Hannah Story asked a slew of Australian comics, including Tom Ballard, Pauly Fenech, Heath Franklin, Geraldine Hickey, Nazeem Hussain, Bev Killick and Matt Okine, to reflect on the last decade in Australian comedy, and what they hope to see in the future.
The Australian comedy industry has completely shifted since the start of the decade, says Brisbane-born, Sydney-based comedian Matt Okine.
“The Australian comedy scene is a lot more diverse these days,” he explains. “Where line-ups rarely had more than one woman and one 'ethnic' comic at a time, you're now seeing far more line-ups of all cultures, backgrounds, sexualities and religions.”
Melbourne-based stand-up Bev Killick agrees, saying that the male-to-female ratio on line-ups is becoming more equal as the scene changes and becomes more tolerant of difference. She points to “a steady influx of minority groups feeling safe enough to be more involved in mainstream comedy”.
As the industry keeps growing and growing, and encapsulating people from incredibly diverse backgrounds, “The comedy scene finally looks and sounds more like the Australia people see out and about,” Melbourne’s Nazeem Hussain gushes.
Geraldine Hickey, also based in Melbourne, is upfront about what she sees for the future of the scene: “Diversity! Anyone that uses the excuse, ‘I tried but no one from that minority was available,’ will be put in the bin.”
She also hopes the industry will become more accessible not just to new, previously unheard voices, but to punters too. “Imagine if there was a Auslan interpreter at every gig?” she ponders.
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The scene has changed in the last ten years in terms of more than just representation, she continues: “We got mediocre men to take a backseat and for a brief period we went mad for clowning.”
But Sydney’s Pauly Fenech, who has been working in comedy for over 20 years, fears that we could lose “our Australian sense of humour and replace it with world USA humour and political correctness”. “More comics are a little anxious to be outrageous. Wild comedy is being strangled by the PC world,” he stresses. “I myself however will not bend to the evil dark side of the force known as political correctness.”
Fellow industry veteran Heath Franklin, also from Sydney, doesn’t feel the same way about the changing comedy landscape. “Old white guys like me aren’t given a free hit anymore which means we have to work harder to stay relevant and that’s a good thing,” he counters.
Okine strenuously believes that comedians should strive for inclusivity, but he reckons it’s likely that there could be some kind of underground revolt against ‘woke culture’ in the future: “I do think there'll be a backlash of sorts – an underground movement where causing offence for offence's sake will come back in to fashion.”
Hussain meanwhile is pretty certain that our uniquely Australian sense of humour isn’t going anywhere. Instead he reckons it is “catching on globally”. The impact of Netflix and YouTube on the industry means that comics have to get funnier to compete for views with the rest of the world, he says. “I think Australia’s honest approach to telling stories is gonna be the next big thing,” he says. “I hope so anyway.”
The seeming dominance of streaming services means to Franklin that, “Terrestrial TV will either adapt to the age of streaming services or go under, drowning in its own desperate pandering to the lowest common denominator.”
He hopes the next ten years see Australian audiences watching less reality TV and more “quality scripted shows”. “This generation deserves its Young Ones or D-Generation or Monty Python, not just a bunch of gossiping idiots squabbling at a dinner table or crying about their renovations.
“It would also be nice if things like Netflix, Stan and Disney+ had mandatory local content quotas to make sure that young Australian comedians can have the same opportunities I had.”
Warrnambool-born, Sydney-based comic Tom Ballard notes the disparity between the way Australia is “creating some of the best live performers and artists in the world and yet there seems to be fewer and fewer opportunities in film and TV for new and emerging Australian voices”.
“I really hope something will give and we'll see the streaming services start to make more local content and take the risks the networks seem to avoid,” he says.
Hussain too hopes that we see more Australian comedians on local television: “I’d like to see Australian TV take cues from the live scene. Hundreds of thousands of Australians spend their money to see live comedy, but you’d rarely see that sort of content on screen these days.”
For Hussain and Okine, their personal highlight from their last ten years in the industry has been to create their own TV shows for Australian audiences.
“[My highlight was] making television with my funny friends, both Legally Brown on SBS and Orange Is The New Brown on Channel 7,” says Hussain.
After having his first TV pilot rejected in 2010 by every network, Okine is particularly proud he was able to make two seasons of The Other Guy on Stan.
“I always felt back then that a show with a brown lead actor would only get up on SBS or maybe ABC. It's cool that there's so many more platforms now for networks to take risks on young talent. To finally succeed with a show that I'm really proud of, with a cast of incredibly talented stars, I couldn't be happier.”