For a laugh, try satire, Neville Bennett

Kiwi Jokers: The Rise and Rise of New Zealand Comedy
Matt Elliott
HarperCollins, $29.95, ISBN 1 86950 248 5

The Penguin Book of New Zealand Jokes
John Barnett & Lesley Kaiser in assn with Brian Schaab
Penguin, $19.95, ISBN 0 140 26128 1

A Dagg at my Table: Writings 1977–1996
John Clarke
Hodder Moa Beckett, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86958 316 7

Xenophobe’s guide to the Kiwis
Christine Cole Catley
Ravette Books/Cape Catley, $9.95, ISBN 1 85304 583 7

The Essential Pocket Kiwi
Nicholas Tarling
Dunmore Press, $14.95, ISBN 0 86469 258 7

My imagination raced when the editor laconically phoned to say he was sending books on an unusual subject. Was he emulating Night and Day, the brilliant 1930s review that asked people to review out of their area? Imagine Louise MacNeise on the Kennel Club, Herbert Read on detective novels, Pamela Hansford Johnson on croquet and William Plower on all-in wrestling.

But what began as fun turned deadly serious (is that a natural progression?). Evelyn Waugh savaged the left, John Betjeman suburbia and Graham Greene the film industry. Greene was prurient, saying Jean Harlow “toted a breast like a man totes a gun” and fatally extended his sexual scrutiny to the “neat and well-developed rump” of child star Shirley Temple. Hollywood sued and the damages did for the review.

What was the editor dispatching? Not cooking, at least not those popular ones that seem born to be remainders. Memoirs of a Wairarapan Weightlifter? Yet another Otago octogenarian? Not horse racing, surely! Had Alison Holst written on how to be an author? Had Brian Turner turned to haute cuisine?

The package contained comedy-comedy!

My career in comedy was short-lived. It began as a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. The professor gave me little advice on how to give my first lecture beyond: “Tell a little joke to break the tension.” (His little joke was to ask me to lecture on ancient Egypt because I had made a stopover there four days previously.) I tried the one about the blind men and an elephant. One clutches the tail, another a leg, another the trunk, etc, and they dispute the nature of the beast on the basis of the evidence in their hands. It’s quite a long joke and I began to labour it by trying to say history depends on evidence and writers can be captured by what evidence they have. One hundred Chinese faces looked impassively at me.

I got a laugh at the end of the lecture by inadvertently tripping on a raised dais. The Chinese love slapstick and my misfortune was warmly applauded. The professor was hovering outside and was slightly surprised when lots of giggling students emerged. “Told them a joke,” he observed. “Piece of cake,” I replied.

Humour is a cultural construct. What people of one culture find funny may not appeal to people of a contiguous culture, much less to an unrelated one. I’m not being necessarily ethnic here, for in London there is a marked difference between middle-class and cockney humour. Indeed, I heard the great film producer Anthony Asquith saying that responses to his movies differed in London locations. Cockneys laughed a great deal at the toffee-nosed accents until the story enraptured them. In middle-class areas the disadvantaged were giggled at.

This is not to suggest British humour is just about class. Rather, comedians from one background may fail to get a warm response in the other. A visitor to New Zealand in 1997 had failed in the United States; said she was happy to come here because its sense of humour was essentially British. She also said that being a comedian was the most difficult of all performing arts.

She’s right! Audiences will sit fairly quietly while a historian drones on or a poet goes over the top or a musician gets the tempo wrong. They might applaud politely at the end, perhaps in relief that the ordeal is over. But they are inclined to withhold their laughter from a comedian that does not quite hit the mark and be merciless in their derision if the performer is wide of the mark.

Comedians, like politicians and sportspeople, need applause or laughter during their performance. Performers such as historians, musicians or poets want it at convenient times, mostly at the end of their piece. If the audience is flat, the comedian gets desperate. I saw Tony Hancock at the Hong Kong Hilton on his last trip out to Australia where he committed suicide. I saw his deep despair as he failed to move a deadpan Chinese audience which even subdued the Brits and Kiwis present. I’m sure that Hong Kong session did for him, though no biographer mentions it.

2

All of which gets us to a question: is there a Kiwi sense of humour? The first book I picked up seemed terrible. Example: “What is a Kiwi girl’s favourite wine?” — “When are we going to Australia?”; or “How do you stop a Frenchman drowning?” — “Take your foot off his head?”. “Where can you find a moa?” — “On the lawn”. These were not typical examples, as most are blue, scatological, sexist and xenophobic.

The anti-Aussie insults are quite authentic. “Why did the Australian walk round with his fly undone?” — “In case he had to count to eleven.” “What’s an Australian’s idea of foreplay?” — “You awake?”. “What do Australian women put behind their ears?” — “Their knees”.

The Irishmen jokes are equally insulting but I suspect they’ve migrated from overseas. “Name an Irish invention” — “ejection seats from helicopters” is an old familiar theme. And my father first told me the one about keeping an Irishman amused with a bit of paper with PTO written on both sides. But there is: “How many Irishmen does it take to change a lightbulb?” — “One hundred and one. One to hold the bulb and 100 to turn the house round.”

The book I’m quoting from is The Penguin Book of New Zealand Jokes. The jokes are variable in length and arranged by subject. Most would produce a stunned silence in any social occasion other than a men’s group at an after-match function. I tried to find one that was witty; perhaps the closest is: “What do accountants use for contraception?” — “Their personalities”.

The authors claim this crass crudity is enjoyed by middle-class male pakeha and “literature tends to be the province of the few, jokes are the province of us all”. (Is it utopian to wish to reverse that?) Jokes’ “anti-elitism” ensures their survival. They write of New Zealand wit but, alas, did not seem to collect any. Then they go highbrow on their readers with a discourse on Freud’s nostrum that a joke “is the contribution made to the comic from the realm of the unconscious.” Apparently, joke telling lifts inhibitions, discharges tensions and represents liberation. It’s therapeutic, helps us to confront such bogeys as senility, impotence and death.

The collection indicates that New Zealand humour is laconic, with undercurrents of “misogyny, anti-male sentiment and racism.” Jokes are inevitably politically incorrect, however: the authors claim their racism and sexism are a means of letting off steam, which prevents things getting out of hand. They also hint that jokes are a weapon against the liberal establishment or “the politics of control”. They promise that exposure to a lot of jokes takes one past a reaction of “outrage through a barrier of taste, to an area of connoisseurship”.

My reaction was not outrage: I was mildly amused, slightly offended and went through a barrier of taste into an area of bulimia. Perhaps the authors might have profited from reading a little more Freud, the bit about personality formation, especially the anal type. This might have furthered their understanding why so many of their jokes reveal an “obsession with excrement” (and farting). It’s a phase my farming childhood took me through.

The next book in my parcel didn’t have a hint of a naughty word. Nicholas Tarling’s Essential Pocket Kiwi has chapters on many subjects such as food and drink, leisure, sickness but not explicitly about humour and certainly not sex. As an introduction to the Kiwi and the country, it has some wry remarks but the text does not flow. It is as if each paragraph was written on a card and given to a typist in somewhat random order. I thought the tone detached but a friend thought it “pompous and pommy.”

There is a cheaper and more comprehensive guide to the Kiwis: Christine Cole Catley’s Xenophobes Guide.  It avoids sex, too, but looks at obsessions (in a non-Freudian way): namely, the weather, sport, politics, animals and “hunting and pest control”(!), yachting and “arts and leisure festivals”(!). It makes a serious one and a-half page lunge into literature, starting with Allen Curnow, followed quickly by Sam Hunt, Gary McCormick and Barry Crump.

It was a revelation to me that “class distinctions are based more on education than on money or belonging to old families”. That line will produce shrieks of laughter in Fendalton, Remuera or Khandallah or in the polo-playing set. And many Kiwis will enjoy this little joke: “Q. Your home has been burgled. How do you know the burglar is Asian? A. If the cat’s gone and the homework’s been done.” My feeling is that Tarling and Catley are too old and too up-themselves to write well for backpackers or Kiwis who enjoyed the freshness of an Austin Mitchell or Tim Shadbolt.

3

Despite its fluorescent coloured cover, I found myself reading with mounting interest and admiration. Matt Elliot’s Kiwi Jokers. Himself a young comedian, Matt writes an insider’s view of humour in this country. Gradually he builds up a picture of a country with a lot of talent and that talent being frustrated by a shortage of opportunity or arbitrary producers.

His work was necessary to jog my memory of how Fred Dagg burst on the scene in 1975 to a rapturous welcome. (Greatest Hits sold 80,000 albums in three weeks.) “Daggmania” followed, with huge spinoff sales — not that he was mercenary. The “Gumboot” song made the charts for weeks. This amazing impact, including being named television personality of the year, was the product of only three hours on television. Fred toured in 1976 and characteristically insisted family tickets be very affordable.Interest in him was second only to the Beatles: he was seen by 250,000 people. In 1977 he left for Australia.

Arthur Baysting, star of the “Neville Purvis Family Show”, had a disastrous career. Arthur drank a lot, dragged in mates like Bruno, Ian Fraser and Brian Edwards. Muldoon opened a show (to enhance his popularity) and said: “Right, let’s get down to Bellamy’s and get pissed.” Neville finished his shows by reading out voluminous hostile reviews. On his last show Neville read criticisms of his language and added: “Well at least we never said fuck.” Had to leave the country.

By then there were new stars. On 4 July 1977 Ken Ellis and David McPhail opened A Week of It with the question: “What is Bill Rowling really like in bed?” A photo of Bill in bed flashed on the screen. McPhail was experienced in television — he produced the unforgettable The South Tonight featuring Rodney Bryant and Bryan Allpress. He met a group of students, influenced by British television’s Beyond the Fringe, and teamed up with Chris McVeigh, Peter Hawes, John Reid, Alan Grant and (later) Jon Gadsby. McPhail pestered the authorities to try A Week of It and wore down opposition.

Nothing like it had happened in New Zealand before. Perhaps there was some initial external inspiration but these stars (and Annie Whittle) made brilliant programmes, of wonderful spontaneity. The programme was shot only half an hour before it went on air. McPhail’s impersonation of Muldoon gave people a chance to laugh at the “real bloody dictator” (McVeigh’s words). We ought to give medals to the team because, as Grant says, “between 1977 and 1981 we were the only people who were publicly and consistently rude about him”.

Most of the team developed other careers and left. So Grant was left as a writer, with McPhail and Gadsby. This trio’s Letter to Blanchy is still being shown. For 20 years they’ve made an unforgettable contribution to comedy and satire. It has not been easy. Grant told me recently how it was initially possible to make shows in Canterbury but now there are no studios in the South Island. There will be no more brilliant students getting a chance in local television. Grant has had to resume work as a lawyer as writing opportunities have dried up.

That’s enough detail. There were other brilliant people on television like Lynn of Tawa and Billy T James. Nor should we forget a series of delightful films which showed the genius of Ian Mune.  There’s also a club scene. Matt Elliott’s book makes one aware of a wonderful comic tradition created in only 20 years. I greatly admire his professional use of interviews to recreate an important part of our past, one which historians could have overlooked (and probably still will).

I saved A Dagg at my Table till last as a treat. Fred has a Dip.Fencing(Hons) PhD Cattle Management (Oxen). He went to Australia in 1977, worked ABC Radio (Sckd), ABC TV (Dfnet), some newspapers (Ded) and Australian Film Industry (Fkd). This is a bedside book — with a difference. If you read an excerpt at night you will giggle yourself to sleep. Perhaps it’s better to read a little in the morning and become bushy-tailed.

The thoughts are arranged under radio interviews, newspapers, poetry, television and interviews. My favourite was a stage scene of Alan Bond explaining the nature of business. Fred is funnier than Spike Milligan, John Cleese, Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore, because while he is equally absurd, he seems more intelligent and better informed. When he advises people on careers — economist, accountant, lawyer etc — he cleverly uses their jargon, so that the lampooned must feel amused. He cuts close to the bone. His satire encapsulates the mood of the times.

It remains an open question whether Kiwis have a sense of humour. But we should thank our lucky stars that some very funny people have entertained us in the last two decades. Television has been somewhat obstructive to these talents. It prefers cheap foreign imports. The work of Clarke, James, McPhail and Gadsby and Lynn of Tawa has probably amounted to 0.001% of total production time. Transmission of adverts for toilet paper surely exceed locally produced humour.

And what has worked best, out of the whole comedy genre, is undoubtedly satire. That’s revealing, for satire works best when society is boring and its leaders pompous.

Neville Bennett teaches history at Canterbury University. 

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