Humour is possibly the most culturally specific of all the culturally specific things. You only true way, I would argue, to know whether you fit into a foreign culture is whether you can be funny on purpose. Once you can locate their funny bone, you have found the key to a people.
There are as many kinds of humour as there are cultural traditions in the world, each one slightly different. (Yasmina Reza famously remarked that English people laugh at her plays too much and inappropriately, with a sort of puzzled, Francophone disdain.) There are people who live in constant humour: Jews with their offbeat absurdity; Serbs with their grotesque, macabre farce; the good-spirited, optimistic humour of the Czech; the dry wit of the English. Russians (fail to understand that even the bleakest Dostoyesky is weaved out of laughter and you fail to understand them all). Then there are strange cases, like the Italians. While extremely quick-witted, fluidly comic in their everyday conversations, they somehow deaden and stultify their humour whenever they attempt comedy. Every minute of my life in Italy was spent recovering from abdominal spasms, yet their comedies were the most painfully obvious, dull failures. The Portuguese and the New Zealanders, whose sense of humour thrives on an understaded deadpan that one can easily fail to notice, so quickly it slips by. And then there are those who seem to constantly struggle. My own Croats are among the most tragically unfunny people alive. And then there are Australians.
Australian humour seems to thrive on strange, unexpected; it is a found-object sort of humour best exemplified by the likes of John Safran. When it doesn’t wallow in self-affirming pity, it can wrap itself around the bizarre and the tragic with unique talent (like at the Green Room Awards 2008, where the special guest whose name I cannot find, a talented young actor recovering from a stroke, broke through the thunderous applause – mateship performance – to tell the audience we will hear all about his life in his next show: Stroke: The Musical). It excels in extreme, over-the-top satire (such as The Chaser), in turning the mundane into poignantly tragicomic. It is also, singularly, thiumphantly, unsuited to farce.
Thus we come to Peter Houghton’s A Commercial Farce. Houghton’s The Pitch deservedly won two Green Room Awards in 2006, and had a successful return season at the Malthouse’s Tower in 2008. It was that same kind of over-the-top satire: an hour-long pitch for a film crammed with every possible money-making, grant-winning, and critic-seducing trick. Here we can establish the first rule of Australian humour: it needs a target to take over the top.
As I have argued elsewhere, there are rules to farce. A farce is grounded in funniness intrinsic to the character, to the situation. It is decentred, targetless humour, that requires an ability to laugh at oneself, not merely some external other. George Costanza/Larry David is a character that needs to turn to no target: his behaviour is hilarious in its own right. American sit-coms, built on the ability to see the farcical nature of any situation (family life!, corporate America!, sex!, etc) are another example. So are, more strangely, Serbian war films, which vigorously demonstrate the farce that some supposedly just war had degenerated into, without a trace of self-pity: in Rane/Wounds, a typical weekend guerrilla returns from the war with a truckful of pillaged household appliances, while his mistress has a (bewilderingly hilarious) fit because she didn’t get the microwave she had ordered. After a successful farce, one comes out of the theatre feeling that the world is out of whack, and damned we all if we care.
A Commercial Farce is a very smart work of theatre, a farce about a farce. At 11pm on the day before the opening night, a director to old to be aspiring is trying to teach his audience-magnet, his ticket-selling TV-soap trophy actor the basics of theatre, if he is to recoup the money he has invested in the show. The banana skin is there, the rake is strategically placed, the actor wants to understand the themes and his character, the director is sleeping with his main actress, and the wife is threatening to leave him. Houghton deconstructs the and reconstructs the rules of the game before our eyes, and yet none of the two work. The farce-within-the-farce fails because such are the rules. The farce fails because, although smart, it simply isn’t funny enough.
Luke Ryan’s obnoxious TV star Jules is a wonderfully executed absurdity, arriving on stage in a designer beanie, aspiring to Shakespeare without knowing the first thing about him, leaving as intact in his dim bubble as he entered. However, he constantly outlaughs Peter Houghton’s hapless director. The fault is not in the performances (both wonderfully executed, not least the masterful, slow-burning drunkenness they descend into as the evening progresses), but in the writing. The director is neither Costanza nor David – there is nothing unarguably hilarious about him. In another setting, he may well be the funniest man in the room, but on this stage he is too busy trying to burst Ryan’s bubble to rise in his own. He is a common man, a delusioned, promiscuous alcoholic with a middle-age crisis. He, predictably, bursts into fits of anger, but there is nothing particularly funny about strings of expletives (although this is the common haha-moment in Australian comedy, presumably because Australians never burst into fits of anger). As Houghton’s character grows progressively disillusioned about his project, so the farce turns dangerously towards targeting the soapie Jules. Coupled with some sloppily obvious writing (“You are the acting equivalent of a Big Mac!”), the entire thing degenerates into an over-the-top satire. (Here we may point the second rule of Australian humour: on the stage, there needs to be a character laughing with the audience.) Yet the target is farcical, too easy. Too many bubbles burst before the show’s end.
The result is still good, but doesn’t approach the excellence we’ve come to expect from Houghton.
A Commercial Farce. Written by Peter Houghton. Directed by Aidan Fennessy. Set and costume design by Anna Cordingley, sound design by Ben Grant, lighting by Matt Scott. With Peter Houghton and Luke Ryann. Malthouse Theatre, June 5-27.