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)