Upwardly Mobile

Sure, Upper Middle Bogan is the front-runner for Australian comedy of the year – well, Mad as Hell might still beat it, but saying UMB is easily the best Australian sitcom of the year feels like damning it with faint praise – but there’s one thing about the show that no-one seems to be talking about: the bogans aren’t really bogans, are they? Oh sure, they’re rough around the edges and they’re cash-poor and they like Zumba and drag racing, but we’re still not talking about real bogans. They’re bogans who are really just rich people who like different stuff than real rich people; we mean the bus-riding, public-swearing, stroller-pushing, (relatively) small house, vaguely criminal, rough-as-guts, as seen in Centerlink actual bogans.

That’s not to say that the “bogan” family in UMB isn’t a reflection of something real in Australian society. It’s just that the divide being played up here is largely about taste, not class. The bogans on UMB are deep in debt whereas the upper-middle class types presumably are not, but otherwise they both seem to have new cars and big houses full of stuff. And for a comedy, this divide makes perfect sense. If the bogans were dirt poor we’d feel sorry for them, which isn’t funny. Or we’d be angry at the rich sods splashing their cash in front of our povvo friends- again, not all that funny. So we have no complaints about the approach taken here: Upper Middle Bogan, you’re all right with us.

Still, there’s a wider issue here. These days if you want to put a working class character into an Australian comedy, you’d better be Chris Lilley. Lilley can get away with it because there’s never any real risk of the audience ever forgetting they’re watching yet another brilliant performance from Australia’s own upper-middle class master of disguise. Lilley’s occasional working-class characters never – with the possible exception of Jonah, who was defined more as “troubled teen” than anything else – run the risk of winning over the audience’s sympathies. Whatever the arguments against Kath & Kim, the performers’ fondness for their characters came through. Lilley almost always just wants the audience to love him; the character he’s portraying is just a means to an end.

Otherwise, what have we got? Oh God, we have to talk about Housos, don’t we. There’s an argument a few people put out there around the time of Housos vs Authority claiming that Housos was actually a good thing because it was the only show out there that dared to present the working class (well, the non-working segment of it) on our televisions and cinema screens. Clearly, those people were, to quote the show they were defending, “fucked in the face”. A fart joke is a fart joke whether the person farting is in a pinstripe suit or a tracksuit; Housos is about swearing and shouting and laughing at dickheads you don’t think you’re anything like (it seems unlikely a lot of junkies watch Housos), and changing the costumes and location of the show (ie, Shearers? A bunch of hippies? Rich yob stockbrokers?) wouldn’t change the comedy content one bit.

That’s not to say Australian comedy doesn’t occasionally attempt to reach out to “a broader, more mainstream audience”. Remember Justice Waters from Wednesday Night Fever? The cranky left-wing tree-hugging “organic mother of the year” whose crazy antics were one of the numerous segments on that show that took place on that show while that show was going to air? With her getting offended by any question she didn’t like and her strident demands to be taken seriously “as a woman and a mother”, no-one actually found her funny because, hey, no jokes. But who was meant to find her funny but people who thought her values and beliefs were crazy?

When you make fun of entitled (read: well-off) lefties, you’re usually hoping to get less entitled right-wing (uh, “more mainstream”) types to laugh. It’s the reverse of the concerns some had about Kath & Kim and The Castle. There working class types were the focus of the comedy; there at least the characters were treated with the kind of sympathy and accuracy that went a long way towards making them funny. Meanwhile, Wednesday Night Fever’s swipes at Justice never made it past “look at this dickhead – what a dickhead”.

The shrinking of the comedy market in the last twenty or so years means all the fringe stuff – the quirky stuff, the non-anglo stuff, the non middle-class stuff – has largely been squeezed out. Sure, there’s more gay comedy out there now, but it’s either Josh Thomas being an inner city hipster (a market which has survived the cutbacks – see Twentysomething and Laid*) who just happens to pash boys or it’s Outland, which didn’t really have much to say to anyone who wasn’t gay or into science fiction fandom. An Australian comedy set in a small town? Or on a farm? Or within any kind of migrant community that isn’t (mis-)represented by Paul freaking Fenech? Yeah, nah.

The big problem with all this is that when you limit the kinds of people you show, you limit the kind of jokes you can tell. And Australian comedy needs all the jokes it can get. These days the poorer – uh, that is “more mainstream” – members of society don’t get to make comedy or be the subject of it. It’s a sign of how narrow our comedy horizons have become that the “bogans” in Upper Middle Bogan are taken at face value; compared to the parade of bland middle-class types on It’s A Date, or the no-dimensional cartoons on Housos, they probably are pushing the boundaries of Australian television.

Just not, you know, to a neighbourhood where middle-class types wouldn’t feel safe after dark.

 

 

*both shows that largely reflected their intended viewers back at them (as did Please Like Me) instead of making comedy out of their characters’ quirks (as Kath & Kim did)

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15 Comments

  • Tony Tea says:

    Bit hard for Australian television types to convincingly portray bogans, when said Australian television types wouldn’t be seen dead within a thousand taffeta table cloths of your common and garden bogan.

  • Tony Tea says:

    Nor do Australian actors ever look like bogans. I mean, the baby faced bogan son doesn’t look any more bogan just because he has a mop of hair.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    I think the big thing you’re missing is that ‘bogans’ (which is a term I dislike) don’t want to be seen as ‘bogans’ they’d rather be seen as middle-class aspirants. Which is what UMB shows us. It also explains the success of X Factor, Masterchef and The Block. The idea of knock about, fair dinkum, working class ockas content with their lot in life is pretty much disappearing from the Australian identity. If anybody is nostalgic for them it’s people who considered themselves growing up as bogans but made it to middle class-dom. The ‘bogans’ in the offensive way I can stereotype and most people recognise are ‘suburban rednecks’ and I’m sure in ‘Legally Brown’ Nazeem will have a good go at their ignorance- but it gets us nowhere.

    Also as said before the Internet has filled in the gaps regarding ethnic (superwog) and ‘bogan’ (punchbowl) comedy that tv and movies have missed.

  • Jimbo says:

    My problem with UMB is that it is a soap opera, not a comedy. Most of the show consists of grumpy people (which itself does not enhance comic tone) yelling at each other in kitchens about soap opera subjects. I haven’t laughed once. It suffers from Gristmill’s same old problem of thinking that ordinary people doing ordinary things is somehow funny. The setup for funniness is there (a fish out of water, horrible relatives, your entire life being a lie, etc), but they don’t follow through on it. Or maybe they are just stringing us out. Compare it to Chris Lilley’s work – he manages to find the funny straight out of the gates.

    Ian McFadyen (of Comedy Company fame) wrote an article many years ago on the problem of representing “working class” Australians in comedy. I managed to find it here (you might want to ignore the rest of his website – he’s into some pretty strange stuff):

    http://members.ozemail.com.au/~imcfadyen/essays/situations.htm

    Maybe his views are prevalent in the industry? He makes some good points, but I don’t think he’s right. A good comic character should exist independently of class. If you antagonize someone long enough, then you get a neurotic character, which is the bedrock of comedy. I get the impression the ABC genuinely wants more working class material, but because it is run by middle class types, they think bogans are working class.

    Another problem is that writing (TV, sitcom, film, novels) is essentially a middle class occupation. Are there actually any working class writers in this country? If they go to university and study English and screenwriting, etc, doesn’t that automatically turn them into the middle class?

    Look at the latest Ricky Gervais comedy ‘Derek’, currently screening on ABC1. That shows ‘authentic’ working class people without turning them into crude caricatures. Can we ever come up with something similar I wonder?

  • J says:

    Hurrah! New Working Dog political satire coming –
    http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/box-seat/frontline-dream-team-are-developing-political-satire-utopia-20130903-2t2ni.html

    Snark note – I wonder which show they will rip off this time.
    Frontline = Larry Sanders
    Hollowmen = Thick Of It
    Audrey’s Kitchen = Posh Nosh
    Utopia = ???

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Parks and Recreation

  • Urinal Cake says:

    As my prize I want Working Dog to hire me as a consultant.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Well, rich evil sods who screw over the rest of us would like to be seen as benefactors of the community but that doesn’t mean that’s how we should portray them in a comedy. And while “The Working Poor” in general might want to be middle-class aspirants, the bogans in UMB basically are middle class in every way but taste – they’re not shown as wanting to be middle class anyway, they’re relatively content with their (drag-racing) lot.

    This isn’t about nostalgia, it’s about the lack of diversity being shown in our comedy today. There’s a full spectrum of wealth out there in Australia and for a show (which again, we’re enjoying a lot) to claim that well-off western suburbs types are “bogans” when there’s a number of rungs lower down that would better fit the description is worth pointing out.

    No doubt the internet is doing a lot of good work on the diversity front, but television is still the mass medium and having a lack of diversity there is an issue no matter what’s taking place out of sight.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    The day Australian comedy aspires to come up with something similar to Derek is the day this blog shuts down forever.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Sorry, the guy who runs their local DVD rental place has that position sewn up.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    But drag racing is ‘aspirational’ compared to racing dirt bikes or quads or karts. They drag race and are in debt because drag has prestige attached to it when they could easily get their kicks cheaper.

    I agree that ABC (particularly) and SBS should showcase different voices but it’s clear they’ve decided their viewers and overseas commissioners are only predominantly interested in ‘white’, ‘middle-class’ set-ups. It’s rare to have ‘poor people’ comedy because it’s not a side of life people want to see unless through some prism of nostalgia/foreignness or is comically exaggerated. The last ‘working-class’ shows that were successful were ‘Shameless’ and ‘Outrageous Fortune’ and even then you would consider them niche. ‘Roseanne’ looks more and more like an outlier.

    I do pimp the Internet but only because it seems popular in giving the ‘people’ what they want which is ‘Wog vs Aussies: Pubic Hair Grooming’. I think there are more interesting things to be said but whatever.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    So I guess early 2015 when Working Dog finishes renting out Derek.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    We’d be happy with comically exaggerated.

    Also, it seems more likely drag racing was chosen over dirt bikes or quads or karts because with drag racers you can show the faces of the cast as they “drive around” for hilarious “arrrgh, I’m going really fast!” scenes. Everything else requires a helmet.

  • […] recently complained about Australian sitcoms being the almost exclusive preserve of the middle class, and while the plots in It’s A Date have largely involved middle class characters it’s notable […]