In the eighties, Melbourne actors Nick Giannopolous and Simon Palomares were fed up.
Australian soap operas like Neighbours had taken off in the UK. Gloomy Thatcherated Brits loved all the bright, shining, optimistic faces. Such shows gave bread-and-butter work to many Australian actors—to some, even fame
Those bright, shining, optimistic faces were bright, shiny and very, very white. A Sydney casting agent once described the so-called Classic Australian look to me; tall, lean, and dark-blonde, with the hint of a tan. Think Paul Hogan, but younger.
Rebuffed by the establishment media, Giannopolous and Palomares made their own luck. In 1987, the pair teamed with fellow actors George Kapinaris and Mary Coustas to produce a stage show. They called it Wogs out of Work.
The show, from a comic standpoint, shone brilliant. The characters were fresh, outrageous, and larger-than-life. The jokes pulled no punches and respected no boundaries.
I still recall the final sketch, in which Kapinaris and Giannopolous played immigrant women at work in a cannery. The characters chatted as they performed their mindless tasks, speaking mostly of their children. In the course of the conversation, it became clear that they understood almost nothing about the lives which the second generation led in the New World.
The comics milked the material for laughs, yes, but amongst the laughter they affirmed a touching faith in the immigrant dream. That no matter how tough your circumstance, how mindless your factory job, it's worth it if your children can live better than you do.
Stop Laughing. It's Not Nice.
Australia's multicultural establishment was outraged. Many harped on the fact that the show contained ethnic stereotypes. Some acknowledged that the characters "validated the experience" of immigrants, but soundly deplored those who made similar jokes without the pedigree for it.
The multiculturalists saved their worst scorn for a very, very white comedian named Mark Mitchell*. A little after the Wogs, he created a character known as Con the Fruiterer, a Greek greengrocer who milked laughs from malapropisms and a cheerful disregard for the rules of business.
Critics in mainstream academia argued that such characters are "...made harmless by stupidity, which renders harmless the threat to Anglo-Australian hegemony represented by non-Anglo migrant cultures." (my emphasis)
Amid barbs from the chattering classes, a curious thing happened.
Over a million people saw Wogs out of Work on stage. It spawned two sitcom spin-offs: an ensemble piece called Acropolis Now, and a star vehicle for Mary Coustas, called Effie. Real Greek greengrocers named Constantine stuck pin-ups of Con the Fruiterer in their shop windows, for a laugh.
Notwithstanding the recalcitrant Neighbours, so-called "wogs" began to appear all over the Australian media.
Did it weaken some of the glass ceilings which NESB Australians faced in other walks of life? This recent article from Jason Di Russo reminds us that it still has a long way to go. But the ability to laugh at one's differences, and one's self, earns you a great deal of moral authority.
Di Russo quotes Italian-Australian journalist James Painichi on the Wogs out of Work phenomenon:
"They started off as buffoons when buffoons were exactly what was needed. You needed that kind of a figure to take the piss out of people while not taking yourself too seriously. [When] you're laughing at yourself, you get a chance to throw a few arrows in the right direction."
Why am I telling you this story? Because I recently saw Sacha Baron Cohen's movie, Brüno.
Wogs Out of Work, Fags Out of Drag.
"We do feel the intentions of the filmmakers are in the right place—satire of this form can unmask homophobia—but at the same time it can heighten people's discomfort with our community,"
Robinson was particularly skeptical of the way Brüno's adopted African baby worked itself into the plot.
"That wasn't really unmasking homophobia... especially in a country [the USA] where same-sex couples can still be denied the ability to adopt children that they've raised since birth. Trivializing gay families isn't a joke."
Honey, should we be laughing at this?
Take the New Yorker.
Brüno is not a New Yorker cartoon. You don't see it and have a quiet chuckle to yourself, while nodding "How true, how true..." Brüno is a belly-laugh.
What, exactly, makes this concept so difficult to understand?
Anthony Lane, the New Yorker film critic, writes:
"In his relentless, unmistakably Anglo-Freudian insistence on the genital and the anal, Baron Cohen takes the double entendre and strips it to a single one, placing in full view what used to be a smirking aside."
I'm not sure wat he means by this, but I think he means that Brüno makes dick jokes. And dick jokes couldn't possibly be funny, right?
"To be fair, the two young women beside me howled at the talking penis (not a bad emblem of the average male, they would say)....Even so, there was something forced in the women’s laughter, as if they wanted to banish any suspicion of prudery, and to prove themselves far too cool for disgust."
It's not the young women who are trying to be cool, I fear.
Frankly, dick jokes are useful. Nothing disarms a homophobe so much as reaching into your pants and flopping out the old fella..
That's pretty much what Brüno does when he interviews an ex-gay pastor—a target whom Lane regards as too easy.
Now, one could lure one's victim into a cunning rhetorical trap, fault his theology, and expose him with one's rapier-sharp arguments.
Or you could just point out that the guy is obviously still a flaming nancy. Too easy, yes. But really the only sensible answer to such blatant stupidity.
The New Yorker headlined Lane's review with the words Mein Camp. Must New Yorker types always see the world through a lens of camp, irony, and multiple entendre? Maybe someone should tell them that Brüno is a big, fat, fucking joke.
Having seen Brüno, I can assure you the scenes of gay life are obvious parody. As intended, they mock the haters who paint such a picture, rather than mocking gay life itself.
Outrageousness redeems Brüno. If you take it seriously, you look like the fool, not the clown onscreen.
Not 100% funny.
Of course, there are parts of the film which are very poorly judged, and offensive.
I cringed at Brüno's swing through the Middle East. The character can successfully expose hypocrisy about subjects where a gay fashion reporter is relevant—homophobia, or the shallowness of celebrity. But the scenes in which he provokes people of goodwill from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate is not satire, it is mockery. It fails.
The less said about his interview with Ayman Abu Aita, the better. There were no belly laughs lurking there, let me tell you.
The Middle East is a hotbed of homophobia. Such prejudice deserves enormous scorn, whether through comedy or other means. But here, Brüno falls flat.
Laugh, and the world laughs with you
In the early part of the twentieth century, a short, scrawny Jewish kid named Melvin Kaminsky got beat up every day in his Brooklyn schoolyard. He worked out that a few jokes would disarm even the meanest bullies.
If they laugh with you, they can't hate you. Hatred doesn't crack a smile.
Today, we know this kid as Mel Brooks. And one of his favourite comic subjects is his own Jewishness.
Jewish humour teaches us about the role of a good laugh in overcoming hatred. Its gentle self-deprecation robs the anti-semite of his power. Should someone start to mock you, mock yourself first. It leaves the other guy nowhere to land a punch.
Just as important, the Jews I know seem very gracious about such ethnic humour. One of my Jewish friends remarked that he didn't mind if gentiles cracked Jewish jokes. "Many of them are quite funny," he said to me, once. "But remember, we Jews always have better Jewish jokes. That is to say, worse ones."
I'm a bald guy. If someone can crack a better bald joke than me, or even a bald joke at my expense, more power to him. But beware. I know some of the meanest bald jokes around.
I've tried to make subculture jokes about groups to which I don't belong. You know what? I failed.
Both Sasha Baron Cohen and Mel Brooks† have made their share of gay jokes. That's OK, as long as gay guys crack better fag gags than they do. That is, worse ones.
I can hear the outcry already. These stereotypes demean gay men. They trivialise us. They make us harmless.
Please think me silly, funny and harmless. It beats being a wicked perverter of the impressionable, and destroyer of traditional marriage. Just maybe, a guffaw works better for my rights than enforced PC.
I understand how spokespersons for GLBT organisations can fault many aspects of Brüno. But I disagree with their fundamental stance.
Brüno follows the arc of a classic romance. Our hero abandons his shallow quest for glamour in the name of true love. He settles down with Lutz, his faithful assistant, and lives happily ever after. Swedish actor Gustaf Hammarsten deliberately plays Lutz without gay affectations, and the perfomance tells us that stereotypes don't always apply. Look closely, and you'll find Brüno becomes quite a traditional morality tale.
Earnestness has its place. But so does fun.
Have the nay-sayers forgotten the drag queens of the Stonewall Tavern, forty years ago, who made more progress for gay rights in one night than their assimilationist counterparts did in a decade?
Have they forgotten how much good PR comes from the sheer, outrageous joy of a Pride parade?
Have they forgotten that people love clowns?
Or do they look on "gayface"—which millions of gay men wear, in earnest, every day—with embarassment and contempt?
I ask you, who are the real homophobes?
* * * * * *
* Full disclosure: in my non-blog, non-anonymous life, I have worked with Mark Mitchell. Before he was famous, of course.
† By the way, how come Mel Brooks gets off with only a mild rebuke over the homophobia of The Producers?