The first Paul Hogan-led movie in over a decade, The Very Excellent Mr Dundee, is out today on Amazon Prime Video, its arrival coinciding with a period of heightened debate about ‘cancel culture’ and ‘callout culture’. Hogan’s shtick has dated, as this unimpressive film makes abundantly clear, with its plethora of jokes about how the world has moved on from the star’s glory days in the 1980s.
This feeds into a larger question: how do other Australian comedy legends stack up? Whose once-funny material looks poor in the sober light of 2020, and whose is still comedy gold?
To unpack this question, I’ve listed three examples of bad (has aged poorly) and four examples of good (has aged well). There’s one more for the latter group, because in this terrible, terrible year, it might be best to err on the side of the positive.
This analysis is focused on film and television output and does not scrutinise the minefield of a comedian’s personal lives or social media accounts. The aim is not to name and shame (well, OK, just a little) but to ask: what material remains great, and why?
It is by no means comprehensive – many more comedy legends could fall into either category – but rather a conversational starting point. So without further delay…
Chris Lilley’s appearance on this list will surprise nobody, given the once-revered comedian is Australia’s most famous example of a modern minstrel. Wearer of blackface, brownface and yellowface, Lilley has drawn immense controversy for his portrayal of characters such as S.mouse (blackface), Jonah From Tonga (brownface) and Ricky Wong (yellowface).
After Jonah From Tonga, which went to air on ABC in 2014, it seemed certain Lilley’s career was dead in the water. Then along came Netflix, which greenlit Lunatics – an onerous array of half-baked vignettes in which Lilley extracted laughs, with the grace of a dentist pulling teeth, by wearing a fat suit, a fake butt, standing on stilts and putting on various accents.
Netflix last month removed four of Lilley’s shows from its library: We Can Be Heroes, Summer Heights High, Angry Boys and Jonah From Tonga. So back we are again to his career looking dead in the water. Lilley’s greatest failing isn’t gross pantomime per se, but ‘punching down’ – making fun of marginalised people in ways that are the equivalent of pointing and laughing.
Barry Humphries’ views on issues such as transgender rights have been well documented, but how does his work itself hold up? Short answer: some (a lot) better than others.
The veteran’s anarchic 1987 turkey Les Patterson Saves The World gorges on toilet bowl humour, following the titular character – a cartoonishly vile alcoholic – as he becomes embroiled in a terrorism plot involving a Middle Eastern country. Gross-out humour like this (i.e. involving baked beans and going to the bathroom) doesn’t tend to age too badly, mostly because it’s usually not very good to begin with.
Immeasurably worse, and ageing as well as a rotting corpse, is the 1972 classic The Adventures Of Barry McKenzie, which Humphries co-wrote and co-starred in, and was based on a character he created. Telling a Borat-like fish-out-of-water story about a bone-headed Australian trampling across England, the film begins with a text insert declaring “no poofters allowed”.
The grossness of this film continues with lines of dialogue such as “hungry Arab, would have dropped the bastard if he wasn’t qualified for the pension” and “I’m that thirsty I could drink out of a Japanese wrestler’s jockstrap.” It’s atrocious stuff: no wit, no substance. Just bile.
Back to Hoges we go. The popular Paul Hogan Show was before my time, and, running for more than a decade (from 1973 to 1984), contains too much content to scrutinise without a generous funding grant and a team of researchers. It has certainly been accused of sexism, Hogan responding to this last year by arguing: “The sketches were designed, not for you to perv on the girls, but to show what idiots we men can make of ourselves over an attractive woman.”
The humour in Hogan’s 1986 classic Crocodile Dundee – still the most successful film of all time at the Australian box office – has certainly aged poorly. In one ill-advised scene, for instance, Hogan sexually assaults a trans woman by grabbing her in the groin area then yelling “a guy dressed up like a sheila! Look at that!” Again: it’s point and laugh humour, and it punches down.
Listed in 1997 by the National Trust Of Australia as one of the country’s 100 National Living Treasures, Garry McDonald’s best-known character is Norman Gunston, an awkward, blabbering, pasty-faced TV journalist from Wollongong who, in the long-running The Norman Gunston Show, constantly derails his own interviews.
McDonald applied his largely improvised shtick in interviews with the likes of Paul McCartney, Frank Zappa, Cheech And Chong, Muhammad Ali and Guns N’ Roses, to name only a few. The latter interview, conducted in 1993 at a press conference with Slash and Duff McKagan, is a good example of McDonald’s ability to seize the spotlight and bring the entire room with him – including the people he’s talking to. The joke is not ‘on’ them, but with them, McDonald generally inviting his guests to participate in an absurd back-and-forth.
McDonald’s second most famous role is the character of Arthur Beare, the titular son in the iconic sitcom Mother And Son. He delivers a shouty, Costanzian performance as a flustered man dealing with a mother (the great character actor Ruth Cracknell) who is losing her marbles. The show has a great, tongue-lashing ebb and flow, and is still very entertaining to watch today.
Magda Szubanski’s career goes back to the popular ’80s sketch comedy show The D-Generation, appearing with then-unknown comedians such as Rob Sitch, Jane Turner, Mick Molloy, Judith Lucy and Tony Martin. The show explored various ‘Australianisms’, which became central to Szubanski’s oeuvre, further developed by her in Fast Forward. Her roles in this legendary skit show (which ran from 1989 to 1992) included a blasé durrie-sucking receptionist.
Szubanski’s most famous character is probably Sharon Strzelecki from Kath & Kim, a very goofy sports tragic – with a terrible bowl haircut and a cat-strangling ’Strayan accent. It’s classic anti-cool comedy, the actor demonstrating on many occasions an ability to take the character on the road, into various improvised situations.
Szubanski has also delivered excellent supporting performances in films that have benefited immeasurably from her involvement – such the silent comedy era-homaging Dr Plonk (from 2007) and the two Babe movies (released in 1995 and 1998).
A prominent member of Working Dog, the highly successful production company formed by himself, Santo Cilauro, Jane Kennedy and Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch is a well-known face on Australian screens.
One of his earliest triumphs is an unforgettable performance as the pathetically vain news anchor Mike Moore on Frontline – which ran from 1994 to 1997, and which Sitch co-wrote and co-created. Frontline expresses an extremely cynical attitude towards current affairs programs, unpacking various irresponsible journalistic practices. Its messages have only become more relevant.
Comedy can be a highly effective vehicle with which to hold the powerful to account, which is something Sitch seemed to cotton onto early on and continued years later in ABC TV satires The Hollowmen (about political advisers) and Utopia (bureaucrats in a fictitious government agency). In both series – which Sitch co-wrote, co-created and directed – the comedy is focused on the absurdities of working within governmental systems, focused on characters who have had humanity sucked out of them by so much red tape.
This kind of comedy tends to stand up well over time, because politics – well, it’s not going anywhere, so comically speaking it’s always ripe for the picking. Sitch has also directed several films, including two bona fide classics: the beloved 1997 mega-hit The Castle and the 2000 historical comedy/drama The Dish.
Judith Lucy is a highly distinctive comedian (that voice!) who trades in an irreverent, at times almost grotesque kind of drollery. Many of her risque jokes point inwards – taking the mickey out of herself and her own life – but she also delivers frank social commentary. Lucy finessed her style in one-woman stand-up shows in the ’90s, and for a long time has been a regular face on Australian screens, currently with an ongoing role in The Weekly With Charlie Pickering.
In 2011, she starred in and wrote the six-part series Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey, which was directed by another bona fide comedy legend: the excellent Tony Martin. The essence of the series is inseparable from Lucy’s tell-it-like-it-is style, the same applying to her follow-up series – 2015’s Judith Lucy is All Woman. That show contains various gimmicky elements, such as Lucy disguising herself as a man and setting herself the challenge of ordering a beer and urinating while standing up.
This is, literally, toilet bowl humour. But Lucy framed the exercise (and the series more generally) as a way of poking fun at the patriarchy and investigating gender-based double standards. This involves serious analysis presented in a playful style, such as an investigation into the lack of female heroes in kids books. “Stop oppressing me, Curious George!” she exclaimed.