BARRY HUMPHRIES STILL HAS LAST LAUGH (I HOPE)
HANNAH GADSBY AND THE NEUROSCIENCE OF JOKES
MIKE CANNON-BROOKES AND THE URGE TO YAP
NO QUOTAS FOR WOMEN – THIS COULD WORK BETTER
ABC RADIO NATIONAL’S RUSSIAN ROULETTE
VIDEO – BOB FOSSE IN THE #METOO AGE
THIS WAY TO THE DESERT ISLAND
What a dreary, grey future we’re being frogmarched towards. One where the ponderously unfunny Hannah Gadsby (and I promise you, I’ve tried, I’ve tried) is paramount and a true comic genius like Barry Humphries is vilified.
I am so envious of Humphries’ friends who will have been lucky enough to hear what the master had to say about his demotion by the martinets of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
I can just imagine them all rolling about, splitting their sides, as he marvels at how the festival’s biggest award is no longer the Barry Award but the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Award (a name that also reveals a lot about the martinets’ lack of imagination). And all because, in an interview, he made some comments in passing about transgenderism before saying he shouldn’t be pontificating, he was really only an actor.
Well, I hope he and they laughed. Better than the alternative which is to start picking out exactly which desert island looks promising for a future minus martinets.
But we have been heading this way for years. In 2003, Humphries was sacked from the American glossy Vanity Fair when he was judged to have been offensive to anyone with a Latino background.
At the time, he was – or rather his alter ego Dame Edna was – writing an agony aunt column for the magazine.
In the February 2003 issue, a fictional reader, who Humphries had deftly placed in Florida’s WASP-y millionaires’ paradise Palm Beach, had written in to ask if she should learn Spanish.
Dame Edna had replied: “Forget Spanish. There’s nothing in that language worth reading except Don Quixote, and a quick listen to the CD of Man of La Mancha will take care of that … Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower?”
The fictional exchange still makes me laugh. A lot.
Of course, it’s offensive. It’s horrifically offensive and that’s the entire point. Humphries was sending up the attitudes of rich white people who live in Palm Beach palaces, not anyone Hispanic for heaven’s sakes.
(In the 2017 film, Madame, in which Toni Collette plays snooty socialite, Anne Fredericks, there’s a moment which I like to think is a tribute to Humphries and his VF travails. Anne, faced with having to find, in seconds, an extra guest for an important dinner decides to press-gang her Spanish maid into passing herself off as a high society guest. When the panicked maid protests and tries to persuade her to use one of the Filipino maids instead, Anne snaps: “Mandy is a Filipino, nobody invites Filipinos to a dinner party….” The line is just as offensive, but hilarious in the way it tells you precisely everything about the ghastly Anne. Of course, given our dreary age, it also had some reviewers poncing around, with pursed lemon lips, telling us how off-the-mark it was.)
Back in 2003, Vanity Fair’s editor Graydon Carter who, at that stage had almost God-like status amongst magazine-lovers, ran a full page apology and ended Humphries’ column, thereby proving that Carter was even then heading towards the pompous ass-dom that did indeed eventually overtake him.
It’s true death threats were delivered to Condé Nast headquarters but since when do people making death threats get full-on toadying treatment while the person who is the cause of the death threats gets punished?
Oh that’s right, I forgot; that’s what can happen now in the age of identity politics and victimhood.
To slightly paraphrase L.P. Hartley, the past is a foreign country; they did things differently then.
In 1936, the outraged government of Cuba banned the sale of American magazine Esquire and jailed the man responsible for selling the magazine there. The issue contained a light-hearted if sharp and mischievous article titled “Latins are Lousy Lovers”. At the time, the smouldering Latin lover – think Rudolph Valentino, Cesar Romero, Ramon Novarro – was triumphing in Hollywood and American women were swooning. Boatloads of them were arriving in Havana in search of hot romance.
Racy writer Helen Lawrenson, photographed here with publisher Condé Nast, had spent some time in Cuba.
She decided it was time to stick up for American men. Her article began: “First of all, I want to make it clear that this is not the wail of a downhearted frail [thing] who was scorned and is therefore taking a cad’s revenge.”
And then she made her case. In detail. At length. Cheekily. She concluded, “I would swap you five Cubans, three South Americans and two slightly used Spaniards for one good Irish-American any night in the week.”
Goodness, the furore! And not just in Cuba, but in the United States as well, especially after the Cuban government sent an official protest to the US State Department. Lawrenson later wrote that the then Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, had told a friend of hers that the article “had done the most to offset President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbour policy”.
Did Esquire sack Lawrenson? Did they run an apology as Latin men everywhere, from Rome to Paris to Puerto Rico exploded? Did President Roosevelt demand she be sacked?
Of course not. Indeed this blogger claims it made the magazine nationally famous, ensuring it survived the Great Depression. (The linked blog also contains Lawrenson’s original article.)
In a later article, Lawrenson remembered: “throughout all Latin America I was attacked with furious floods of threatening oratory and editorials. I guess maybe they didn’t get the joke”.
She continued to write for Esquire, having been its first female contributor, and even 32 years later, in 1968, then Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich was proudly, triumphantly, happily remembering how Lawrenson had put the magazine on the map.
What are we going to remember?
How often we caved in to the martinets?
CAN YOUR BRAIN GET THE JOKE?
I don’t want to be too rude about Hannah Gadsby who seems, from her interviews and YouTube clips, to be both nice and to have been through dark and painful times (though calling Barry Humphries an “irrelevant inhumane dick biscuit” for his remarks about transgenderism made this surely smart woman sound like someone with vocabulary problems).
But truly, why is Gadsby considered funny?
I can see her punchlines coming a mile off. The rest of her patter is no sharper than the back and forth banter I hear, and have, at my local café. Is it that her stories about being gay bring out the virtue signaller in her audiences so everyone laughs to make it clear to everyone-else how virtuous and simpatico they are? I have no idea, but just to remind you of what really funny stand-up looks like, here again is the fabulous Death Star Canteen routine from Eddie Izzard.
Impossible to watch this too many times (though I could hardly get to the end of the trailer for Gadsby’s Nanette). Fortunate is Izzard for his lipsticked look, costumes and high heels. That should save his humour from the PC martinets.
When I recently had to do some research into creativity, I dug around in the neuroscience. Surprisingly, it also helped me answer the big, secret question of today: why are we losing our ability to see humour?
New research shows that creative people are able to use the networks in their brains simultaneously rather than cycling between the executive control centre, the default mode network (the one that kicks in when we’re daydreaming, thinking spontaneously) and the salience network (which tells us what is important and acts as a switch between the other two). The stronger the connections between those networks, the greater the opportunity for creative thought.
Professor Geoff Goodhill from the Queensland Brain Institute told me that when functional magnetic resonance imaging was done on the brains of jazz musicians, they discovered that during improvisation, the musicians were able to use both the default network and the executive control network at the same time. The default allowed the necessary mind-wandering, during which the relaxed brain is able to access all areas – which can result in the famous breakthrough eureka! moment. The switched-on executive control meant the musicians were still shaping and evaluating.
I’m telling you all this because of the concerns about declining creativity in younger people. Research indicates that an increased focus on testing at schools, more rigid after-hours activities with less time for just goofing and exploring whatever, and less tolerance of risk-taking and non-conformity have been taking their toll. Kids are using their imaginations less and have been since the early 1990s. And that is affecting those vital connections in the brain.
But here’s the kicker, or the killer. Not only has creativity declined in recent generations of schoolchildren, so has their sense of humour. The same active connections that allow a brain to be creative are the same connections that are needed for people to do the links, dig around in their brain, and “get” a joke, to see humour.
Does this help explain the rise of the martinets? The fall of Humphries? The spotlight on Gadsby and her obvious lines? I think so.
DON’T OPEN YOUR MOUTH BEFORE READING THIS
Is Peter FitzSimons now running classes? How else to explain the fact that we now have a second Peter Fitz in billionaire Michael Cannon-Brookes who seems never more delighted as when he is mouthing on the subject of Australia’s future.
Does this man ever shut up?
From calling for a reinstatement of the carbon price to overhauling Australia’s (supposedly poor) image overseas to what target we should set for renewable energy sources, Cannon-Brookes seems all too happy to show he’s the one with the answers. Of course, as he is very, very rich and reasonably young, the media – especially the business press and the ABC – can’t get enough of him.
Thank God he has ruled out ever standing for parliament, but if he changed his mind, would it be our fault?
The point is we have encouraged him. It’s what happens when we get fresh voices in this small country of ours and all of us in the media are susceptible.
In March 2016, he tweeted in response to a federal political promise about tax breaks for start-ups: “Dropping taxes on startups? WTF? ‘I was going to start a great company but taxes stopped me.’ Said no one ever. #qanda”.
The same night, in response again to an exchange on the ABC’s Q&A: “Startups, capital, incubators… too many mentions. Education? Schools? Near none. Got it backwards. Educated populations innovate. #qanda”.
This was fantastic stuff: a tech heavyweight saying out loud and within earshot of Canberra what all too many of the rest of the population were saying but going unheard.
Then we all queued up for his opinions and input and, in just over three years, Mr Cannon-Brookes has turned into the guest at the party who, having been welcomed so enthusiastically at 8pm, is still there at 3am, revelling in his status and still telling his stories.
There are traps that can come with public attention.
A new book about leadership by professor of business psychology Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic stresses that the one quality most good leaders share is humility.
In his provocatively titled work Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and how to fix it), Chamorro-Premuzic argues we appoint people to top positions on the basis of their charisma, confidence, know-it-all aura and ambition – and yet those are the very characteristics that should be warning signs. “Confidence,” he cautions, for instance, “may turn into arrogance, risk-taking and hubris. Ambition become greed…”
Conversely, he argues, “it takes some humility to accept that we have something to learn” and good leadership is all about receptivity to feedback, responsiveness, self-awareness and learning.
He told one interviewer from the Harvard Business Review: “If we want to upgrade the quality of our leaders, we need to stop falling for people who are overconfident, charismatic and even narcissistic, and select people on traits such as humility, integrity and competence, rather than confidence.”
And the professor quotes a researcher from the IESE Business School in Madrid, Margarita Mayo, describing the conflict between humility and charisma: “The research is clear: when we choose humble, unassuming people as our leaders, the world around us becomes a better place …”
I honestly believe Cannon-Brookes wants to make the world a better place too and thinks he is doing that, with all the exuberance of someone who has just discovered a roomful of new toys. But if he wants to capitalise on all his many natural talents and be a leader in this area of making Australia the best country it can possibly be, I’d urge him to now, just sit down with a copy of Chamorro-Premuzic’s book and read it from beginning to end.
And then go for a few quiet walks around the block to absorb it.
It could be life-changing.
WOMEN WILL SUCCEED IF ONLY …
It’s worth mentioning here quickly that while Chamorro-Premuzic’s book, which is published here by NewSouth ($39.99), looks as if it would be a handy title for all diversity warriors and gender quota campaigners, it’s not.
He is against quotas for lifting women into senior management and board positions, arguing that simply gives the impression that the women couldn’t get there on their own capabilities.
“This incorrect assumption,” he quickly writes before any misunderstanding of his intentions, “is based on the illusion that current systems are meritocratic. We have to challenge this assumption by acknowledging and tackling the politics and nepotism that corrupt the selection of leaders rather than by using positive discrimination.”
His argument is much more subtle, and convincing. That is, if we start looking for different kinds of leaders, as in the above item, we will naturally start choosing more women because women, he says, quoting numerous research studies, so often have those qualities.
He claims it will be hard to improve the quality of our leaders without increasing the numbers of female leaders.
It’s a neat theory and one that allows the competent, humble women of integrity to get their full due so they can happily vault over the heads of the sisters who have been ape-ing the hubristic men in the “look at me, look at me” stakes and greedily and calculatedly capitalising on the demand for more women.
Chamorro-Premuzic has a line that despatches that irritating syndrome too: “Putting more women in leadership roles does not necessarily improve the quality of leadership, whereas putting more talented leaders into leadership roles will increase the representation of women.”
Simple isn’t it if you take the time to think that proposition through.
THE ABC OF INDUCED GIBBERING
I want to thank many of the hosts and reporters at Radio National: Antony Funnell, Geraldine Doogue, Robyn Williams, Richard Fidler, Norman Swan, Andrew Ford, Paul Barclay and Damien Carrick among others.
If I am lucky enough to get the day right, and I hit your broadcasts, I feel informed, uplifted, engaged and entertained and, as a result of what I hear, I often go and either hunt for yet more information on what has fascinated me, or I buy a recommended book or CD.
This is in contrast to hitting the wrong day at RN; Friday is particularly bad for raucous programmes interrupting the traditional measured RN flow. At the end of one Friday a month or so ago, as I worked at home, I felt like gibbering by sunset.
So much rah, rah, rah. So much noisy laughter. So much back and forth of youthful voices, all delivered at the same blaring volume so any nuance in a sentence is blasted to oblivion. I learn nothing. I swear my IQ drops 20 points.
I went back and checked the histories of some of the programmes I love – and also the ones I detest, the ones that make me come up short in the middle of whatever I am doing at home with the radio on to suddenly wonder: what the hell is this I’m listening to?
Sometimes, the thought in my head is much blunter than that.
Naturally, it turns out the programmes I love have either been part of the ABC since time began (The Science Show) or were introduced several years ago (Future Tense).
The ones that have me reaching for the dial are innovations. Former ABC managing director Mark Scott was no great friend to Radio National, axing, for instance, the Monday to Friday 8.30am line-up of specialist, authoritative and much loved shows such as The Media Report, The Law Report and The Religion Report. Broadcaster and former Catholic priest Paul Collins wrote this for Eureka Street, as illustrated as below.
Now, in their place in the morning all these years later, we have an expanded Breakfast Show with Fran Kelly. (Though it’s heartening to see that a couple have gradually worked their way back in, though not in such prominent or convenient time slots.)
More wrecking crews were sent in by executives working under former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie whose focus was, reportedly, on ratings. But not, it felt to me, the traditional ABC audiences like me.
And so, after several years of middle-management Goths and Vandals at the gates, we have such highlights as The Minefield (with Waleed Aly of “terrorism is a perpetual irritant” fame), The Bookshelf (so much giggling), and Stop Everything! (with Benjamin Law, he who introduced the rest of us to the remarkable concept of the “hate ****”). Other shows, like Life Matters which was once stimulating and current under Richard Aedy, have been smoothed down to the point they’re now blotting paper for the ears.
The problem for the ABC is that, given the way the human brain is programmed to react to the unpleasant more strongly than to the enjoyable, just a smattering of bad shows can colour a listener’s opinion of everything else.
Back at the start of 2019, in stories in The Australian Financial Review and The Australian, former AMP chair, Simon McKeon hoped that this country’s captains of industry – who, as he spoke, were enjoying taking part in the KPMG Sorrento Couta Boat Classic and all its associated luxury palaver – were taking time to also put on a brown jumper and “going down to Woolworths in Rosebud … and actually just listening to how their brands are really received by the great community that is Australia”.
I wonder how long it is since the ABC’s highly paid executives have put on their cardigans and prowled the streets, here and in the country, in search of true Radio National lovers, as opposed to talking to other ABC staffers.
(They should do it soon because, from what I can tell from my conversations with friends, our numbers are dwindling.)
VIDEO – HIGH KICKS KICKED
The 1979 movie, All That Jazz, based on the life of choreographer Bob Fosse (directed and co-written by Fosse himself) is impossible to find in Australia on DVD so I was thrilled to be able to record it several weeks ago. What a movie! But as I watched it, I realised no-one would dare make it today. And Fosse, who changed Broadway musicals forever with his daring, often risqué but always stunning, dance moves, would have been kicked off stage and shamed for his private life, his treatment of dancers, and yes, that startling choreography. Think Cabaret, Chicago.
Which just goes to show again what we are in danger of losing as we try to do the right thing by everyone. So I’m not at all surprised to read that a new television series Fosse/Verdon (starts on Foxtel May 26) has failed to wow American audiences. Unlike All That Jazz,
which is raw and honest, and makes you want to dance your way around the room afterwards, gloriously happy to be alive, the new series is, as The New Yorker says, an aggressive “deglamorizing” of Fosse, “a #MeToo-era take … weighed down by good intentions”.
Pity. So to cheer you up and in remembrance of things past, here’s a clip from the 1979 movie. I should admit that I could have used other, racier, sections including another steamier version of this song which has a watching executive in the film say, “Uh oh, I think we just lost the family audience”. But even I have become #MeToo sensitised… Go google, and meanwhile: