Those who identify as part of a minority group in Australia – someone of colour, someone from a non-English speaking background, someone who identifies as LGBTQ, or anyone whose creative sensibilities fall outside the mainstream – are often the first to be let down by a lack of representation. But television should be a medium that engages with us, that raises our expectations and contributes to our visibility in the industry. When you’re different, the dominant culture that you struggle to fit into makes that very clear early on. It can be simultaneously cathartic and infuriating to be reminded that this experience is more common than we realise.
The potential to make comedy out of our (often overlooked) day-to-day experiences isn’t a pipe dream – not when there are examples like Broad City (a show about two young women trying to survive in New York City) and Fresh Off The Boat (inspired by Eddie Huang’s memoir about growing up in Florida as a Taiwanese kid) to be encouraged by.
These relatively new shows are figuring out episode by episode what they can get away with, negotiating between recounting the familiar and the rarely-if-ever-seen-onscreen. Both have also successfully made the jump from self-made to made-for-television. Despite being developed for primarily American audiences, their storylines still translate across cultures. If we can read past the sell-by date of prescriptivism on our screens, the message seems to be: it’s up to us to figure out how to represent us, as we’d like to be seen.
Situational comedy can seem like a genre where binary thinking is still an acceptable form of debate – you either are or aren’t something. There’s no in-between. But Fresh Off The Boat and Broad City show us more subversive representations of their leading characters assimilating (or not) in the exclusive subcultures they’re surrounded by.
In Broad City, Abbi and Ilana rarely go along with what’s expected of them as young women. This makes them equally joyful and cringe inducing to watch. Ilana, the more outgoing of the two, sees herself as a spokesperson for all oppressed people, however misguided this may be. In an episode from the second season, she asks a wealthy West Village child she’s babysitting who he thinks the most disadvantaged person on the subway car is. Before he can answer she assures him, ‘It’s you…you’re rich in money but poor in experience.’ A woman of colour, overhearing them, corrects them by pointing out she’s clearly the disadvantaged one and claims their seats. ‘Lesson learned,’ mutters Ilana as she realises she goofed.
Abbi and Ilana are hardly progressive heroes or model citizens. Jokes like these aren’t planted in the script as a ‘they-went-there’ rouse, but as a reminder that comedy doesn’t belong in a politically safe bubble. Furthermore, comedy is boring if we aren’t prepared to interrogate ourselves and call out the subtle microaggressions we either perpetuate ourselves or silently encounter around others in day-to-day life.
It’s an approach that director and producer Nahnatchka Khan shares and strives for in her re-imagining of Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off The Boat. In the opening scene of the pilot, grown-up Eddie Huang introduces his family through a voice-over as ‘an American family’, despite the all the evidence in the show that reminds us – and 11-year-old Eddie – that the cultural expectations of suburban Orange County, Florida in 1995 weren’t created with him in mind.
Anyone who speaks English at a native level and has multilingual abilities will find the following scene, also in the pilot, all-too-familiar. Responding to the loaded question, ‘Where are you from?’, Eddie pipes up to say his parents were born in Taiwan but he and his brothers were born in Washington DC. ‘Your…English…is…very…good!’ Deirdre, a neighbour, replies.
Another antidote to the typically limiting lens of commercial television is the frankness of language on this family sitcom. A distinctive choice was made to ensure that racial slurs weren’t bleeped out and ‘white people’ are just as vocally othered by Eddie and his parents even though Eddie has bigger plans: to ‘get a seat at the table’ (literally, in the cafeteria at lunchtime) and change the game.
One of the most grounding things about comedy is its magical ability to coax ignorance into understanding, especially when it comes to reminding the world at large that women are human beings who have opinions about the kind of world they’d like to live in. Throughout Broad City, Abbi and Ilana take ownership as young women of a city that is as much theirs as anyone else’s. In spite of never being able to hit their stride financially, career-wise or where their sporadic love interests are concerned, they still demonstrate brilliant moments of self-possession. In one episode, Ilana and her mother embrace in the street at the end of a night involving a family member’s funeral and wind up nearly getting thrown in jail for accidentally flaunting counterfeit handbags in public. Ruining the moment, a random guy walks up to them, yelling, ‘Hey! You’re blocking the whole … sidewalk!’ They let him have it by turning it up to eleven with the response: ‘So move around us you patriarchal motherf*****! What is wrong with you?’, which is enough to send him scuttling off in shame.
On a day-to-day basis, the girls are free to do as they please because someone – usually each other – has their back. They do handstands at public raves without underwear on, gallivant through Whole Foods accidentally high on pain medication, rollerblade to a dog wedding without relying on Google Maps (intentionally disconnecting from the Internet Matrix), fearlessly chasing after delinquent men-children who pretend to be homeless and steal their personal property and eating pizza slices on the sidewalk late at night snuggled in a duvet. In contrast to an unsettling reality where most young women feel they cannot jog through public parks in broad daylight, walk home alone, take public transport, show too much skin, laugh, dance, or do anything that may draw too much attention to themselves, it’s a small victory to see a world – even if it’s just on television – where women are in control of the things that happen to them, and can extricate themselves from situations they don’t want to be in.
Fresh Off The Boat also wants its strong-minded female characters to take ownership of their identities. Constance Wu (who plays Eddie’s mother on the show) recently said:
We’re not writing the show to placate the idiots. So to anybody who accuses us of utilizing stereotypes, I would challenge them to point them out when they’re used as humor tools, because they aren’t. And I would challenge people to see if those alleged ‘stereotypes’ are really there, or if they’re just the truth of the actual Jessica Huang [Eddie’s mother], who is a real living and breathing woman in Orlando.
One of Fresh Off The Boat’s most gratifying tendencies is that it steer away from making its minority characters the punchline of the joke. Wu’s character has a Taiwanese accent, which sets her apart from all the other women around her, yet she never feels embarrassed about speaking out, or asking questions to decipher American culture or expressing her disbelief at what she doesn’t understand. Neither is she afraid of volunteering her singing talent whenever needed. At a backyard barbeque, she unexpectedly serenades her neighbour, Honey, with a stirring rendition of Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You in appreciation of being the only woman in the neighbourhood who didn’t insult Jessica’s intelligence. In a similar spirit, many of the conversations that take place in the Huang family on the show aren’t necessarily centered around racial clashes. Instead, their exchanges focus on strengthening bonds with each other: inside jokes influenced by the 90s hip-hop that Eddie loves so much, establishing a sense of self-identity, sharing family history, parental hopes and dreams, nit-picky pet peeves about each other, and support in times where the family’s finances or reputation may be at stake. It always strives to be emotionally honest, and in the spirit of Huang’s original memoir, retain its ability to be unapologetically funny.
In a recent report by Screen Australia, participants agreed that reality television – not comedy – was the main contender for showing off ethnic diversity in this country. Both My Kitchen Rules and Masterchef successfully feature people who identify with different cultures every season and the show repeatedly gives them the opportunity to competitively cook food which validates this.
Since publication of the report, there have been more promising examples of comedy on our screens, which will hopefully open doors for others. Black Comedy, for example, is a sketch show that combines observational and physical comedy, historical sketches and parodies based on Australian culture from the point-of-view of the First People of Australia. Born out of an ABC-funded writing workshop in 2012, experienced comedy directors worked with a group of Indigenous writers and performers selected from a national call-out to teach them how to write scripts, shoot and edit sketches, and put together a sizzle reel to attract funding for further development.
There’s also the Cabramatta, Sydney-set Maximum Choppage, a comedy-drama about what happens when an art-school graduate (played by Lawrence Leung, also a writer on the show) pretends to have been training at martial arts, only to return to his family and realise the weight of expectations on him to fulfil the roles of perfect son, kung fu master and hometown hero. Although the show takes some of its cues from the use-your-smarts-if-you-can’t-fight humor of Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow movies, the series also includes rebellious female characters, such as Petal. She’s the kind of girl who’s more comfortable punching men in the face rather than talking about feelings and enjoys rescuing men in distress.
What gives these comedies the muscle to stand on their own is that they give typically underrepresented minorities a chance to come up with compelling characters and plotlines for themselves. By doing so, they’re claiming back aspects of their lives and experiences that have previously been misunderstood, ignored or parodied by a dominant culture who were trying to make a point that wasn’t theirs to make in the first place.
As far as the not-too-distant future of television goes, I’m not expecting that it will end up like this:
Broad City and Fresh Off The Boat are two exceptional examples of comedy that prevail by taking risks, but they can do so because they specifically speak to demographics television has ignored in the past. In a world where we often live in fear of having our words and lives taken out of context, it is liberating to know there are opportunities for us to work out what we think makes us exceptional, what we have in common with others and create intelligent situational comedy from those connections and disconnections.
As more progressive comedy projects begin to develop for Australian audiences – personally, I’m looking forward to the adaptation of Benjamin Law’s memoir, The Family Law – I hope it spurs on other writers, directors, producers, performers, experienced and emerging, to tackle complex representation on screen. Ultimately, it may mean not waiting for permission from someone else and learning how to do it for yourself.