Aborginals aren't especially visible on Australian television. But a hit sketch comedy show has found a mainstream audience and it did it almost immediately.
“When we did the first season, we weren't quite sure what the show was,” says Nakkiah Lui, a co-star and co-writer of “Black Comedy,” which is produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “We literally came together over an advertisement that said, ‘Apply if you're a black fella and you think you're funny.’ Well, all black fellas in Australia think they're hilarious so we were kind of just the blind leading the blind.”
“Black Comedy” is the first indigenous sketch show on Australian television in 30 years. The 1973 attempt, “Basically Black,” never made it out of pilot mode. But “Black Comedy” became an instant hit and just started its second season.
Lui says the show has something for everyone and it also taps into white guilt over Australia's original sin: colonizing Australia's indigenous people.
“We have some very biting satire that a lot of the time is met with a bit of uncomfortableness from non-Aboriginal people and a lot of laughter from Aboriginal people,” she says.
An example: Lui wrote and starred in a satirical advertisement for a cosmetic line, Pretty for an Aboriginal. Lui is light-skinned. Her mother is an Aboriginal from the Gamilaroi Nation in interior Australia. Her father is a Torres Strait Islander. They're ethnically like people in Papua New Guinea.
“I always got told growing up that I was ‘pretty for an Aboriginal’ or I was lucky I didn't look Aboriginal,” she says. “It was when I confiding in my mother and sisters that they had also had experienced the same thing. And so had all of my aunties. And so had all of my cousins. And so had all of my Aboriginal friends. We all look different, different features, different colors. It was incredibly sad, but also hilarious, because we're all beautiful.”
Another popular sketch is “Black Force,” about an Aboriginal special police SWAT team that arrests Aboriginals for not acting black enough. Lui says it's a direct and satirical response to the lack of diversity on Australian screens across the board.
“What ‘Black Force’ does is put our culture there on the screen through a parody, but we're also reclaiming it, I think,” she says. “‘Black Force’ is received so well by non-Aboriginal people because they think they get the joke and the references about class, like ‘What's kale?'”
Lui says “Black Force” is a comical idea of what an Aboriginal person is meant to be and includes in-jokes for Aboriginals.
“In one episode they say, ‘Party's over. Put the mattress back in the lounge room.’ And that's a real black fella joke, because any Aboriginal house you go to in the summer has a mattress in the lounge room because it's nice to have a lay-down and watch TV and have a chat.”
There's also recurring sketches about two flamboyantly gay characters called Tidders, an Aboriginal term for sisters, a take-off on the “The Real Housewives” called “The Housewives of Narramine,” a tiny town in the Australian bush.
Lui is a also a successful playwright and much of her work is about being perceived as different in Australia.
“I've had to tick a box all my life,” she says. “My mum's had to tick a box all her life. My grandparents lived on missions (like Native American reservations in the US) managed by white people. Having that be your kind of signifier of who you are whether it be positive or negative. It's tiring. You can never be seen as a human, as just a person, as just an artist. It's always the Aboriginal one.”
So why comedy?
“My grandmother always used to say to me. ‘What can you do if you can't laugh?’ And she said it on the day she died,” she says.
Lui believes that comedy is potent and can sometimes be more effective than drama.
“I think sometimes the thing with drama is that people can opt out really early,” she says. “They kind of know what kind of ride they're in for and they can decide pretty early on as to whether they're going to go on that ride with you. Whereas with comedy, you can kind of take someone along for the ride and they don't even know they're on it. That's why I love comedy as a tool. I just think it's so incredibly subversive.”