Last February I had the dubious pleasure of seeing comedian Rod Quantock's show Pardon My Carbon at the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne. In this performance his opening remarks moved swiftly into a discussion of those humans he thinks should be eaten first. Out of foreseen necessity, I should add. Quantock outlined a dystopian future he predicted would emerge due to the interconnected problems of climate change, "peak oil", food price increases and associated growing supply requirements, population growth, and water scarcity. Andrew Bolt, along with someone called John who used to live in Canberra, was at the top of his list. An audience member who admitted he wasn't sure if climate change is largely humanly caused was also added to the list.
In this performance Quantock explored the prospects for human survival in the twenty-first century and critiqued today's media. In the future scenario described by Quantock, we turn over more and more of our productive farmland to producing fuel for cars (e.g. biofuel production from corn) and, consequently, we turn to our fellow humans for food (aka the film Soylent Green). Climate change also intensifies and eventually helpfully reduces our numbers. A related highlight was his critique of the scripts in Home and Away. Quantock argued the show should feature Summer Bay residents preparing for storm surges, rising sea levels and additional looming natural disasters. It was often shocking, at times questionable, but somehow it worked. He was able to get away with saying what many of the other speakers at the festival probably wanted to say – not so much about the necessity or merits of cannibalism, per se, but in terms of the severity of the issues. Typically, it was done with a smile on his face while the audience laughed along.
It was only long afterwards that I reflected on why Quantock seemed to get away with presenting such shocking and confronting material. I wondered why was he able to lure and lead the audience into such dark places. Was it because the crowd shared his concerns about climate change and sustainability – preaching to the proverbial choir? Or are there additional, deeper, more important reasons for this? After all, Quantock talks about such topics to a range of audiences and isn't known to shirk politically and socially sensitive topics. I thought about jokes told by the likes of Robyn Williams, Daniel Kitson and most recently by performers like Tim Minchin and Eddie Perfect. These comedians don't shy away from controversial, challenging topics or shocking punch lines and have built up large, dedicated fan bases. I also thought of Mel Brook's comments on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton that "anything can use comedy, any subject needs comedy", and his famous definition of comedy: "tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."
The provisional answers I eventually reached are this: comedians have a long, proud history of discussing hard, controversial topics. Indeed, this is what many of the best ones have always done particularly well. Somehow, we laugh at ourselves or society-at-large whilst reflecting more deeply on what is happening in the world when we see comics like the ones mentioned above. This is often my experience of really great comedy. Moreover, I think this also suggests why comedy is so important. A comedian's quick wit, timing and fast thinking can help us to laugh – and think – about things we'd otherwise probably not discuss. They can go to the edge and draw us closer to it. Given the inherent "heaviness" of environmental and other sustainability challenges such as climate change lightening them up in such ways therefore need not be seen as problematically trivialising these problems or as inappropriate – a conclusion that might be reached by some.
The final – and perhaps most important – reflection I've recently had is on the current focus of comedy. Comedians now seem more likely to read us the news or to partake in mainstream celebrity culture than take us to the edge. The alternative approach espoused by the likes of Rod Quantock – of highlighting what they think should be front page news, what we should be discussing, and radically challenging their audiences – seems less popular for today's comics.
If most scientists are even half right about the challenges that we face then we need to be willing to speak about the unspeakable, and to think the unthinkable. We need to reflect deeply on what is happening and more actively ponder the future. And this emerging future is certainly full of extremely challenging and often controversial topics. Perhaps we need more comedians to take up the challenge and provoke us into discussing them.
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