Kath & Kim: articles

Gina Riley (Kim) and Jane Turner (Kath)

Hornbags: Gina Riley (Kim) and Jane Turner (Kath).

Look at moiye!

The characters in Kath & Kim are closer to the real thing than you might think. Michael Idato reports.

On the eve of an election, the return of the ABC’s hit suburbia sitcom Kath & Kim could be seen as a breath of non-political fresh air. But the infectious, simple misbehaviour of its characters—suburban mum Kath (Jane Turner), her “foxymoron” daughter Kim (Gina Riley) and Kim’s second best friend, the layered, tortured Sharon (Magda Szubanski)—conceals a deeper complexity. Maybe even a political statement or two.

Kath, for instance, might know the intimate details of the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez relationship but when asked in one episode to name Australia’s prime minister she was lost for words.

“We aren’t making a political statement,” Turner explains. “It is more a question of what people are currently thinking about. They would much rather click on to something like Bennifer than talk about John Howard because Bennifer offers a fairy tale. It offers positive things and interesting things.”

In contrast, Turner says, it is less likely people will know the name of a “colourless, faceless, not particularly attractive or charismatic prime minister. People do feel divorced from big issues. They feel disempowered [because] in the modern world there is too much to cope with.”

Kath & Kim opens a window into the uncomfortably familiar world of everyday suburban life. It began as a sketch in 1994’s Big Girl’s Blouse and returned in 2002 as a series, introducing us to a cast of characters who sprang from our collective memories. Everyone has an Auntie Kath or an Uncle Kel.

As Kath & Kim begins its third season, the view from Fountain Lakes has never looked so “noice”. It has delivered the ABC a ratings windfall, spun off a line of merchandise including aprons, books, DVDs and even an oven mitt, and has been sold to Britain and the United States—a real prize in a tight TV economy.

Despite its light veneer, Kath & Kim has, at times, revealed a profound darkness—glimpses, for example, into Sharon’s loneliness. They confirm the strength of the writing and resonate with a compelling discomfort.

Turner, who witnessed the uncomfortable laughter of Kath & Kim viewers first hand on a recent flight, believes that darkness taps enormous comedic power. “They weren’t laughing but they were loving it to bits. Loving to be offended,” she says. Riley agrees, saying that the truth—light or dark—is always powerful. “If you’re going to do something about real life, you’ve got to do the dark side,” she says.

Szubanski believes the darkness confirms that the writing connects at a deep level. “That is the power of TV and the power of storytelling. I feel that sadness in Sharon and I think everyone knows that at some level.”

The question of politics is an interesting one. Turner insists if it is there, it isn’t conscious. “We just want to say funny things. We can do fart jokes, we can do anything, as long as it makes us laugh,” she says. “[But] because we’re representing real life, we want to represent vaguely real people. They know all the names of the celebrities but not the PM because celebrities are huge and they are what people talk about. Whether it’s got currency or not it doesn’t matter. It’s what is real.”

Szubanski, on a break from production in “the good room”, is more direct—she feels the personal is always political. “It’s the old Jane Austen argument that because she wrote domestic stories, it was not about human nature. It’s all about human nature and to me this show is extremely political. Not in a knowing sort of way but in terms of the observations that it makes and the perspective that it has,” she says.

Riley believes that both positions—the unconscious and the conscious—are valid. “I think your politics comes through whatever fluff-ball thing you might be writing,” she says. “Your personal politics and your party politics, they seep out in ways that some people may never read.”

That said, Turner concedes there are broader issues to be tapped in the show’s seemingly innocuous referencing of fads and brands, such as the “fat-free Fruche”.

“That speaks to a whole bigger conundrum, the fat-free diet, the obsession with weight. Just saying fat-free Fruche to me says, ‘Why is our culture so obsessed with food? Why do we eat so much?’ “ she says.

Writing the third series was easier than the second. “Much easier,” Riley says, “because I think now we really know the characters.” The biggest risk with an ageing comedy is losing the jokes while pursuing familiar punchlines, a criticism that has been levelled, sometimes fairly, at successful comedies such as Friends and Absolutely Fabulous.

In journalistic terms, it could be equated to keeping your ear on the story and not on the spin. In music, it is second-album syndrome, in which a band’s second album fails to match the hype generated by its first album.

“We were all a bit worried about that,” Szubanski says. “It’s a dance that you do. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t. It’s impossible to get it right all the time and you just do your best. But we’ve been doing this for 20 years and this is like our ninth or tenth album.

We stay the course and try not to get too influenced by outside perceptions.”

The words come easily, perhaps, because of that longevity. Szubanski and Marg Downey (who played Marion, Kath and Kel’s marriage celebrant) met as kids at a tennis tournament. Turner and Riley met as teens at Melbourne’s St Martin’s Youth Arts Centre. Turner joined Szubanski and Downey on The D-Generation and all four later worked on Fast Forward.

They were brought together, Szubanski says, by a shared sensibility and a very similar sense of humour. “It’s very like mucking round at school. It’s convent-girl humour. Gina, despite being a filthy Proddie, has somehow managed to jag in with that and over the years we’ve refined that sensibility.”

Their post-Fast Forward collaborations include Big Girl’s Blouse and Something Stupid and the one-off projects 38 and a Bit Fabulous Years of Australian Television and The Making of Nothing.

“We’re like an old rock’n’roll band who have been around for 20 years together. We go off and do different things but then come back together. It’s pretty wonderful really,” Szubanski says.

Kath & Kim will not be forgotten in a hurry. Immortality in TV is often measured by the social and cultural imprint a TV program leaves in its wake. Years after the campy ‘70s Britcom Are You Being Served? left us, the phrase “I’m free!” still has meaning. When The Simpsons takes its final bow, its headstone will be marked with “D’oh!”.

By that measure, the still relatively young Kath & Kim has already confirmed its place in the history books, with a growing list of tongue twisters that will undoubtedly become the bain-marie of dictionary editors in decades to come.

It’s noice, it’s different, it’s unusual indeed.

The final episode of the second series of Kath & Kim screens on the ABC on Thursday at 8.30pm. The third series begins on Thursday, October 7.

By Michael Idato
September 28, 2004
The Sydney Morning Herald