One laugh at a time

Sonia Nair in conversation with Mathew Kenneally and Scott Abbot
A cacophony of excited murmurs and joyful laughter erupted throughout obscured sections of theatres, diminutive rooms nestled in covert bars and auditoriums packed to the rafters on 22 April as 2012’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival drew to a close. While audiences were left satiated with the broad spectrum of comedy the festival had put on show, Sonia Nair spoke to comedians Mathew Kenneally and Scott Abbot – part of comedy show ‘Political Asylum’s Late Night Riot’ – about the interplay between comedy and human rights.

Mathew Kenneally reminisces about what compelled him to follow the trajectory of political comedians before him. As an 18 year old, he was inspired by his political comedian uncle – none other than the famed Rod Quantock.

“I was watching him do stand-up about Jeff Kennett and it was probably one of the best shows that I’ve ever seen. I found the severity of the mockery and the incisive nature of his wit inspiring,” Kenneally says.

Quantock may have compelled Kenneally to explore political style comedy but Kenneally’s high school bullies cemented his love for the protection of all human rights, those of asylum seekers in particular.

“I was quite unhappy in high school where I grew up in New South Wales. The high school bullies didn’t like asylum seekers. If my bullies didn’t like asylum seekers, I decided that I would,” Kenneally says with a chuckle.

“My support for human rights is a manifestation of my anger at these bullies. Every time I helped a refugee into the country, I thought back to the bullies at school.”

“My support for human rights is a manifestation of my anger at these bullies. Every time I helped a refugee into the country, I thought back to the bullies at school.”

Kenneally is the co-founder of Political Asylum, a live political comedy group that delivers a news-based stand-up show on the second Sunday of every month at the much loved watering-hole, the Brunswick Green in Melbourne.

He hosted Political Asylum’s show at the 2012 Melbourne International Comedy Festival – going by the new moniker “Late Night Riot” – that featured Political Asylum stalwarts such as Scott Abbot, Nazeem Hussain and Aamer Rahman as well as special guests, from Charlie Pickering and DeAnne Smith to Stella Young and Mark Thomas. Quantock also made special cameo appearances at this year’s Political Asylum’s Late Night Riot show.

Rife with clever musings on social issues, observational humour and wry commentary on Australia’s political framework, comedians on Late Night Riot made light of Australia’s flawed political system to guffaws from the crowd and rave reviews from critics (Click here and here to read a few of the reviews)

Abbot, an integral member of Political Asylum, heard of Kenneally after participating in Triple J Raw Comedy in 2009 and tracked him down a few months later at a comedy night in Glebe, Sydney. After meeting Kenneally, Abbot slowly “weasled his way into becoming a regular” comedian for Political Asylum.

Unlike Kenneally, who started his foray into comedy at an early age, Abbot booked his first open mic spot at the age of 26 – a few weeks after reading American stand-up comedian and social critic Bill Hicks’ book Love All The People.

“I’d always loved stand-up but I’d never done it, and didn’t know where to start. In this book, I read all his sets on issues like religion, the gulf war, drugs, racism and so forth. It opened my eyes to the fact that there were people out there who did stand-up comedy on these topics and I straight away knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Kenneally and Abbot both hail from an emerging breed of political satire comedians who weave human rights issues into their stand-up shows without compromising on humour.

Kenneally and Abbot both hail from an emerging breed of political satire comedians who weave human rights issues into their stand-up shows without compromising on humour.

Exploration of human rights issues such as refugees, euthanasia, racism, climate change and gay marriage feature prominently in Kenneally and Abbot’s stand up shows. Unlike traditional comics who only occasionally deal with such sensitive issues, both Kenneally and Abbot tread the delicate path between making light of an issue and going too far.

Although Abbot believes there are no topics that he should refrain from as a comedian, his basic rule is that “it has to be funny”.

“I have to remind myself that people only want to hear my opinions because they make them laugh.”

“The best jokes are the ones that explore dark issues in a way that is clever and non-offensive. Each issue has so many angles you can look at – from public reaction, media coverage and policy to political posturing and religious underpinnings. Any of which can be mined for humour.”

This is not to say that political comedy is without its challenges. Abbot says comedians have to be careful to not make a gag about an issue they feel passionately about without punctuating the gag with a punchline.

…comedians have to be careful to not make a gag about an issue they feel passionately about without punctuating the gag with a punchline.

“That’s the catch, you have a massive amount of latitude to talk about whatever you want, but you have to do it with jokes, as your passion for a topic has no bearing on how many jokes you have on it,” Abbot says.

“It’s a trap that all political comics can fall into when they really believe in something – you can try and force out a set with no punchlines, and it ends up as more of an angry rant.”

Kenneally echoes Abbot’s thoughts and says a political comedian has to approach an issue in a certain way to make an audience laugh without going too far.

“With comedy and human rights, you mock the absurdities of the positions some people hold but you’re not laughing at the existence of prejudices and discrimination.”

“Rarely will the audience enjoy a white middle class guy making fun of another person’s suffering. I can make jokes from the attitudes of people towards issues such as racism and euthanasia but I can’t make a direct joke about the victims of tragedy and suffering.”

Kenneally says he is always careful that the point he makes in his stand-up is on the moral high ground and morally defensible.

“You can make the audience uncomfortable but you have to be able to bring them back. Why are you being offensive and nasty and shocking without reason? There has to be a point to what you’re saying.”

As a part-time criminal lawyer and political comedian, Kenneally exerts considerable influence in the public discussion of human rights but is wary of the effect he has on changing people’s mindsets.

“The effect of what I do is impossible to measure. I do believe it is worthwhile to put my views on human rights out there but the reality with humour is that it’s pretty hard to convince someone to do something while being funny.”

“The effect of what I do is impossible to measure. I do believe it is worthwhile to put my views on human rights out there but the reality with humour is that it’s pretty hard to convince someone to do something while being funny.”

“I try not to dwell on comedy as a tool. I just talk about things I care about and have fun.”

Like Kenneally, Abbot is realistic about the capacity of comedy to be a harbinger of change but is always emboldened when a gag about a particular human rights issue elicits a laugh.

“My theory is that laughter is an automatic, unconscious response and all jokes, no matter how tenuous, must contain some tiny grain of truth,” Abbot says.

“By laughing, people are subconsciously acknowledging that grain. If I can frame a joke in a certain way so that someone who is against gay marriage can laugh at a pro-gay marriage joke, fantastic.”

“I’m not saying I have proved my position but only that when I frame the issues in that specific way, by laughing, they have unconsciously acknowledged something from my perspective.”

Political comedians such as Kenneally and Abbot are not the only comedians to use their clout to promote awareness of human rights issues. In commemoration of National Youth Week from 13 – 22 April, 16 local comedians – including Wil Anderson, Claire Hooper, Geraldine Hickey, Hannah Gadsby, Justin Hamilton and Asher Treleaven – shared their stories in support of the anti-homophobia campaign, “It Gets Better”.

Australia’s comedy landscape acts as a platform for like-minded comedians such as Kenneally and Abbot to merge their love for humour with an astute awareness of the human rights issues that underpin the very fabric of our society. While they are not necessarily out to change the world, their comedy shows are gradually eroding the entrenched prejudices and discriminations that lie dormant in our society. One laugh at a time.

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