Kath & Kim: articles

Kath & Kim joke's on us

THEY'RE annoying, vulgar and chaotic characters. Yet Kath & Kim, the latest comic creation from Gina Riley and Jane Turner, has succeeded where so many other Australian comic creations have failed before. They've found an audience, more than one million people a week.

Like the hit 1996 film The Castle, the ABC series has won a broader than anticipated audience while simultaneously garnering criticism for its seemingly condescending view of Australian suburban life.

"I worry that sometimes we rely too much on humour that is disparaging of ordinary Australians," says one comedy producer of Kath & Kim.

The mother, Kath, and her daughter, Kim, loafing in their suburban "townhouse" are characters we laugh at, rather than with, some argue.

And it's hard not to argue. Kim's exposed g-string or Kath's frightful perm are "funny because they're true," as Homer Simpson would say. But would anyone really acknowledge they were Kath and Kim, true as they are?

Er, no. So how authentic can they be if everybody believes Kath and Kim are somebody else?

Rob Johnson, co-author of Boom-Boom! A Century of Australian Comedy, argues Kath & Kim "fits into the way Australian comedy's been going for the last century".

"If you were to be judgmental in any way, you'd have to say it's classic comedy," he adds.

By classic, Johnson means tried and true. Class-based comedy has been a staple of our cultural milieu for decades, as it is has been in Britain.

After World War I, Nat Phillips and Roy Rene, as the much-loved Stiffy and Mo, used both larrikin slang and stupidity as their comic conceits. Similarly, Steele Rudd's Dad and Dave were not known for their intellectual capacities.

The appeal of dim-witted characters could be considered a dispiriting aspect of the Australian psyche.

Yet stupidity is the basis for much comedy. One of the golden comedy writing rules is your characters shouldn't learn from their mistakes.

It was a tenet Geoffrey Atherden used in what is widely regarded as the one truly great Australian sitcom, Mother and Son. Ruth Cracknell's Maggie Beare flew on gusts of misapprehension, forgetfulness and twisted logic.

And Kath and Kim are stupid, if harmless. Where the series shows questionable taste is in its more grotesque moments. For instance, Glenn Robbins, who owns the best smile on Australian television, is made to play a charmless gimp.

Again, it fits a peculiarly

Australian tradition of "comedy grotesque" that at its best included Barry Humphries' Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage or Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom and at its worst, Stephan Elliott's film Welcome To Woop Woop.

Kath & Kim patronises many of the things -- as disparate as fitness fads, glossy magazines or the quest for romance -- that sustain so many Australians.

There's a stink of the upper and middle classes sneering at those "below" them.

If Kath & Kim is guilty of anything, it's that it is dated. It might just as well have been lifted from The Comedy Company.

It began as a regular sketch in the comedy series Big Girl's Blouse, starring Riley, Magda Szubanski and Turner, in 1994.

The delay in getting the mother and daughter to their own series was attributed to internal chaos at the ABC. Could it not have been a question of taste instead?

IT'S difficult not to contrast Kath & Kim with another sitcom coming to the ABC, Dossa and Joe. Made by Granada Productions and the inspiration of Peter Herbert and Caroline Aherne, Dossa and Joe follows the joys and tribulations of a retired suburban couple, played by Michael Caton and Anne Charleston.

And it's beautiful. There are moments when the camera merely revels in four Australian blokes laughing at a simple joke.

"They're in love with the small things in life," says Herbert of his characters. "There's a lot of celebration in that; we think it's a very good portrait of the working man."

Yet the inspiration behind it was Aherne, an Englishwoman who co-wrote, directed and produced the series in a 12-month working holiday here.

Her previous creation, the British comedy that didn't leave the living room couch, The Royle Family, was a huge success in England. Dossa and Joe is screening there to solid reviews.

"One of the things we wanted to portray was loving portraits of people and Caroline has a wonderful eye for complex characters and speech patterns," says Herbert. Herbert and Aherne used their parents as inspiration.

Caton's Joe is not far removed from Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle. Darryl was dumb but had a rat cunning that beat the system. And most successful dim-witted Australian comic creations had that cunning.

Consequently, The Castle's defence was how could it be patronising towards the Kerrigans when the characters were winners?

But the sad thing is, the history of Australian comedy suggests Dossa and Joe might just be too delightful and brilliantly observed to be popular.

By Michael Bodey
June 03, 2002
Daily Telegraph