes wrong. San Francisco, for instance, was a film about Providence, and the love of a spiv for a soprano and a priest. (This by the way is one of the worst features of films about Providence. They have ministers of religion in them. There is nothing less funny than a minister or priest attempting drollery, and if Spencer Tracy in San Francisco does not convince you I refer you to the attempts at humour by our own Reverend John Dunmore Lang.) San Francisco had the makings of a good film, but the Americans couldn’t resist turning the earthquake into a lesson in manifest destiny.
In Australia, The Squatter’s Daughter, made in the 1930s to something suspiciously like a Hollywood formula, also had an element of Providence but was emphatically not funny. The 1930s films of the old Steele Rudd stories contained the same debilitating measure of Hollywood pap which turned laconic pioneers into half-witted bumpkins with a sanctimonious redeeming vision of the future.
These films reinvoked nationalism of the worst kind. They laid to rest all the lessons of the Great War which had gone some way to replacing the notion that Providence was on the side of nations with the much healthier and credible conception that it was indiscriminate and gratuitous. It is only the latter interpretation which allows for humour in the face of disaster. It is Providence according to people not priests. The point to be learned is that we need the Allwise Disposer but we should not trust Him. It is, of course, the same with generals.
We need God for humour for without Him we fall prey to scientific understandings of people, animals and elements. You will note the prevalence in rural jollity of feckless boffins. The Dookie or Hawkesbury College agriculturalist is a joke, a city slicker by another name. The attitude may be bad for productivity but it is a boon to humour. And there is something to be said for the fatalist or folkloric tradition. You may have read recently that some scientists now believe that the brain is not an organ after all. It may be a gland. Now anyone who knows anything of life could have cleared this up years ago. It is plain to the layperson that in some people the brain is an organ and in others it is a gland. In Malcolm Fraser, for instance, it is an organ — in Bob Hawke it is a gland.
The scientific assessment of our daily lives is death to humour. Have you read anything funny in Cleo, in Forum, in Masters and Johnson or books on diet management. If you have, you should take a good hard look at yourself. There is nothing amusing about human perfection. You cannot count calories or deal with stress and laugh. When did you last see a jogger laughing in the park? When did you last walk by a swimming pool or gymnasium and hear it echoing with laughter? Never. Yet I have seen men and women in potato fields rolling about in the dirt when a minor accident has occurred. It may well be the same in factories.
It is rare today to hear the words ‘Thy will be done’ uttered by Australians. In many ways we should be thankful for this. The spectacle of American athletes praying before and after every contest is truly revolting, particularly as they invariably win. What we need is not an Australian team which prays, or any other team which prays: what we need is for the Americans to continue to pray, and while they are praying, we need a good bolt of lightning. Then we will see that God is the maker of all things, including jokes.
Now it is a fact that God makes no written reference to comedy in our lives. Many of His characters have brilliant lines which you would give your right arm to have thought up yourself. Jesus’ ripostes were often masterful. Some of the Old Testament is suggestive of rural hilarity — ‘By much slothfulness the building decayeth, and by idleness of hands the roof droppeth through’ — and there is no attempt to deny our capacity or right to cackle and sing — ‘A feast is made for laughter and wine maketh merry’ — but no one in his right mind would argue that the Bible is funny.
The word ‘humour’ does not appear in Brown’s definitive and voluminous Dictionary of the Holy Bible, published in the eighteenth century when the Word was exceedingly well-studied in some quarters of the British Isles. Where ‘humour’ might have appeared we have instead ‘humble’, which consists of having ‘low thoughts of ourselves, and a deep sense of our unworthiness and weakness, and our walking accordingly’ (Prov. xv.33 & xii.4)°; and ‘hunger’, which of course is ‘an earnest desire after food’ (Matt. iv.1. My emphasis). Nor is there anything under ‘joke’, ‘comedy’ or ‘gag’.
There are some these days — I suppose there have always been some — who argue that God created the whole thing as a joke. This is a cynical fallacy, the product of flabby and self-conscious wit. The truth is that God meant us to learn humour, to discover it as we discovered at various stages, the motion of the planets, gravity, gold and sin. For God is the Great Revealer, isn’t He? And He created the elements and frequently put them at odds with us. Did He not? And He created the animals. Of that there is no doubt. Look under ‘beast’ in Brown’s Dictionary of the Bible and you will find a very long entry indeed: ‘a living creature, devoid of rational consciousness, appointed for the service of man, and to ornament the universe’. See how the joke is buried away — ‘devoid of rational consciousness’ yet ‘appointed for the service of man’ — there is the nub of laughter through a thousand rural civilisations.
On either side of beast we will find further support for our thesis — ‘bear’; ‘their skull is thin, but firm, and contains a considerable quantity of brain, whence perhaps they are so sagacious’. And so fierce and unpredictable? And ‘bee’; David’s armies are likened to bees, ‘how readily they followed the hiss, the call of Divine Providence’. And beetles, and beeves and behemoths. In the 1840s a behemoth was used by a settler to clear scrub in Gippsland, Victoria. Predictably the local farmers leant on the fence and laughed.†
If readers are still not convinced that God, I mean a savage God, is the author of laughter, let them consider the instinctive exclamation of all humanity when one of its members strikes something intrinsically disastrous or funny (disaster and comedy are always interchangeable). When, for example a behemoth stands on our foot we invariably intone His name — ‘God!’ — or that of Jesus Christ!; or some word that is known to give offence to Him. What is this if not an unconscious act of recognition of His authorship which, once expressed, is followed, if we are still healthy in our minds and bodies, by gales of laughter.
I am obliged to mention the Gillies Report. The Gillies Report captured the attention of every middle class youth not then in an actual act of rebellion, every yuppie, left liberal, communist, Whitlamophile, rationalist, Uniting Church minister and schoolteacher under the age of forty-five in the country. When you have thrown in the religious cranks who watched to be offended, this adds up to a rating of fourteen. It won this audience by treating people who were, and still are, trying to act rationally as irrational. In fact all over the country today stand-up comics are mimicking and mocking people of good-will, intelligence and integrity. When parents, or grandparents, or kind uncles and aunties ask children what they want to be when they grow up, they are likely to be told, ‘A stand-up comic’. These kids only want to satirise civic leaders. Often their parents are civic leaders.
To some extent they have a point. Political satire is a healthy enough occupation if it is kept within reasonable limits. In some ways it is akin to elemental rural humour. In the Prime Minister, for instance, we hear a man attempting the verbal equivalent of driving a goose and two pigs through a narrow gate. We hear him wrestling with the intractable stump of pluralism. Politics, consensus politics at least, demands reconciling the irreconcilable. This largely futile endeavour, carried out in the same spirit as that of the pioneers, has miserable consequences for the language; and it is on this, together with the grunts, curses and threats, that satirising Hawke is based. Malcolm Fraser employed a different method of droving. He shouted and put in the boot and when a beast strayed he damned it and let it go. He played Noah to the nation’s Ham. ‘All right’, he said, ‘you know, if you think, if that’s your idea of how to behave, well, you know … go!’ Fraser’s stump was his personality. He could not dislodge his proud Puritan soul any better than Hawke can hide the evangelical origins of his messianism. Whether they like it or not, these two have a lot in common. Both are staunch believers in Providence. Both come from the tradition of the savage God. Both are great vehicles for satire.
The object of satire is not ridicule, it is recognition. It is not a matter of making them what they are not, but what they are, which is like all of us. You can tell a country has gone to the dogs when cynical ridicule is mistaken for wit. Is there anything so depressing as expensively educated cynics? It has got very bad in the cities. Every night in cafes and night clubs — they know who they are — innocent members of the audience are publicly humiliated. Sometimes on stage! Worse still, there are people, we hear, who seem to enjoy being humiliated. We are told of people who scramble for the front row. It would never happen in the country. In the country, in the old days at least, they expected to be on stage only twice in their lives — their Wedding Day and the Day of Judgement. They did not look forward to either.
Plainly there is a revealed correlation between the death of God and the dying of humour. It is not that God was funny. But His presence was essential to create His opposite — the world run imperfectly by men and women. The world in which irony consists of the elements, not people, mocking our good intentions.
There is no going back, by the way. Those hippy literati will not find a sense of humour hobby farming on the south coast. It’s not something you can take on board with a house cow and a grant. It will take generations, a flood, a drought and possibly a Fall.
We need a revival. We need more evangelists on the road. I mean real evangelists and a real God: not those unctuous neophytes and sanctimonious suburban lay preachers with their nice God. We need fiery preachers with a fiery God. Man and God in hot competition. Only then can we be assured that one day something funny will happen to those honey-tongued hypocrites in the United States athletics team. It will be very unpleasant for them you can be sure. And the irony will be — the really funny part — they won’t know what hit them.
° Brown points out that there is also a ‘base humility, that lies in a silly abjectness of mind; of this kind is that’, he says, ‘which leads men to worship angels and follow after superstition’. But this is a theological point and has nothing to do with humour.
† There can now be little doubt the behemoth was an elephant and not a hippopotamus as some scholars once thought. The elephant simply looks more like a behemoth and it is more useful. The Gippsland settler unquestionably would have had even less success with a hippopotamus than he had with the elephant.