Current Issue #484

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Finding the lighter moments in a pandemic

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Not taking COVID-19 seriously can have tragic consequences, but when is it appropriate to laugh at the more surreal moments of the crisis?

A manifesto for humour in a COVID-19 Australia won’t be appearing any time soon. But an unofficial code of conduct for humour and social interactions will form in response to such unprecedented situations. For example, is it considered bad form not to smile at someone walking towards you before you pointedly stride to the other side of the street? To shape this new etiquette, perhaps it’s worth us pausing Netflix to ponder how we should be laughing.

In the last round of shows before these things were banned, comedian Russell Brand brought his motivational seminar to Thebarton Theatre. He came onto the stage clutching a roll of toilet paper. Later, when audience members could ask the newly minted guru questions on the most vital issues affecting their lives, one wag wondered if he could have Brand’s roll of toilet paper. Witty. Perhaps in a typically irreverent Australian way. At the same show, the man alongside me laughed so hard that he launched a blitzkrieg of spit onto my bare arm. I thought, fuming, perhaps laughter’s not so healthy in these COVID-19 days?

Some people consider jokes about the current situation insensitive. There’s truth in this. And yet, isn’t it when our anxiety levels are at their peak that we most need to laugh?

But things that would normally be funny in TV programs such as Parks and Recreation just aren’t when I’m viewing them in real life. These are a few of my least favourite things: Prime Minister Scott Morrison claiming that we’re unlikely to get coronavirus in planes; Morrison holding up a supersized quarantine card as though holding the vaccine itself; announcements of sensibly tough measures being consistently undercut by permissive exceptions; Federer expressing that he was “devastated” about Wimbledon being cancelled (as an admirable contrast, F1 champ Lewis Hamilton slammed the initial decision for the Australian Grand Prix to proceed). Such incidents don’t make me laugh; they only make me rage.

I understand that seething anger isn’t good for me. So I watch on YouTube a compilation of TikTok videos that satirise Morrison’s speeches by lip-syncing parts of them. Although this new trend in humour, characteristic of TikTok, doesn’t sound funny on paper, I laugh. Satire is a useful elixir for turning anger into laughter. Satire’s also important politically, as it shows people with power that we’re onto them and not buying their bullshit. Eric Idle said that “humour has a deeper use than just a mild form of entertainment”.

Perhaps, as TikTok demonstrates, at a time when we need satire to somehow weaken the power or change the behaviour of leaders who aren’t showing strong, clever or consistent leadership, a new comedy is required.

When The Adelaide Review recently spoke to Ben Elton ahead of his April Australian tour – one of many to be cancelled in recent months – he said, “Some people have said, ‘Looking at Trump and Boris Johnson, it must be a wonderful time for material.’ But actually, it’s very hard to do anything approaching conventional satire with people who are without shame, because they just shrug and say, ‘Yeah, that’s me,’ or ‘No, I didn’t do it,’ or ‘It never happened—that’s fake news.’ There was talk of bringing back a British satire show from the 80s, Spitting Image, which used grotesque puppets. But what puppet could do justice to the venal reality of Boris Johnson?”

Humour can also offer hope. Many Adelaideans who’ve travelled up Cross Road would be aware of a cardboard cut-out of the Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones – the Men In Black – watching from a second-floor window of someone’s home. In the decade since I first noticed the display, I’ve always looked out for it. For some reason, it’s reassuring. I drove past the other day and saw the Men in Black wearing surgical face masks. I laughed all the way to Myrtle Bank. My first thought was where the hell did they source the masks from? My second thought was that, again, I felt reassured. The directors of this street theatre, in their amusing safety message via the storied world defenders, lessened my anxiety in a way that the ‘one step forward two steps back’ politicians have failed to do.

So, humour is a way to make fun of, and make sense of, the new world we’re living in. But I’m also finding laughs from things seemingly unconnected to the present situation, such as the parkour-like antics of my kitten. Doing so is useful for stepping back and gaining much-needed perspective. Whatever you decide to laugh at (or decide not to laugh at but do so regardless), just keep laughing. Even if it’s ridiculous, don’t stop doing it.

Michael X Savvas

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