Comedy’s Winning The Fight For Racial Diversity On Australian TV

Laughter may be a universal language, but on Australian screens, comedy has struggled to represent the diversity of our nation.

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In America, 2014 was lauded as the year in which ethnic minorities finally took centre stage on the small screen, with a whole slew of new comedy shows featuring ethnically diverse casts and stories including Fresh Off the Boat, Cristela, Jane the Virgin and Black-ish. But how are we faring back home?

Cultural Diversity And The Public Broadcasters

There have been a few recent forays into more inclusive ethnic representation in Australian TV comedy. Legally Brown, for instance, aired its second season on SBS last year. It’s hosted and written by Nazeem Hussain, who cut his teeth doing stand-up as one half of the award-winning comedy duo, Fear of a Brown Planet.

Legally Brown’s sketch format includes both scripted and hidden camera segments, that make for often uncomfortable (though hilarious) viewing. In one of the regular scripted segments, Hussain teams up with fellow comedians Matt Okine, Ronny Chieng and Luke McGregor to explore a possible future world where Anglo Australians have become the minority.

Skits like the one above delve into complex issues like systemic discrimination, and the latent racism present in parts of Australian society. In a country which often struggles to engage in sensible, nuanced conversation about race and racism, comedy is one of the most effective weapons we have in our arsenal — and Legally Brown is one of the few shows that illustrate the daily experiences faced by many in our community who come from an ethnic minority background.

Another is ABC sketch show Black Comedy, which aired its first season last year, and deals with race relations — among many other things — from an Indigenous Australian viewpoint. In a piece for The Conversation, Chelsea Bond illustrates the show’s point of difference: “Black Comedy does not try and appease non-Indigenous aspirations and concerns, nor does it seek to educate non-Indigenous audiences about ‘our ways’. The show is proudly, defiantly, and unapologetically black.”

This is one of the show’s biggest strengths: it doesn’t take the non-Indigenous viewer by the hand and guide them, step by step, through all the complexities of being Indigenous in today’s Australia. Rather, Black Comedy throws the non-Indigenous viewer in the deep end, challenging them to question any subconscious biases they might have.

Black Comedy was developed though a workshop held by the ABC in 2012, who published a call-out for “Aboriginal people who thought they were funny.” Drawing inspiration from Basically Black, an Indigenous sketch show which only aired one episode back in the early ‘70s, the ABC ran a week of workshops with sixteen writers and performers. Four of the original workshop participants, and a fifth additional writer, came together to write the bulk of the show, and the show’s writers, who come from a broad range of creative backgrounds, also star in it. The ABC’s approach to diversifying their content by searching for and investing in new writers appears to have paid off, too: the critically-acclaimed Black Comedy was recently being picked up for repeats on ABC2.

Finally there’s Maximum Choppage, which came out earlier this year on the ABC, co-written by and starring Lawrence Leung. Leung has helmed a number of comedy shows on the ABC, though this is his first foray into character-driven narrative comedy. Like Hussain, Leung also has a background as a stand-up comedian, however unlike Legally Brown and Black Comedy, Maximum Choppage is not a sketch show. It follows  Simon Chan, a young Asian-Australian man who returns to his home in a larger-than-life Cabramatta, and must fight the mayor, who is hell-bent on turning the high street into a multi-storey car park.

Maximum Choppage is gloriously, unabashedly silly, and definitely left-of-field for Australian audiences — including its very own spin on the global phenomenon that is K-Pop, with a promotional song for the development of the car park.

Shuk-Wah Chung in The Guardian has criticised the show for “indulging in a few cringe-worthy oriental stereotypes” to get laughs, but Maximum Choppage does manage to play against expectations. The show takes stereotypes, like the love of K-Pop and the crime-fighting martial arts hero, and turns them on their head. The main character, Simon, played by Leung, is a sensitive artist, rather than the kung fu master he must pretend to be for the sake of his family. His female best friend Petal is the real kung fu fighter, saving Simon from many sticky situations. As Leung says about the show, “we don’t have any submissive Asian women.”

In a statement celebrating the selection of the show for a screening at Paris’ Series Mania festival, Tony Ayres — who produced The Slap, and is Maximum Choppage’s executive producer — has said he is “immensely proud of Maximum Choppage – with a 90% Asian cast it is TV like Australia has never seen before. We hope with this exposure other countries around the world can see Australia in this light too.”

But What About The Commercial Networks?

As diverse as they are in terms of casts and content, these comedy shows all have something in common: they’re confined to our public broadcasters. In recent years, as per their charters, ABC and SBS have dedicated themselves to developing home-grown comedy, like Please like Me, Soul Mates and Housos. While Legally Brown, Black Comedy and Maximum Choppage are more broadly part of this wave of new Australian comedy content, they are also part what seems to be a greater trend towards capturing diverse stories on screen. But the hope remains that commercial networks — who so far seem to be only capturing Austalia’s diversity in their reality TV programming — will see value in following their lead.

Although there have been a quality dramas on television showcasing Australia’s diversity – East West 101 on SBS, ABC’s Redfern Now and Gods of Wheat Street, and ABC’s co-production with HBO Asia, Serangoon Road – it’s comedy that has the ability to surprise, subvert and make us interrogate assumptions that we might not even have known we had. As Tony Ayers told Benjamin Law for The Monthly, laughter is “the sugar-coated pill” needed for Australian audiences to accept diversity onscreen; Legally Brown, Black Comedy and Maximum Choppage move beyond the mere appropriation of ethnic stories and characters, to truly challenge the way our society approaches racial issues.

So what can we hope to see on our screens in the future? ABC will soon be screening their new comedy series 8MM Aboriginal Radio – the three “M”s refer to the kinds of people one finds in remote communities in the Northern Territory: missionaries, mercenaries and misfits. SBS, meanwhile, has commissioned The Family Law, based on the comedic memoir by Benjamin Law, with Tony Ayres – who seems to be involved with some of the best and most progressive television in this country – attached as executive producer.

In the longer term though, there are a number of paths to more representation on comedy television. The stand-up-comedian-to-comedy-show-creator route taken by Hussain and Leung is one. Another is the approach that ABC took with Black Comedy: the active search for and development of new, exciting stories and writers, who don’t necessarily have a comic background. Although it requires long-term development of new writers and is a bigger risk for networks, who often have to compete with higher budgeted shows coming out from America and elsewhere, it is just one more way to ensure that diverse Australian stories continue to make it onto our screens, and make us laugh.

Tasnim Hossain is a spoken word poet and playwright, working in international development. She lives in Sydney.

Want to be part of a bigger discussion about representation on TV? Come to our next Junkee Take On this Tuesday — where our panel of writers, thinkers and creators take on the future of TV, in Australia and beyond.

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