Australian television has a problem with poverty. It’s something to gawk at on current affairs programs, but it rarely gets a look-in on TV dramas. As for comedy series? Not going to happen. Australian television has always been good at erasing large swathes of real Australia – see pretty much every discussion about diversity on our screens – but, oddly, the lack of poor people rarely gets a mention in our media. Maybe that’s because most of our mainstream media is firmly in the middle-class bracket themselves? Just a thought.
No wonder, then, that Housos was the subject of an “outrage” report on A Current Affair before the first episode even aired. ACA initially claimed the sitcom was a reality series, which gives you some idea of how much experience all those involved have with real welfare recipients. But with the Australian media firmly if unconsciously committed to ensuring the lives of those making less than the median wage never make it to air, it’s no surprise they mistook a comedy for reality.
Unfortunately for them, and for us, recent events around the world have made it all too clear that the neglected segments of our community – the people who haven’t been sharing the wealth for a long, long time – have had enough. They’re no longer content to vote for business as usual and the people they’re putting into power seem happy to run the system off a cliff if there’s a buck in it for them. Why are the poor so angry? Could it be they don’t feel like anyone is listening to them? Could it even be that when they turn on the television, they see everybody else reflected back but themselves?
Australia doesn’t make a lot of sitcoms - and Australia doesn’t make any sitcoms about people who are working class. In fact, Australian sitcoms are terrified of poverty. It’s maybe OK to show your characters worrying about money if your show is about young strivers like Twentysomething, but consider Please Like Me, that critically-acclaimed look at twentysomething life in which the lead never even had a consistent job. Please Like Me was repeatedly praised for its realistic look at life in your twenties, and yet, going by pretty much every twentysomething not kept afloat financially by their parents, trying to make a living is a pretty huge part of life in your twenties.
When an Australian sitcom overtly positions itself as being about class, it immediately makes sure we know that class has nothing to do with money – because everyone’s rich. Kath & Kim might have been bogans, but they were never short of a quid. The bogan side of Upper Middle Bogan might have had money worries on occasion, but they lived in a McMansion and made a living drag racing. A Moody Christmas centred on a character who could afford to fly home from London each year. And while Summer Heights High was set at a state school, Ja’ime (Chris Lilley) came from a wealthy background, spent the entire series sneering at the “povvo bogans” she was surrounded by and ended the series shouting “state schools rock!”... as she was driven away in a limousine.
Other sitcoms sideline money entirely. Utopia is about public servants at work; The Ex-PM is about a former prime minister; The Family Law shows a family seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old, a character just that little bit too young to have serious money worries whatever his family’s situation. And, as the title suggests, it’s a family sitcom – it’s all about the relationships as Law’s family comes apart from internal pressures, not so much about the family dealing with the outside world.
Here Comes the Habibs! went so far as to make this subtext text, opening with the working class Habib family literally winning the lottery and moving into “Sydney’s richest suburb”. Time and time again we’re told it’s fine to have working class characters on Australian television – they just can’t have working class money troubles.
Unless you’re talking about Housos. Housos has the guts to keep its poor characters poor. Their lives revolve around Centerlink and fending off junkies trying to steal everything that isn’t nailed down. It doesn’t laugh at them for having to deal with these problems – it laughs at the way they try to deal with them.
Housos is full of cartoon grotesques, but so what? Do we really think poor people in Australia are so fragile they can’t laugh at themselves? The problem isn’t that there are no jokes to be made about poor people, it’s that we don’t have people in the media who can make them. Unfortunately, most Australian comedy comes from the same narrow demographic as the rest of our media – even Here Comes the Habibs! was co-created by Jungle (formerly Jungleboys), the production company behind The Moodys, Review with Myles Barlow and The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting.
When they were first released, both Kath & Kim and The Castle were criticised for being made by upper-middle class creatives poking fun at those beneath them. It was a shaky argument, but consider the lesson learned – Australian sitcoms since then have made sure to keep the laughs firmly aimed at the creators’ cultural equals. That’s why our sitcoms go out of their way to lift their lower class characters up to middle-class status – you’re not making fun of poor people if your characters just won the lottery.
That leaves Housos as the only Australian sitcom of the 21st century that dares admit there are people in this country who aren’t firmly middle-class. It’s the only sitcom able to make jokes about Centrelink, because it’s the only sitcom that can even admit Centrelink exists. It’s the only sitcom that lets Australia’s great unseen laugh at themselves. It’s the only sitcom that has Paul Fenech running around smacking people in the face with a thong.
Well, you can’t have everything.
Housos airs on SBS VICELAND on Friday nights at 10:15pm.
Missed episode 6 of series 1? Watch it at SBS On Demand right here: