Australian humour has a long history that can be traced back to our origins as convict colonies. It is therefore no surprise that a national sense of humour quickly developed that responded to those conditions. This unique sense of humour is recognised (although maybe not always understood) the world over as being distinctly Australian. Our humour is dry, full of extremes, anti-authoritarian, self-mocking and ironic.
A black sense of humour
Australians can have a very black sense of humour. While in many cultures it is considered poor taste to find humour in difficult circumstances, Australians tend to look for this lighter side. This is perhaps our strongest reference to our brutal past, where Australian humour was a means of coping with a bad situation. A (perhaps unintentional) example of this is the naming of the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Pool in Melbourne after a Prime Minister who disappeared whilst swimming in the ocean in 1967.
Mocking the wowser
Mocking the wowser is another common element in Australian humour. Wowser is a term that refers to a person who is highly moral or politically correct. In 2002, a lawyer called O’Sullivan expertly demonstrated this aspect of Australian humour in the courtroom. Defending his client, who was charged with baring his buttocks, or ‘mooning’, at a policeman, O’Sullivan argued that ‘mooning was accepted Australian behaviour and should be seen as a national icon’. The prosecutor, Michael Purcell, responded in wowser fashion by asking ‘whether bare buttocks should replace the emu and kangaroo on Australia’s coat of arms.’
Australians also have a very strong anti-authoritarian sense of humour, again a reflection of our past. This aspect has been in evidence since colonial times where the ability to make a policeman or other authority figure laugh often meant the difference between the gallows or harsh labour and freedom. A convict of West Indian origin named Billy Blue (who arrived in Sydney after stealing a small amount of sugar) was notorious among officials for his creative and humorous explanations of his law-breaking – a talent that kept him from being locked up on many occasions. One example of his antics was his explanation, upon being caught smuggling alcohol, that he just kept finding liquor floating in Sydney Harbour and had been caught before he could report this to the authorities. The authorities ‘believed’ this explanation and Billy was free to continue his adventures. Billy Blue later went on to become friends with Governor Macquarie.
Australians also have a strong tradition of targeting themselves as objects of humour. A regular on the stand-up circuit is comedian Steady Eddy, who has cerebral palsy and uses his disability as material for his routines. One of his gags talks about how hard it is for him to find love – whenever he sees a beautiful woman, he finds himself wishing ‘ …if only she had a limp’. Australians from ethnic backgrounds also use this type of humour very effectively. Television and stage shows such as Acropolis Now and Wogs Out of Work have honed this form of humour to an art, with performers mocking their ethnic backgrounds and traditions.