Yes, Australian stand-up comedy is broken, but it’s also incredibly white.
Not only does it breed some dodgy characters — all whilst celebrating the male ego — the problem in comedy actually goes far beyond that.
Everyone is still obsessed with myopic conversations that were had in the ‘80s about white female comics such as: “are they as funny as men?” Who cares? What we should be asking is: when are we gonna focus on intersectional identities?
As much as white feminists love to play the martyr, they’re actually part of the problem too. Internet furores and boycotts will be launched over a lack of women on a comedy line-up, but not one soul will bat an eye when there is only one person of colour on the bill, let alone in the room. Unfortunately, featuring dark-haired Italians on a bill just doesn’t have quite the same effect that it did 50 years ago. Comedy bookers need to dig a little deeper to do the work.
My experience as a queer Chilean/Colombian stand up has been an interesting one, and suffice to say, I have had to create many of my own opportunities. It’s always the same gag: too queer and ethnic to do the ‘regular’ rooms or too ethnic to do the queer and gender autonomous rooms.
Spotting this pattern has been a curse and it shows up like an omen everywhere I look. Because of this I’ve started producing my own comedy and live performance events with diverse and inclusive line-ups. And whilst many would like to think that comedy has already become more inclusive, toxic positivity will get us nowhere.
“I think women and people of colour are severely under-represented and underrated in comedy. Too often the butt of the joke instead of being given the opportunity to be the triumphant deliverer.” – Emily Johnson (Online comedian: darthem123)
Even spaces that exist to encourage amateur comics like open mic competitions still play favourites. In the very long 25 years that RAW Comedy has been running, there have seemingly only been two winners who are not white. The 2012 winner Lessons with Luis (aka Djovan Caro — no we are not related) sums up the feeling: “I love comedy. It’s just very difficult to stick at it when it’s a steeper hill than it is for others.”
Spaces intended to be progressive (i.e. LGBTQIA+ inclusive) are often the most stuck in their very white ways. Earlier this year Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras featured only two PoC comedians on their Laugh Out Pride showcase. They added one extra person of colour after I wrote to them about my concerns. It’s almost as if white queers forget that PoC can be queer too.
Action Aid — you know, the humanitarian organisation that fights to empower disadvantaged (mostly PoC) women around the world? Its woman comedy showcase Frocking Hilarious from earlier this year empowered exactly one woman of colour in a line-up with nine white women. Whoever booked this is giving me “Katy Perry putting ‘activist’ in her bio circa 2017” vibes.
Of all the four major comedy agencies in Australia, collectively they only represent 13 comedians of colour from 108 artists. This may be the reason only three comedians of colour made it onto Australia’s first season of Last One Laughing. And hopefully next year AACTA can nominate at least one PoC — in either the stand-up or comedy program category? Whatever’s easiest!
Not only is this incredibly embarrassing, but the repercussions are serious. It creates a ripple effect of overt and casual racism. Naarm based comic Vidya Rajan explains: “Beyond getting in the room, the problem is that the decision-making lies with the same people [so] the work you’re asked to make is still dictated by their assumptions and expectations. Who would want to stay in that room?”
We don’t see ourselves represented, but when we do it’s tokenistic and transparent. Djovan Caro perfectly expresses this catch-22: “I’ve deliberately avoided ethnicity in my act as I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as an ‘ethnic comedian.’ At the time it seemed to be the only way certain audiences could accept that there was comedy made by artists that weren’t white.” And even when we don’t talk about it or try to hide those parts of ourselves, the prejudice remains.
“I got picked up by a car that a studio sent for me to go in for a taping. Arriving there, one of the white male panelists comments: “did you get picked up by the cops?” Something he wouldn’t say to anyone else but says to me just because I am Black. Five minutes later I had to jump on camera and make jokes with him alongside me. I don’t feel comfortable around Australian comedy in general, period. And on top I be Black.” – Oliver Twist (Comedian & Playwright)
This is what keeps me up at night the most. Amongst all of this tomfoolery, years of inflicting self-hatred on us, and perpetuating harmful stereotypes, does anyone ever stop to think about how us token PoC feel? Do any of these white ‘allies’ stop and question why they feel so safe in these spaces, which are dominated by white people?
Just as comedian Steph Tisdell says: “The biggest issue that comes from lack of diversity is the tokenism that follows. This means a huge burden of responsibility is put on the shoulders of a comedian to be representative of a huge spectrum of perspectives, or worse, represent audience assumptions. It’s a difficult space to make change from.”
You throw us in the bin like an ill-fitting ASOS purchase, then dig us out, dust us off and try to pass us off as vintage on Depop. And then expect us to rise to the occasion looking trendy and exotic? YES, we are strong and resilient and will succeed nine times out of 10. But don’t think for a moment that it’s worth our while. Empty gestures and complacency have never been en vogue so don’t expect any special mentions. We would always much rather feel valued like our white counterparts, than just grateful to be there.
Natali Caro (she/they) is a queer, first generation Chilean/Colombian comedian, actor, dj, drag king, producer, writer and presenter. Her debut solo comedy show ‘Seeking Representation,’ sold out twice and got a standing ovation each time. And she’s managed all this without ever dating another comic. Natali is producing a PoC stand-up showcase as part of Century’s Laugh Outta Lockdown festival at The Factory Theatre – you should check out Thanks For Having Me on November 25th – 26th at 9:30pm.