Entertainment

You Should Be Able to Laugh About Your Parents' Awful Divorce

We talked about this with Benjamin Law. That, and his second season of "The Family Law."
June 19, 2017, 5:12am
All photos by Sean Foster

If there's one thing you should know about writer, journalist, and showrunner Benjamin Law, it's that he has a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of Real Housewives. And that he always finds a reason to talk about it. "The one thing my family does have in common, as different as we all are, is a pretty fucked up sense of humour," he explains. "Which makes me sound like Lisa Oldfield when I say that, because she's always like, 'I've got a dark sense of humour.'"

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He's right. I can personally attest to the fact the Real Housewives of Sydney star says, "I've got a dark sense of humour" at least once every 10 minutes. But we're not here to talk about the greatest show on Australian TV—the Real Housewives of Sydney—we're here to talk about the second greatest show on Australian TV—The Family Law—which has just returned for its second season.

The bar is high: the show's first season broke records, drawing in the biggest audience SBS has ever had for an on-demand comedy. It also became a lightning rod for a long overdue national discussion about the underrepresentation of Asian-Australians in media. Today though Law seems unfazed by it all. Slouched against the bar of Sydney's Old Clare Hotel, he's halfway through a story he knows is good and is fighting back laughter—not exactly what you'd expect when you ask someone about their parent's divorce. But even the bartender has wandered over to hear the punchline.

Photos by Sean Foster

"When my parents had split up, my dad had us for these custody weekends," Law recounts. "[Dad] didn't know how to entertain us, so he'd always drive us to these really fucked up theme parks."

Growing up in Queensland, which boasts three such Australiana tourist traps per resident, there was no shortage of weekend destinations. "There was the Big Bottle, which is literally just a giant beer bottle that you slid along the outside of in a hessian sack," Law explains. "Inside was full of bottles that everyone peed in as a joke. The whole thing smelled like piss.

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"So… that was one weekend."

The belief that divorce can be funny is at the centre of The Family Law. The show is loosely (or not so loosely) based on Law's experiences growing up in the midst of a splintering family. "When my parents were splitting up, hideous shit was happening. I think about it now as an adult and I'm like, 'That is really funny, actually,'" he says. "To look at those hideous moments of break up and then reconstituting yourself—I think that really messy, ugly stuff… that's really ripe for storytelling. And I think it's kind of ripe for comedy."

And the show nails "family divorce comedy"—a genre that's surprisingly sparse these days, after the 90s golden era of Ms Doubtfire and Parent Trap. It's sweet and warm, and weird, and relatable, and very dark. And it has a cast that's almost entirely made up of Asian-Australians. "I'd love for an Asian-Australian family on TV to be unremarkable. But it's not," Law wrote in his latest column for Good Weekend. "Until it is, let's keep the conversation going." In media coverage of the new season, this remains the biggest talking point around the show.

With so much already written about The Family Law's significance in the push for a more diverse Australia on screen though, it's hard to know what else to say. Except perhaps that it seems the media often zeroes in on shows like this as beacons of diversity, while failing to hold the rest of the TV landscape to the same standard.

"Breakfast television, on commercial networks especially, I watch and I forget that there are other people in Australia—you know what I mean?" Law says. "I don't think it's just about me as an Australian person wanting to see me on screen, necessarily… I think more and more Australians of every background are starting to realise how freaky it looks when your TV screens are so white."

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Last year, Screen Australia found that the Australia we see on TV is still much, much whiter than the country we live in. It's estimated that around two-thirds of the population are from an Anglo-Celtic background—but they make up 82 percent of drama leads on TV. "One-in-10 Australians have a significant Asian heritage nowadays," Law says. "That's roughly proportionate to how many black Americans there are in the United States." And yet, on Australian TV, only 18 percent of main characters are from non-white backgrounds.

Clearly, Australian TV isn't reflective of modern Australia. Or, as Law would put it, "It's whiter than a fucking yacht club."

Me and Law, chatting. "It's whiter than a fucking yacht club." Photo by Sean Foster

"When you have these conversations about diversity, it sounds like, 'Oh diversity, what a wonderful thing we should all aspire towards. It's this gorgeous altruistic thing we should do, let's put some coloured people in'," Law says, the humour dropping from his voice. "That sounds really cosmetic. And I think the reality of it is slightly creepier than that. It's about excluding us from the screen."

And if we're on season two of The Family Law and still literally blown away by the fact the cast is Asian-Australian, can we really say there's progress? In Law's mind, it would be simple for commercial TV to mimic the success of his show: "Hire a diversity of writers, hire a diversity of producers and directors, so that you do feel confident to tell the story of what it looks like when you walk down to Melbourne Central Station along Swanston Street."

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But, waiting for the big networks to catch on, hope for Law comes from an unexpected place—competitive reality TV.

"When you think about singing… cooking, they're pretty democratic skill sets. If you're doing an open, wide cast out you are going to get people who look like the rest of Australia," he says. "So I actually think—I mean I'm not watching them heaps at the moment—but things like MasterChef, the Voice, and Australian Idol have probably done way more for representing Australian multiculturalism than a lot of other genres."

And, of course, you can't forget Real Housewives. "Yes! Just look at the Real Housewives, we've got an Iranian-Australian women, we've got Lebanese-Australian women as well," Law says. "You've got Lisa Oldfield… that's whatever."

Follow Maddison on Twitter. Photos by Sean Foster

The Family Law is on Thursday at 8:30 PM on SBS.