ABORIGINAL HUMOUR - An investigation into the nature and purposes of Indigenous Australian performance humour and its contributions to Australian culture.

Author: Karen Austin

Austin, Karen, 2017 ABORIGINAL HUMOUR - An investigation into the nature and purposes of Indigenous Australian performance humour and its contributions to Australian culture., Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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In academic research discussing the nature of Australian humour little is written about Indigenous Australian humour. Humour has, and continues to play, a significant role in Indigenous Australian socio-political and artistic discourse. Why is it that so few have written about the nature and purposes of Indigenous humour when such an investigation might provide a counterbalance to more austere ‘black armband’ views of Indigenous people. This neglect could be the result of white Australia’s inability to properly appreciate the full significance of Indigenous cultures. I suggest that the indifference partially results from the prominence of more ‘serious’ issues of social injustice and disadvantage that obscure recognition of other aspects of Indigenous’ lifestyles, including a humorous side. This thesis responds to this lack of academic literature contributing critical investigation and greater appreciation of Indigenous performance humour.

This investigation contends that humour forms and functions discussed in western academic theories of superiority, incongruity and release can also be understood within the cultural practices of non-western people. These humour characteristics are recognisable in some early western records of Australian Indigenous communities and in traditional narratives, revealing the structure of some pre-colonial humour. Whilst government interventions and economic hardships obscured the existence of Indigenous humour in colonial Australian history, research shows how humour has emerged as a significant ‘weapon’ in the armoury of Indigenous fights for socio-political recognition. Theatrical and stand-up performances have become important avenues for Indigenous self-expression that often employ humour. Following a chronological progression, this thesis reviews the establishment of Aboriginal performance within the mainstream. It critically analyses the humour used in this endeavour, exploring the links between traditional and current practices. It questions whether or not common humour forms and functions, particularly those recognised in 1970s Indigenous theatre, can still be found in contemporary performances. This question is often investigated by way of qualitative interviews with current Aboriginal humorists as well as personal attendances at comedy performances.

This thesis concludes that physical humour and mimicry remain techniques found in early and in more recent Indigenous performances. Humorous yarning techniques also continue to enable Indigenous performers to impart engaging stories, often about the inequalities and hardships they face, to non-Indigenous audiences in a less judgmental manner. Black humour and mickey-taking techniques that deprecate idiosyncrasies of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are further commonly found humour forms, especially seen in stand-up comedy. But most significantly, Indigenous humour remains tied to an Indigenous political ‘voice’ in Australia’s cultural arena. By using humorous techniques, Indigenous artists raise issues of significance to their own people, providing their own perspectives. The political emphasis of much Indigenous performance humour is what sets it apart as a significant aspect of communication within the mainstream. Moreover, it provides Australia’s Arts culture with important elements of cultural diversity and complexity.

Keywords: Australian humour, Indigenous Australian performance humour, Indigenous Australian theatre, Indigenous Australian standup comedy, Australian culture.

Subject: Humanities thesis, Creative Arts thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Dr Christine Nicholls