Crossing Points: Alice Fraser, A Sweeping Generalisation of the UK and Australia

Alice Fraser
Australian comedian, writer, podcaster and actress

I was in a backstage area last week, and heard some British comedians gossiping about how well Australian acts are represented in the nominations for British comedy festival awards. Comedians have opinions about everything, and for many of them cynical sniping is as much of a sacred calling as it is a professional asset. But even as a representative of the maligned party (Australian, not award winning), I thought it was an interesting point. Why do Australian comedians do well in the UK?

Here I feel an urge to emphasise that I’m not doing wildly well, but that’s probably just an extrusion of the Australian national tall-poppy-syndrome – our beautiful, egalitarian and occasionally poisonous desire not to put ourselves above one another.

I mean, putting aside the obvious selection factor that you’re unlikely to travel to a foreign country to ply your craft unless you’re either good, ambitious or have burned a lot of bridges back home, we do tend to show up a lot on British stages and on British television. But why? They can’t just be fond of us because they’ve watched too many reruns of Home and Away and Neighbours, right?

Well, first of all, when Australian comedians come to the UK we can make the same jokes and get more or less the same laughs. It’s an interesting phenomenon, given how much of comedy tends to lean on recognisable references. Sure, sometimes you might have to relocate the mise-en-scène of your Priceline joke to a Boots, but your punchline will tend to hit a comedy club crowd with equal force.

It feels like there’s some sort of bedrock sympathy of national identity between Australia, New Zealand and the UK that’s reflected in our humour.

Perhaps that’s because at least before the internet came along and internationalised our access to content, most of my generation grew up on British comedy classics: from The Goon Show to Monty Python, from Fawlty Towers to The Mighty Boosh, Blackadder, Fry and  Laurie,  Mitchell and Webb, Rowan Atkinson. Our taste was shaped as much by the British comedy classics as it was by The Footy Show.

Many of us saw those beautiful British bastions of absurdity and silliness when we were growing up, and concluded that there was something special about the way comedy is done in the UK. We thought perhaps there was something particularly fertilising about the soil of the comedy scene.

Coming over, of course, you realise the long-running influence that class-based, out-of-Oxbridge-straight-into-the-BBC nepotism norms had in that taste-making. Although that tendency is now declining (thanks to a movement now in the national broadcaster towards increasing breadth of representation), it’s nonetheless interesting when you compare it with the barriers that weird sideways comedy comes up against on mainstream Australian screens.

I’ve written jokes for the television in both Australia and the UK, as well as trying to make people laugh from the stage in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and outback Western Australia. I am occasionally asked what the differences are between working as a comedian in the UK and working in Australia, and that’s hard to answer unless you want to talk in sweeping generalisations. Which I always do. Every comedy crowd is a unique and special creature, but if you perform in front of enough of them you can start to notice national characteristics.

For example, mainstream American crowds tend to prefer it if you signpost your punchlines; if you make it clear that now is the time for laughing. This is, I assume, because they are used to watching sitcoms with laugh tracks, and they’re a generally polite and sincere group of people in their day to day lives. My British friend Amy who is currently living and doing comedy in San Francisco, says, ‘Americans don’t like punchlines, they like keywords’, which is a slightly mean and fairly accurate take on the willingness of American audiences to applaud a performer wildly when you tell them your age, marital status or home town.

British audiences, weaned on dark comedies with neither laugh track nor studio audience, like a sideways laugh, and they don’t mind a performer showing off a touch of linguistic cleverness. Australian mainstream audiences come down on a showing-off performer like a ton of bricks: our national tall-poppy syndrome kicks in to make us, as an audience, very unwilling to encourage any pretension. As a result our comedians tend towards self-deprecation and emphasising our own relatable flaws.

More generalisations! My accent in Australia is definitely on the more educated, less ocker end of the spectrum. When I get up on stage in Australia, I’ve often felt like I need to counteract an automatic presumption that I will be pretentious and patronising. (Difficult to counteract. I can’t help sounding pretentious, as I am actually pretty pretentious.)

Australians tend to frame up any talk about class in terms of geography. We’ll characterise people by city or state, sometimes even suburb. Americans tend to bring up class differences in terms of race. The British talk about class in terms of class. I guess they perfected it so they’re allowed.

The average UK audience feels a little more open than Australia to unusual left-field comedy, but perhaps that’s a very personal thing – my accent over here reads as more neutral, so I have less to apologise for,or maybe because I’m foreign I get some leeway? But certainly I’ve felt more openness from British audiences than from Australians, from the long walk towards the microphone, where they get to see you but you can’t talk yet, to the getting away with a different kind of joke, and a feeling that I’m ‘allowed’ to play higher status on stage.

It’s a bare fact that since I first came over to the UK and began performing, I’ve spent more and more of each year here, because I do seem to do more and more interesting things here than back home. Much though I miss our sunburned country when I’m away, it’s undeniable from a professional level that even on a per-capita basis, Australia doesn’t like my comedy quite as much as the UK does.

I don’t know where that slightly more open feeling comes from. I like to think perhaps it’s because of the power of the BBC to broaden people’s art, independent from government politics, funded by television licences, with a mandate to commission good stuff as a mainstream but non- commercial channel. Without having to play to advertising dollars, the BBC could beam surreal, absurd and extremely silly comedy straight into the homes of the nation.

Maybe both performers and audiences will homogenise around the world, or maybe with wildly unrestricted access to so much interesting and good art, every audience will be more welcoming to weird foreign acts when they trot onto the stage.

Perhaps this is an outdated idea for the up-and-coming-generations, with the internet opening up channels of access to everything to everyone. Maybe my generation of comedians will be the last ones to really feel vast differences in national audience flavour, as more people sort themselves into team affiliations that span national identity.