Robert Walker’s Weekend Wondering | OPINION, June 17, 2017

THIS is a potted history of how Australians enjoy having a laugh at ourselves.

The New Left call it racism; Australians have generally always called it comedy.

A typical early example of comic stereotyping is the stage Irishman. Edward Geoghegan’s The Currency Lass (1844) featured an Irish manservant - naturally very fond of whisky - who falls in love at the drop of a shillelagh.

Jerome K Jerome notes, “he says Shure and Bedad and, in moments of exultation, Begorrah. That is all the Irish he knows”.

The stage Irishman is always a witty, canny and honest servant. His wit and loyalty to his master are usually only matched by his complete inability to sensibly follow a train of thought or deliver a message accurately. 

Geoghegan’s audiences in 1844, themselves more than likely with a drop of Irish in their veins, decided that his minor Paddy character was the star of the show.

Roy Rene, a legend of Music Hall, film and radio in the first half of the 20th century created the comedic role of “Mo”, an avaricious Jew who would spray spittle when startled or excited and spent his days trying new get-rich schemes – Shylock with a wink and a leer.

Rene was, himself, Jewish, and seems to have relished playing up the racial stereotype to an extreme degree in order to demolish the perception simply by riding its absurdity into the ground.

In 1957 John O’Grady wrote They’re a Weird Mob wherein an Italian immigrant works as a brickies’ labourer and learns how to speak Australian: ‘Wot about Maroubra last Sundy? All on ‘e says, an’ falls for it himself. Comes up blue in the face, spittin’ sand an’ seaweed’.

Narrator Nino remains linguistically perplexed for most of the book and, of course, we laugh at his incomprehension. But Nino is also the conduit whereby we see ourselves so that the laughs cut both ways.

The book quietly but consistently develops the theme that we are a nation of migrants and that local idiom, whilst funny, is no barrier.

Ross Higgins, as Ted Bullpit in Kingswood Country (TV 1980-84) performed another reductio ad absurdum on the “typical-Aussie”.

Apart from an obsessive love for his Holden Kingswood, he was intolerant of just about everything else.

This included his son-in-law Bruno who he only ever addressed as “wog” and politicians of any stripe.

Ted’s favourite expressions were: “Strike me Catholic!” “Don’t dad me! I’m yer father!” and “Pickle me grandmother!"

But while Ted’s catchphrases made him memorable, TV show Acropolis Now (1989-1992) made the character of Effie (Mary Coustas) into a national icon.

A hair-dresser with a frizz of her own that challenged doorways, her mouth perpetually full of bubble-gum, she mangled English so well that her “How embarrassment” and “Please, not so loud, I got a terrible coat hanger” have entered the language. 

The show also pioneered “skippy/skip” to refer to Anglo Aussies.

When not discussing her own beauty, Effie constantly berated others. The line “What do you mean you want a second cup of coffee? Why didn’t you ask when I got the first one and save me the trip?” is worthy of the Groucho Marx Hall of Fame.

“Beauty. It’s a curse and I’ve got it” says Effie, and I guess laughing at ourselves might also be seen as a curse by some people; people who don’t laugh much anyway.