A preposterous life
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 8: People like Us
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Simon Caterson
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Simon Caterson's biography and other articles by this writer
Satire reaches the pinnacle of success when it becomes the thing being satirised. Such is the achievement of Kath & Kim, probably the most popular Australian television comedy ever produced. Its success has come at a price; as it has been thoroughly assimilated, if not bought off by, the society it lampoons so mercilessly.
The third series ended in 2004 with a parody of a Neighbours-style season-ending soap-opera wedding. The resemblance was sharpened by the fact that the bride, Eponnee Rae, was played by Kylie Minogue, who, in her earlier incarnation as Charlene, participated in the most famous Australian soap wedding of them all. In the tussle between the satire and its object, which possesses the stronger gravitational pull? It seems inconceivable that either Jane Turner or Gina Riley would ever appear on Neighbours, or does it? Needless to say, Minogue's guest appearance in Kath & Kim generated a publicity windfall for a show whose national audience already numbered in the millions.
The irresistible rise of Kath & Kim is a story written in DVD extras. The DVD of the first series includes the standard out-takes and bloopers, as well as improvised monologues. By contrast, the DVD of the third series features appearances by Kath and Kim at the AFL grand final and the Logies, an interview with Ray Martin and two guest spots on The Panel. This exposure confirms the arrival of Kath & Kim in the inner circle of Australian fame. It is no accident that Turner's appointment as a United Nations representative is considered significant news – celebrities and charities these days go hand in hand.
The social acceptance of Kath & Kim is so widespread that the show has intruded into everyday conversation. Its catchphrases and malapropisms have become a part of the vernacular. The ritual exclamation "Look at moyeee!" is both an indictment and a triumphant affirmation of our celebrity-obsessed culture. In that phrase alone, Kath & Kim captured the zeitgeist which it helped create.
From the very first scene of the third series, when Kim proudly declared herself a "fashion victim", the nation was plunged back into a surreal yet familiar world. The show is set to become an international phenomenon, and there is every sign that it has already
established itself as a classic of Australian satire. Kath & Kim has become an indispensable feature of the Australian mental landscape. There is even talk of a feature film.
Clearly all suburban life is here, a realisation accompanied by awareness that beneath the knockabout surface, Kath & Kim is very dark satire. This is mainstream television comedy at its most coruscating; there is nothing gentle or benign in its humour. Riley has been quoted as saying this cold-bloodedness is intentional: "Never let the characters get sentimental. That's death to comedy." In this she concurs with the 18th-century Irish satirist Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who observed: "There's no possibility of being witty without a little ill-nature; the malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick."
Another Irishman, Jonathan Swift, noted that the popularity of satire is due to the fact that it flatters even as it mocks. Satire, wrote Swift, is the mirror "wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own, which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it". Part of the secret of Kath & Kim's extraordinary success lies in the way it beguiles even as it sends up most of its audience.
Riley and Turner are so spot on that Kath & Kim must be absorbed back into the world it satirises to ameliorate the harshness of the satire, like the injection of a dose of a disease as inoculation against its full effect. If we are all somehow in on the joke then we may pretend that we are no longer the butt of it.
Kath & Kim subtly reinforces the standards of intelligence, taste and behaviour that are conspicuously absent from the world of the characters. In this sense the show is socially and morally conservative in much the same way that Juvenal and Swift were in their respective eras. Although Riley and Turner have, in interviews, professed warm affection for their characters and the real-life models upon which they are based, this public partiality is at odds with the actual portrayal on the screen.
IN BOTH FORM AND CONTENT, KATH & KIM IS, to a very large and subversive extent, the thing it implicitly despises. (When I say "despise", of course I mean that in a caring way, to paraphrase Dame Edna's deceptive tempering of her most venomous insults.) In common with those critics who attack Barry Humphries for condescending to the targets of his satire, Kath & Kim's few detractors are right when they point out that the show is snobbish and cruel. This is also why it is so very funny. As the 19th-century English essayist William Hazlitt observed, we "grow tired of everything but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects". For their part, Riley and Turner have discovered a wonderfully rich seam of such material for us to laugh at.
Satire is a civilised form of loathing that, as Northrop Frye points out in Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1957), requires targets peculiar to a given society at a particular moment in its history: "To attack anything, writer and audience must agree on its undesirability, which means that the content of a great deal of satire founded on national hatreds, snobbery, prejudice, and personal pique goes out of date very quickly." Much of Humphries's work can be appreciated as a kind of social history, in time Kath & Kim will also be viewed as a repository for the artefacts, language and etiquette of its era.
The most effective satire is ridicule of the most knowledgeable and intimate kind. Turner and Riley have obviously made a thorough study of soap operas and reality TV. In an interview on Enough Rope, Turner revealed that the fly-on-the-wall documentary style was inspired by Sylvania Waters, the controversial ABC/BBC documentary covering six months in the life of a family in Sydney headed by matriarch Noeline Baker and her partner Laurie Donagher that was screened, to much derision, in 1992.
True to the soap formula, the climax of the first series of Kath & Kim is a wedding, while the second ends with a birth. Along the way there are references to reality TV programs such as Big Brother, Changing Rooms and, of course, Survivor. Kim complains of Brett's apparent lack of manliness in the only terms that make sense: "Well, he doesn't mow the lawn, he can't build anything, he can't fix the car. I mean seriously, Mum, what if we were on Survivor? We'd be voted off after the first week." Kim's putative rivals for Brett's sexual favours are named Kylie and Danii. Kim sees them off by asserting her prior proprietary interest: "He might be a dud root, but he's moy dud root."
Kath & Kim is as sharply observed and verbally inventive as Humphries' satire, but is free from the merest hint of expatriate disdain. Since Humphries moved to England in 1959, his humour has been shaped by the (real or imagined) anti-Australian prejudice of his audiences. The intimacy he had with his source material appears to have ended then. Certainly Dame Edna has long since ceased resembling a typical Melbourne housewife, and indeed the character appears to have become primarily a vehicle to satirise fame. (The one Humphries character that retains an affinity with Melbourne – albeit a Melbourne that has all but vanished – is the dressing-gowned ghost of Sandy Stone.)
Although Turner and Riley continue to share fences with the people who provide their material, their satiric heart is as black as that of Humphries. You might not know it, though, from the kind of media coverage they receive. Kath and Kim have appeared on the cover of The Australian Women's Weekly and have been feted by Bert Newton on Good Morning Australia. They are regulars in Who magazine and guests on Rove Live. Kim has been interviewed in the Melbourne commuter paper MX, while an "exclusive photo shoot" in New Idea had her commenting on her pregnancy in a manner that readers would instantly recognise, but is also a poke at their gullibility and celebrity worship: "It's all about being noyce and unewsual. I loved the look Rachel had in Friends, but Mum tells me that Jennifer Aniston just had a pillow stuffed under her jumper."
KATH & KIM PRESENTS A LIKENESS OF THE REALITY of contemporary Australian suburbia that is exaggerated yet unmistakable. The nature of this form of existence was outlined by architect and social critic Robin Boyd in his books Australia's Home (1952) and The Australian Ugliness (1960). He wrote specifically of the post-war Melbourne that Barry Humphries, for one, knew as a child, but Boyd's waspish observations still apply today without any substantial qualification.
Boyd saw the development of the suburbs as "a material triumph and an aesthetic calamity". Modern Australia, he said, was characterised by "the surfeit of colour, the love of advertisements, the dreadful language, the ladylike euphemisms, the technical competence but almost uncanny misjudgement in floral arrangements". The gaudiness, materialism and linguistic contortions Boyd referred to are, of course, the foundation of Humphries's humour and are pervasive in Kath & Kim. It is no surprise that Kath's greatest academic ambition is to complete a floral-design course at her local TAFE, which she explains, is "the most penultimate course in the country".
According to Boyd, "Australia is the small house". He maintained that the potential of the type of dwelling had not been realised: "Collectively they are an achievement. Individually they are prey to thoughtless habits, snobberies and fickle sentiment." Nothing much has changed there, though the "featurism" Boyd specifically railed against, and which Barry Humphries – whose own father built such houses – attacks in his monologues, has given way in our own time to the McMansion, of which Kath's house in Fountain Lakes is a prime example. Instead of just a chimney or a window being the feature, in McMansions the whole house is the feature, and takes up almost the entire block of land in gross disproportion to its surroundings. In average size, houses in Australia are second only to those in America, and Kath's two-storey dwelling looms suitably vast and insubstantial.
Even if we have never met the characters, we know the milieu they inhabit. It is, as Boyd described it, a world of surfaces: "The things that make Australian people, society and culture in some way different from the rest of the world are only skin-deep. But skin is as important as its admirers like to make it, and Australians make much of it. This is a country of many colourful, patterned, plastic veneers, of brick-veneer villas, and the White Australia policy."
Although the last-named item has disappeared since Boyd's time, the superficiality and pressure to conform persist. Commenting on the postwar housing boom and the new suburbs it created, Roger McDonald, the author of the companion volume to Barry Humphries Flashbacks (HarperCollins, 1999) writes: "This was a place where individualism in any form was akin to communism and where the anonymity of the repetitious streetscapes was a comfort to all and confirmation of a truly egalitarian spirit." Kath's nosey yet distant neighbours are a frequent reminder of this low-key yet ever-present coercive force.
ACCORDING TO BOYD, THE DISTINCTLY AUSTRALIAN HOME is originally "of feminine gender, contrary to the European tradition of a neuter building", and was characterised in his era by what he called its "emasculated garden". Though not overtly feminist, Kath & Kim is distinctly feminine satire. Certainly it is free from the imputation of misogyny that has been made against Humphries, whose adoption of drag, on a favourable view, is an acknowledgement of the dominance of the female principle in suburban Australia. It so happens that of all the characters Humphries introduced to his earliest Melbourne audiences, Edna struck the most resonant chord.
The absence of the heroic in the male characters in Kath & Kim is mocked in accordance with what Northrop Frye identifies as the "Omphale archetype, the man bullied or dominated by women, which has been prominent in satire all through its history". (Kim's domination over Brett – "You're such a wuss" – recalls the control that Sybil Fawlty exerts over Basil, as does Edna over her husband, Norm.)
In an interview, Turner explains: "We don't like that distinction of being ‘women's comedy'. There's [sic] funny things and there's not funny things. I don't like that political humour. We don't set out to make statements. We do character-based comedy and it's nothing to do with gender." Kath and Kim are, however, the only characters permitted a voiceover and are clearly the major protagonists, especially in the first series. It is, after all, their show, and therefore entirely fitting that each episode ends with "wine time" in the tiny, mostly plant-free, backyard.
Though the satire is female-centred, the male characters are not spared. Jane Austen is arguably harsher on her female characters than the male ones. There is such a thing as an ideal man in Austen-land, but no such creature exists in Fountain Lakes. Ironically, the men in Kath and Kim's lives are derided for their lack of traditional masculinity. Kath finds herself wishing that Kel was "more cave man and less quiche man" and must convince herself that any man who likes Barbra Streisand as much as he does can't be gay. For her part, Kim is persuaded that Brett is "a macho man" when he displays his netballing prowess dressed in the regulation tunic. Then there is Kath's consolation to fall back on: "Well Brett's a modern guy. Get with the program. He doesn't need to do all that stuff. That's why we invented whitegoods and Jim's Mowing."
Australian humour typically arises out of the cheerful callousness, easygoing nastiness and undisguised acquisitiveness that characterise the society. As Francis Adams observed of Australians in the 1890s: "They have in their underside the taint of cruelty." The national sense of humour typically revolves around insults, the jocularity barely concealing the hostility, insecurity and fatalism that is perhaps its primary motivation.
The origins of the severity of Australian humour lie in the harshness of the landscape itself and the misfortunes experienced by the early European settlers. Although the physical hardship depicted on the bush selection in the stories of Steele Rudd belongs in the pre-suburban past, the earthy, abrasive quality of the humour has not changed. Sharon unconsciously applies this principle when she consoles Kim when she is ridiculed over her taste in clothes: "Oh, Kim, that was a just a few of the girls having a bit of a joke. They were laughing at you, not with you."
THERE ARE NO DROUGHTS, FLOODS OR BUSHFIRES IN FOUNTAIN LAKES, and such crises as there are tend to arise out of problems with hair or make-up, overeating, misapprehensions about other people's sexuality and other suburban psychodramas. Much of Dame Edna's humour, I have said, is derived from her supposed (or real) relationship with the celebrity world, and this carries over, though only to emphasise the gulf between Kath and Kim's provincial lives and the distant firmament to which they vaguely aspire. The new mum Kim feels an instant affinity with the maternal travails of Posh Spice.
The awareness of the outside world is limited to celebrity gossip involving a few film stars and singers. Multiculturalism evidently makes little impression beyond a well-developed food fetish and the occasional glimpse of a Chinese or Pakistani waiter ("Where are you from, Imran? Didn't you hear me"). Apart from Sharon's brief visit to the "Harry Potter Gallery" at Federation Square, the characters have no need of what used to be termed high culture. They are seen at various times reading books by Bryce Courtenay or Shane Warne, discussing the latest Jeffrey Archer novel or the relative merits of such films as Mighty Ducks 1 and 2. Eyes Wide Shut ("Tom and Nicole's last film together") is regarded as "a bit raunchy", while The Hours forms the basis for an amateur musical. After competitively speed reading a Bryce Courtenay novel with her doppelganger friend Jane, Kath comments: "That was good. I don't agree, but it was good."
Other family-based satires may have some semblance of emotional attachment, but Kath and Kim are noticeably lacking in any real affection for one another. Even more disturbing than the dysfunctional relationship between the hyper-manic mother and the slothful daughter is Kim's bullying of Sharon and Brett, and the way her victims mostly acquiesce in their oppression. When given the chance to be free of Kim's tyranny, each apparently prefers to be bullied. When pregnant Kim's "happy hormones" induce her briefly to be pleasant and supportive towards Brett, he becomes distinctly uncomfortable and is heartily glad ("Thank God," he exclaims) when she reverts to her old obnoxious self. The conclusion of the third series posits a fantasy future in which Brett leaves Kim for Sharon, an outcome that would be consistent with a soap opera-style daydream but not the pitiless determinism of satire.
When Sharon decides to rebel against her status as Kim's "second-best friend" and takes up with someone else, she finds her new companion's kindness and concern disorienting: "Quite frankly, I didn't care for the way she spoke to me. She was always going on and on at me about how talented I am and how my friends don't appreciate me." Kim is quick to comment: "That does sound weird."
Sharon provides an effective critique of the futility and physical harm produced by the tyranny of sport. "Grown people train their whole lives just to throw a ball through a hoop," she chides one doubter. Sharon is the one character who might contain the tiniest amount of pathos, but this apparent susceptibility is offset by the lack of insight she has into her situation, despite the pain she evidently feels. Apart from one small act of defiance involving a mechanical bull, Sharon is unable to resist the attitudes that oppress her, nor does she dream of a world in which people are not judged solely by their appearance. The final surrender occurs when Sharon seeks to entice a fellow hospital worker by undergoing an "extreme makeover", under Kim's withering "queer eye", and thus is transformed into a version of Kim herself.
The most effective satire blurs irretrievably the line between fact and fiction. Fountain Lakes exists somewhere in the endless urban sprawl that provides the contestants as well as the audience for Big Brother and Australian Idol, as well as furnishing our most popular sports stars and celebrities, and which of course brought forth Kylie herself. As far as the whole world is concerned (and Melbourne especially), life after Kath & Kim will never be the same, and yet somehow it will be even more like itself. ♦