• “When people are laughing, they are more open to new suggestions and new ideas." (Getty Images)
Forget preachers, politicians or professors. Culturally diverse comedians who can make people laugh with a sharp joke and socially-charged statement are probably the biggest weapons in the fight against racism.
By
Sharon Verghis

21 Feb 2017 - 1:24 PM  UPDATED 21 Feb 2017 - 1:48 PM

If you make someone laugh, you’ve won the battle, says Indigenous stand-up comedian, Shiralee Hood. Nothing succeeds more than humour in breaching the walls of prejudice and racism.

That’s why, says Hood, comedians are probably doing more than anyone – including politicians, preachers or academics - to combat racism in Australia.

“When people are laughing, they are more open to new suggestions and new ideas. It’s different to policy writing or lecturing or academia. It’s a strong and more immediate human connection. People don’t want to be lectured, but if you can tell a joke…”

At a time of rising tensions around the globe centred on race, nationalism and cultural divisions, Hood is heartened by the parallel emergence of a thriving minority comedian circuit across the country and internationally.

“I’m not sure how easy it is to change people’s ideas and opinions through comedy. The stakes are so high now that I question how transformative it can be.”

Indigenous comedy is thriving on television – she points to shows such as the ABC’s 8MMM and Black Comedy – and on the stage, the likes of Kevin Kropinyeri and the Aboriginal Comedy All-Stars.

Muslim comedians, meanwhile, are taking centre stage as well, from Australia’s Nazeem Hussain, Aamer Rahman, Sami Shah and Frida Deguise to Indonesia’s Sakdiyah Ma’Ruf – the country’s first female Muslim comedian – to American funnymen Mo Amer, Azhar Usman and Preacher Moss.

Through comedy – from skits in local clubs to touring shows like Allah Made Me Funny to prime time appearances on Saturday Night Live - minority groups are finding their voices and fighting back, she says with relish.

The eldest of 12 children, Hood got her start in comedy after winning Deadly Funny, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s competition for Indigenous comedians, in 2009.

“Within our community and families we have so many funny people – humour has been part of our survival, a way of looking at our place in the world. Do we have a flair for it? Absolutely. We have one of the longest storytelling traditions in the world.”

Founded by Jason Tamiru and Toby Sullivan, the competition has been able to mine a rich vein of comedy talent that has long been waiting to be tapped in Aboriginal Australia, says Hood. 

“Within our community and families we have so many funny people – humour has been part of our survival, a way of looking at our place in the world. Do we have a flair for it? Absolutely. We have one of the longest storytelling traditions in the world.”

Hood was a hit on debut, and has since launched herself as a stand-up comedian with shows around the country.

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She doesn’t shy away from addressing controversial topics. “I’ve brought up subjects that have been important for me to talk about, to express myself, and also to observe life and society, reflect it back. I also love working with issues that have an edge, whether it’s domestic violence or even deaths in custody. I also work within the prison system around Victoria and also ACT."

Minority comedians can find themselves in hot water given their sensitive subject matter: witness the furore over the BBC’s The Real Housewives of Isis comedy sketch this year.

From jokes about terrorism and Trump to mad mullahs and police brutality, there are hot buttons aplenty.

You could have witnessed this during Nazeem Hussain’s performance at the 2015 Sydney Comedy Festival: “Just because I’m Muslim doesn’t mean I support ISIS, you idiot,” he told the audience. “Some of us like al-Qaida.”

 

Has Hood ever felt that some topics are too sensitive to joke about? “I used to think there could be [but not now].” Self-censorship defeats the purpose of shining a light on dark issues, she believes.

Hood’s optimism about the general ability of Australians to bond over a laugh, despite differences, remains strong despite her own personal experiences of racism. She has been stopped several times by security guards at the door of clubs where she was scheduled to perform.

“I have to get the management or other people in my crew to come and get me… they’re like, where are you?”

As for heckling, yes, I’ve had that but I’ve noticed that a lot of people are open to listening and that’s the thing about comedy… you go into a venue and you’re expecting the absurd and that’s why comedy works so well this way.”

But she bears no grudges. “Afterwards, security guards have asked if they can buy me a drink because they’re so sorry. As for heckling, yes, I’ve had that but I’ve noticed that a lot of people are open to listening and that’s the thing about comedy… you go into a venue and you’re expecting the absurd and that’s why comedy works so well this way.”

She sees an increasing acceptance among white audiences, and says the success of Indigenous comedy on stage and screen is due to changing demographics. “I think the old, really racist white attitude is totally changing now, and I think the next generation is different.”

Hood is heartened, too, by the parallel rise of Muslim comedy around Australia, and sees similarities in the community’s battle for equity and acceptance: “we’re all fighting for our voice”.

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Australia’s Hussain, the son of Sri Lankan Muslim immigrants, is a mentor and helped her put together her one-woman show Rock The Boat: “he is absolutely brilliant”.

Hussain has certainly been one of the brightest comedic talents to emerge in Australia in recent years, shooting to fame with his SBS show Legally Brown.

 

Melbourne comedian Aamer Rahman also pays credit to Hussain's ground-breaking work on stage and screen. Rahman and Hussain were both young lawyers when they got their big breaks in Raw Comedy, run by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. 

Rahman, born in Saudi Arabia to Bangladeshi parents, would go on to team up with Hussain to form the hit comedy show Fear of a Brown Planet after realising there was a wider audience for their brand of quirky humour and that “there was no real place for people to hear [their own experiences and stories]”.

Fear of a Brown Planet was a hit in Australia and would go on to enjoy success at the Edinburgh Fringe and with London audiences because “a lot of people related to what we were doing – experiences of racism in Western society are similar everywhere.”

In light of the rising racial and religious tensions caused by international incidents, such as US President Donald Trump’s immigration ban – he says women in his community are routinely targeted because of their headscarves, and his own wife was abused by a stranger when she went to pay her respects in Bourke Street following the massacre of six people - how does he feel about the power of comedy to cut through and heal rifts?

He is proud of the work of Hussain and Muslim comedians around the world, but is more cautious about how effective comedy is as a political tool.

“I’m not sure how easy it is to change people’s ideas and opinions through comedy. The stakes are so high now that I question how transformative it can be.”

For Hood, however, optimism remains high. She’s particularly excited about her upcoming debut at the inaugural Mardi Gras Comedy Festival this month, hosted by comedian Bob Downe.

She’s not gay, she says, but just wanted to lend her support to the community in their battle for equal rights. “You know, not so long ago, Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to get married… it’s all the same, we share the same struggles. Building bridges by making the world laugh, making people understand.”


 

Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice.

Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).

Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand. 

   

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