‘What is “Funny Stuff”, and Is It Always Comedy?: A Review of “Best Australian Comedy Writing”’, by Rebecca Varcoe


I really like funny stuff. I say funny stuff and not comedy because I think sometimes, in Australia, when you say comedy, people think you mean stand-up comedy and Kath and Kim. I like both of those, but I also like lots of other funny things. I like funny photos – not memes, like the ones your uncle tags you in on Facebook, but images like Martin Parr’s or the absurdity of Garry Trinh’s Instagram. I like funny drawings: the work of my friends Kenny Pittock or Humyara Mahbub, or if you want to get real NGV-level serious, everyone’s favourite guy, David Shrigley, or Lisa Hanawalt’s BoJack Horseman. I like funny music, like Weird Al and Garfunkel and Oates. I really like funny writing, too – like the writing in Affirm Press’s Best Australian Comedy Writing.

This year I read the best of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. There’s nothing like a hardcover bound edition to legitimise online and/or humorous content, and that’s what Affirm have tried to do, and done, with Best Australian Comedy Writing. Edited by comedian, writer and editor Luke Ryan, the collection is bound in yellow with pink writing. And animals with the wrong heads. This is the wrong cover for this book, but Luke is the right person to do have made this book. Gracious and funny, and a writer. Yes, all comics are writers, I guess. But stand-up is different to writing a story and writing a story is different to stand-up.

I guess. Is it? How do I know? I don’t write stand-up. I edit a humour journal, and I think this is why The Lifted Brow asked me to do this. Is that why you asked me to do this, guys? Or was it because I kept tweeting about being broke? Besides the question of my qualifications, the real conundrum this collection presents is: what is comedy writing? And how do we decide what is the best comedy writing?

There’s so much happening in this book, especially with the title page fonts, which I hate.

Luke says in his introduction that not everyone will like everything in the book and that’s true. I don’t believe all comedy can be universal but I don’t not-believe it either. Steve Martin said comedy is a subversion of what’s happening in the world and there will always be something happening. I think that’s probably true. So what’s happening in this book? There’s so much happening in this book, especially with the title page fonts, which I hate. Am I allowed to say that in a review? It’s my review, but it seems mean. Can I be mean? I think I can. I hate the fonts used for titles in this book. They could have used Curlz Mt or Papyrus, basically, because that is how much I don’t like them.

Sometimes comedy is like that – people tearing down the things they don’t like, but they’re pretty good at it, and you laugh because there’s some truth in what they’re saying. It’s a bit funny when I’m being mean about ugly fonts, because it’s true. They’re ugly. There’s a lot in Australia to tear down; a lot of our funny stuff centres on political satire – like James Colleys’s work on The Backburner, featured in this book, or Jane Rawson poking fun at Bob Brown. I also laughed when Andrew Denton made fun of Ted Talks, because Ted Talks and talking about Ted Talks deserves to be made fun of.

Sometimes funny stuff is the part of my brain that giggles “me too!” while I smirk at the page, like when I’m reading Lawrence Leung’s chapter, or some of Zoe Norton Lodge’s awkward experiences. Sometimes I don’t know if I like the whole but I definitely like the parts, like when Patrick Lenton writes, “God could tear Delta Goodrem’s rotten face right off her neck and God can’t even breathe on land.” Or when he names a character Jononothan and the bar Jononothan owns ‘Amy Beerhouse’. And sometimes, like in Patrick’s and Shaun Micallefs’s pieces, I laugh because it’s so weird and the imagery is so absurd and surreal and dumb that I just have to.

We can’t all be Andrew Denton or Monica Dux for crying out loud.

Shaun Micallef is funny. We know this. He does lots of things that are considered comedy, by people of all generations. From my parent’s questionable impressions of his Milo Kerrigan character, to my brothers’ howling at Mad As Hell, he’s pretty funny in the ways Australians like our funny people to be. But in this book, on paper, his bizarre Rocky tale works better than a transcript of one of his performances. On the opposite side of that train of thought is the fact that we know Lee Lin Chin to be funny but she’s definitely not funny at her job. And yet the transcripts of her best tweets as featured in Best Australian Comedy Writing are hilarious. I don’t wanna toot my own horn but we do this in every issue of Funny Ha Ha, the funny thing I make, because tweets can be funny. Is it comedy? Is it writing? Can it be? It is, I have decided. And I like it, and it works, and you can all stop being snobs about it for like one second. We can’t all be Andrew Denton or Monica Dux for crying out loud. And Andrew Denton and Monica Dux are… comedy writers? Are they? What is a comedy writer? What even is comedy writing?

Earlier in the year I visited the US and spoke to Aussies abroad and US natives working in the ‘comedy-writing’ sphere. The basic idea I got was that there’s a career path for ‘comedy writers’ in the US that we don’t quite have here which defines ‘comedy writing’ as a type of writing, a ‘thing’, more than we can here in Australia. Sam Twyford-Moore wrote about the literature and comedy divide in Australia for The Guardian, (which you should read because it’s good, and because he name-drops me in The Guardian and people texted me about my name-drop in The Guardian like it was a big deal) and I think it has to do with the fact that in the US, comedians and funny writers can make money writing TV and movies and plays and books and articles that get published in places people have heard of – unlike Funny Ha Ha, which no one has heard of until now, when I took this chance to plug it for the third time in one article.

Do we like funny books? Or do we just like Hughesy?

Look at all our comedy writing scene, and then look at McSweeney’s. Where’s our McSweeney’s? Do we like funny books? Or do we just like Hughesy? We like funny people, we like to laugh, but we don’t take it seriously because there’s no path. We can’t all be Sean or Kate & Kate or Kath & Kim. But Sean’s in this book, as are Andrews Hanson and Denton and they’re all on the telly, aren’t they? What does that mean? What am I trying to say? What is comedy? What is comedy writing? Where can we find it? This book, I suppose. Luke told me it was fifty per cent sourced from already published works, which is great, and fifty per cent commissioned works. Which is great if you’re Luke, and Affirm are smart enough to hire you to commission works – but where does this work go outside of this book? Obviously somewhere, these writers are working and writing and publishing all the time, but it’s probably not enough, I don’t think. Not because they’re not good and funny and talented but because we’re all looking at Hughesy.

James Colley is doing a good job with The Backburner, which I suppose is Australia’s answer to The Onion. Robert Skinner is featured in Best Australian Comedy Writing and also runs The Canary Press, a fantastic journal you should all buy. Liam Pieper is the new content director for Writers’ Bloc and is one of our best funny writers but I don’t know if he calls himself a funny writer. And of course, I’m a genius and am doing incredible things with Funny Ha Ha, the journal I’ve now successfully mentioned for the fourth time.

Can I say what’s funny at all? Why did The Lifted Brow ask me if this book is good – why would you listen to my opinion? Taste in books is as subjective as comedy, isn’t it? I make a comedy publication but why would anyone buy it if I choose all the content? Am I funny?

Regardless, they did ask me to review this book but instead I’ve just abused their graciousness by using them as a platform to talk about how this book relates to comedy in Australia and to plug my own humour journal, which is called Funny Ha Ha, if you missed it the last four times I mentioned it. I don’t know if it’s that’s the same thing as a review. And given everything I have just said, is a book about comedy even worth ‘reviewing’?

In Andrew Denton’s HED Talks piece, he writes:

“I want to hear a loud YES to each of these questions: Are you aware? Are you centered? Are you important?
Then say it after me. ‘I am self-aware. I am self-centred. I am self-important.’
Give yourself a round of applause then hug the person next to you.
Now kiss them on the lips.
Now stroke their inner thigh.”

He finishes with “Welcome to HED 2015!” because that’s what his piece was called. I will finish with “Welcome to my review of Best Australian Comedy Writing!” because that’s what this piece is called, and even though I answered almost none of the questions I posed, writing this review made me feel self-aware, self-centred, and self-important. And I would like someone to kiss me on the lips and stroke my inner thighs.

Rebecca Varcoe is the editor of humour publication Funny Ha Ha and really wants you to read it.