Are you a good enough ally? Has the world tired of angry white men? Is society too sensitive? Are people too ‘woke’? Is cancel culture really a thing? What about identity politics?!
Questions such as these plague the contemporary human experience, reminding us that merely existing on this godforsaken planet involves navigating minefields – or stumbling right into them. Thank god for comedy! A comic’s role – in addition to making fart jokes and reminding us that all people who eat activated almonds, or activated anything, are complete idiots – involves illuminating societal challenges and pitfalls, and sculpting them into scenes that amuse and inform us.
The above questions are not an unfiltered insight into my psyche: they are raised by three different ABC TV comedy shows, all of which premiered this year in the space of as many months. Each revolves around people who rub up against social mores one way or another: Why Are You Like This, about young and manipulative Gen Z-ers; After Taste, about a Gordon Ramsay-like celebrity chef attempting to get his flailing career back on track; and Fisk – Kitty Flanagan’s new series, which follows a straight-shooting contracts lawyer.
All explore – in various ways, and through a variety of characters, setups and punchlines – our hyper divisive modern era. All make a point that the world we are living in, particularly with regards to social and cultural expectations, is rapidly changing. After Taste and Fisk conduct themselves in relatively cautious ways while Why Are You Like This dives right in, going where angels fear to tread. Let’s start with that one.
Co-created by Naomi Higgins, Humyara Mahbub and Mark Bonanno (a member of the absurdist comedy troupe Aunty Donna), Why Are You Like This is a rare achievement: an edgy show with a knack for exploring touchy subjects from a fresh perspective. It revolves around three narcissistic 20-something Melburnians who are quick to accuse others of inappropriate behaviour and incapable, or unwilling, to recognise flaws in themselves.
The discomfit of the show arises largely from the idea that positive progress – for instance a society that more greatly values diversity and the needs of minority communities – is being exploited and politicised by some people, for the wrong reasons. Addressing the cruelty of the characters, and explaining the cynical perspective at the heart of the show, co-creator, co-writer and star Naomi Higgins told Broadsheet: “People aren’t growing and learning and becoming better people. People are set in their ways and they’re awful, and that is very funny to me.”
“Comedy has a long history of being purposefully anarchic and offending prevailing power structures”
The opening scene introduces us to Mia (Olivia Junkeer), who is South Asian and bisexual, as she is engaged in conversation with her white male boss. The show’s first line of dialogue has her lambast him for being “clearly OK with imposing white normative regulations in order to erase my culture”, before it is revealed that he is merely asking her to wear shoes in the office. When the boss tries to explain that this is “standard OHS policy” she responds by shouting: “Racist!”
At every point, when he gives examples of Mia’s behaviour, she returns fire by accusing him of various forms of prejudice related to her gender, ethnicity and religion. You can sense just from the first minute of running time how loaded this material is, how easily it could have gone terribly wrong. Merely recounting the details of this scene almost feels dangerous.
Why Are You Like This is prickly and funny throughout, with a gaping, intentionally amoral hole in its centre. Mia is a bad person – not just insensitive but mean – who, instead of receiving moral comeuppance, tends to get away with everything. As the show explores, her straight white friend Penny (Higgins) wants to be a good ally but is accusatory and judgemental, and her gay housemate Austin (Wil King) is also deeply flawed. All the characters are well-drawn and the performances are excellent.
The protagonist of After Taste, celebrity chef Easton West (Erik Thomson), is also awful and set in his ways, and has a thinly (sometimes not at all) disguised contempt for others. He, however, is white, middle class and male. While Mia is smarmy and calculated, Easton struggles to control his rage and regularly erupts in anger. He (unlike Mia) comes from a position of power and privilege – though he learns he must change his ways, discovering the world no longer tolerates his tantrums.
Because as a rival chef (Remy Hii) warns him: “People are over the angry white guy schtick.” And so the maligned celebrity chef teams up with his niece Diana (Natalie Abbott) to adopt a friendlier look and a more homely kind of restaurant. The context for the show is changing power structures; Thomson told the ABC that After Taste explores how “the age of the white middle class male is coming to an end”.
Simmering in the background, separate but related, is a conversation about the many ways the patriarchy has profoundly shaped human culture and history. Many – such as Hannah Gadsby – view the current moment not just as an opportunity to tilt the scales in a more equitable direction, but to view and interrogate history itself from starkly different perspectives. In her electrifying comedy show Nanette, she famously described Western art as “just the history of men painting women as if they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers”.
While the uncomfortable politics of Why Are You Like This makes us shift in our seats, the message at the core of After Taste is straightforward: that the talent of the artist does not excuse the sins of the man, who no longer has the freedom to say and do whatever he pleases.
Poor Helen Fisk (Kitty Flanagan) is learning that lesson too – though she of course is not a man. The comedy trades off the fact that she, a lawyer, isn’t particularly talented either, hired in the first episode by a rinky-dink law firm specialising in wills and probate. During her job interview with Ray Gruber (Marty Sheargold), Fisk admits she is “not really a people person” and “not really a dead people person either”. After describing her face as one that says “I’ve been around the block”, the following interaction between the two characters occurs.
Ray: What we’ve found here is that people would prefer to deal with a more mature lady (but) you can’t say lady any more. It’s sort of, erm, female. Non-male. Whatever you call yourself.
Helen: “A woman, usually.”
Ray: “The point is you are one. So tick tick and tick, Helen Tudor Fisk.”
Helen: “Tick tick and tick – as in, I got the job?”
Ray: “Yes. No-one in this pile even comes close to your age!”
With an exchange like that, one expects a significant chunk of the comedy going forward to revolve around sexism and ageism. There is only a faint element of that; the show has other (often less substantial) things on its mind. Later in episode one, for instance, Helen, after speaking loudly in a cafe – in order to call out another person who is also speaking loudly – a nervous staff member tells her “your vibe is really loud” and “a lot of us find shouting really triggering”.
“What makes these shows interesting is that they belong in front of a cultural background that is rapidly changing”
Those final words – “really triggering” – suggest a sneering view of younger generations as being overly sensitive, though it’s difficult to say if this is simply one character’s opinion or a perspective that comes from the writers (the narrative context is that Helen, like Easton, struggles to accept that she can no longer say and do as she pleases). The feeling that it might be coming from Flanagan is exacerbated by the fact that she is also the star as well as co-creator, co-writer and co-director.
But more important than the question of whether this is characterisation or a broader comment (or both) is the fact that comedy has a long history of being purposefully anarchic. And also of offending prevailing power structures – from the paradoxically named Shakespearean Fool to great stand-up comedians who fuse humour with powerful polemical messages – such as Bill Hicks and Hannah Gadsby.
Part of what makes Why Are You Like This, After Taste and Fisk interesting is that they belong in front of a cultural background that is rapidly changing. The fact that we don’t know precisely what society will change into provides an additional layer of uncertainty – although each of these shows suggests, in their own way, it is best to be genuine, tolerant and, particularly if you’re an angry middle-aged white guy, forever cognisant of your historically unshakeable privilege.