A History of Australian Comedy: Two Enduring Personas

Stand Up Comedians - Norman Gunston

When the first larrikin stepped off the first fleet, a particular brand of Australian comedy was born.  Embracing the idea of ‘fish out of water’ syndrome with a rebellious streak that could only come from a nation of Convicts. Never forgetting, invading a diverse nation of indigenous people with their own remarkable culture. At times as dry as the Great Sandy Desert, other times as wild as an angry boxing kangaroo, Australia’s history of comedy shows a side of the Australian personality that has made the whole world laugh.

Let’s take a look at two Australian comedy personas that have endured:

1. The working class cobber with a good heart who’s not the brightest crayon in the box

If you go back and look at some clips of George Wallace swinging his too-short legs while sitting on an imaginary throne after a knock on the head in ‘His Royal Highness’, you’ll see the very beginnings of this Australian comedy character. With the broad Australian accent that the Americanised kids of today would hardly understand, Wallace was a star of sound films in 1927, where he basically stood up and did the same stuff he did in the silent era up to that point. In the movie, you see him mocking the British accent and taking the mickey out of any ounce of snobbery in those around him. And that sense of equality is an enduring element of the Australian comedy scene.

Since then, Paul Hogan also played the working class cobber with a good heart who’s not the brightest crayon in the box, as did Michael Caton in the Castle. And it doesn’t have to be a bloke, Kath & Kim portrayed this perfectly in their single-story brick veneer and visits to Fountain Lakes. Mick Molloy achieved an alternative version of this, with the cheeky little swine who was no good to anyone ultimately coming around in Australian comedy classic ‘Crackerjack’.

2. Political apathy – who, us Aussies?

Australians don’t just do political satire, the whole political scene is a source of comedy in our books. In the past, people have cried out for a higher calibre of political satire. In fact, it’s usually the politicians who have been asking. But our brand of political humour blows satire into a million pieces – it’s downright ridicule. Extending the rebellion against the crown, we continued to laugh in the face of some of the most important moments in politics. Consider 40 years ago, right in the midst of the greatest political crisis that Australia has ever seen, fictional comedy reporter Norman Gunston waving a microphone at Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam during his dismissal.

And you can’t ignore The Chaser’s infiltration of the 2007 APEC summit in Sydney. This is where Australian comedy crosses a line that no other international sense of humour will cross. Our humour doesn’t always translate across the Pacific, but when it does, you can be sure charges will be laid.

One person who successfully transgresses political borders with humour is Wil Anderson. His ‘Political Wil’ took advantage of our internationally renowned comedic Prime Minister in 2015, making audiences everywhere laugh their speedos off. Tom Gleeson also engages audiences with the comedy flipside of serious news, having worked on Good News Week and The Project.

Whether we are celebrating international success like Graham Kennedy or Dame Edna Everage, or looking to the current Australian landscape, Australia’s history of comedy is undoubtedly unique and rebellious, and embraces the notion of equality in diversity.

If you had to pick your favourite comedian, past or present, who would you call the best in Australia’s comedy history?