Playwright Nakkiah Lui knows if she can make people laugh, she can make them listen. It's a skill she's brought to Black Comedy, the first all-Indigenous comedy to appear on Australian TV since 1973's Basically Black. The show invites people to think about the complexities of race in Australia, not by lecturing them, but rather through characters like Tiffany the Black White Woman and Tatiana the Cultural Excuse Girl. It's funny, dynamic, and devastating to think we didn't have anything like it on TV for four decades.
We caught up with Nakkia, who is a proud Gamillaroi/Torres Strait Islander, to talk about the complexity at joking about serious things.
VICE: There hasn't been a show like this in decades, did that mean reintroducing the audience to what they're allowed to laugh at? Personally when I first saw Tiffany the Black White Woman I felt really conflicted laughing at Brooke Satchwell doing an impression of an Indigenous woman.
Nakkiah Lui: First and foremost we set out to be funny. We want to do blackfella humour for everyone—the idea is to laugh with us. To get people to care about Indigenous politics in Australia they have to care about us. For me, humour is important in that. When people laugh or feel uncomfortable, they have to address why, and really think it through.
Also you have to consider the authorship, and that we are the first sketch show totally and completely written by Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people. Something like Tiffany—the black white woman—might come off as really funny and uncomfortable, but it's authored by Aboriginal people who are looking at a white women performing blackness. There's definitely that thing where blackness becomes a caricature, if the authorship wasn't done by an Indigenous person that layer might not be there.
That reminds me of the concerns Dave Chappelle spoke about when he left his show. He said he wasn't sure anymore if people were laughing with him, or he was providing an excuse to laugh at people. The line between indulging and challenging stereotypes blurred. Is that something you guys talk about?
Yeah definitely, like when does this become a stereotype? You don't want to put something into discourse where people are laughing at you, or don't understand what they're laughing at.
It's entertainment and we don't represent the whole country, but people will watch this and it might be their only exposure to the Aboriginal community. There might be Aboriginal people who watch it, it's one thing for someone to not think it's funny, but it's another to say, "That oppresses me". Part of the process when we write it is making sure nothing slips through the cracks.
How do you do that?
I think you ask yourself, for the Aboriginal person seeing it, is it an inherent Aboriginal thing (that is being joked about) or is it a construct? And if it is an inherent idea of Aboriginality, are people going to laugh at it and understand that it's not actually a stereotype? Everything is constructed, but it's a matter of: are people empowered by it?
You guys look at other constructs too, and it was interesting to see you take on political correctness. Watching Black Comedy was the first time I thought about how being PC allows people to feel immune from national issues.
The idea that extreme political correctness can absolve you from the problems of the world is the same type of mentality that goes on in the extreme right. It's this idea that whether you're PC or a fan of The Fountainhead, you're still trying to absolve yourself from the community. That contradiction is actually really funny.
With Black Comedy we just take aim at everything. One of the greatest things about this show is the ownership of making people uncomfortable.
I felt that watching the Ernie Dingo sketch and realising I'd never questioned why the Aboriginal guy could only present local Getaway segments. And how that repeated, really romanticised look at Indigenous culture, was also incredibly patronising.
Totally, the idea of the noble savage is still a stereotype. It's still reducing an entire race and culture down to one thing. It's important that we get to write flawed characters. I have one character called Cultural Excuse Girl who uses people's inability to understand what "culture" is to basically get away with anything she wants. The whole joke is that she's a complete asshole.
I worked in government for a while, and I found if you said the word cultural your team leaders would back off. If you wanted to go get a coffee with a colleague, you would just say you needed to go talk about cultural stuff.
That ability to make flawed characters to laugh at very rarely happens. Previously you were either an angry blackfella, or a happy smiling cultural blackfella. You're not really allowed to be a person between that.
Nakkiah Lui will be participating in the panel Be Funny, Be Fierce: Lessons from Black Comedy at Storyology 2015
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