Is Australia losing its sense of humour?

A comedian’s geisha-themed show has been pulled from the Melbourne Fringe.

Michael Scammell


In 2016, Australian commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied made headlines when she walked out of a talk by novelist Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Shriver’s talk was about cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness. She even wore a sombrero to hammer home her point. Abdel-Magied later wrote in the Guardian that the talk was insensitive and arrogant, and she had no choice but to leave.

At the time, it was tempting to see this as an elaborate piece of comedic performance art. Someone finding a talk about oversensitivity insensitive – how could that not be a joke? But it turned out Abdel-Magied was sincere, and the debate about cultural appropriation has raged in Australia ever since.

Last week, a show was pulled from the forthcoming Melbourne Fringe Festival after a backlash and accusations of racism. The show, by Kate Hanley Corley, was called Aisha the Aussie Geisha. It was billed as ‘a cross-cultural love story’ about a ‘dairy farmer who becomes the world’s first foreign geisha’. In the show, Corley appears in geisha garb.

An arts magazine published an open letter from 70 writers, artists and performers, denouncing the show and the Fringe for choosing to host it. They declared Corley’s show ‘racist and inappropriate’, and accused her of ‘yellow face’.

In a since deleted Facebook post, Corley said the criticism had ‘upset me greatly as I have many Japanese friends who supported the first iteration of the show’. She said the show had also been ‘well received by audiences without any accusations of racism’ in the past.

Still, last Wednesday the Fringe issued a statement saying Corley and festival organisers had come to a ‘mutual decision’ to withdraw the show. More chillingly, the organisers made a point of saying that ‘artistic expression sometimes comes into conflict’ with inclusivity, and that ‘in this instance the balance wasn’t right’.

This is all very unfair on Corley. At no point in the show does she pretend to be Japanese (and we might ask, so what if she did?). If anything, one of the targets of her satire seems to be Aussie ‘boganism’, and the cack-handed way some Australians engage with other cultures.

This is a trope of Aussie comedy that goes way back to Sir Les Patterson and Crocodile Dundee. In the old days, the opposition to these characters was built on fears that such stereotypes would embarrass Australians. In this case, it is new concerns around cultural appropriation that have been used to shut down artistic expression.

Indeed, this new orthodoxy, this conviction that playing with cultural stereotypes and mixing different cultures together is a sly form of racism, has formed in the space of just a couple of years. Corley’s show was first performed in 2014, and provoked no controversy. The signatories to the open letter cite an old review of the show. But while that review said the show wasn’t particularly good, that was the extent of its criticisms.

This controversy does raise an interesting question for the Melbourne Fringe – how can it go on claiming to be edgy and against the grain if it rolls over at the first sign of trouble? You can’t claim to be a festival interested in new and challenging work if you only allow performances that everyone can feel comfortable with.

This is all very reminiscent of what has become of Sydney’s annual Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Each year thinkers and writers are invited to speak on supposedly dangerous topics, but more often than not what is aired is different varieties of mainstream thought. Perhaps both these festivals should be investigated for false advertising.

The weasel words with which Corley was brought down are also galling. The open letter talked euphemistically, asking the Fringe to ‘take appropriate action’ against what it deemed ‘racist’ and ‘oppressive’ material. At no point was the word ‘ban’ used. Similarly, when the Fringe caved in, it did so under the guise of a ‘mutual decision’.

But whether or not the people involved want to call this censorship, the outcome is precisely the same. Corley’s critics say her show was ‘antithetical to the values’ of the Fringe. But it is their censorious instinct that is truly antithetical to art and comedy.

Michael Scammell is a writer based in Melbourne.

Picture by: Melbourne Fringe.

Rod Liddle and Brendan O’Neill in conversation at Podcast Live!

Rod Liddle and Brendan O'Neill
– live in London

Podcast Live

Podcast Live, Friends House, London, NW1 2BJ – 5 October 2019, 2.30pm-3.30pm

To get tickets, click the button below, then scroll down to The Brendan O'Neill Show logo on the Podcast Live page.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


A Game

14th September 2019 at 11:39 am

And the signatories hadn’t seen her show. They were presuming it was “yellow face”.

Their humourless power-mongering did overlook the very heart of what KHC was doing – not being a white person seriously passing themselves off as Japanese – but a white person longing to be a symbol of Japanese culture. Because the bloke she loved had dumped her.
“Bogan” is a key word here. A Geisha – refined, schooled, ladylike prostitute – is the complete opposite of a bogan on a dairy farm. Australians adore laughing at their bogan selves.
Eric Bana’s “Poiter” is a great example.
I think the Japanese would find it hilarious watching an oafish aussie lass banging about trying to be something she’s not. And they would probably recognise the compliment in the trying and failing.

Abdel-Magied. Self promotion masquerading as activism.
I noticed since her move to the UK, her accent has become plummier. Identifiying with the Imperialists, obviously.
And Lionel Shriver continues to do what her ilk (like the signatories) can’t: be talented.

Bruce Parker

31st August 2019 at 12:42 am

I have read the list of signatories and have not heard of any of them
There are many comedians who would not be part of the so called comedy festival. Try Isaac Butterfield on you tube if you like non political correct humour.

A Game

14th September 2019 at 11:50 am

And looking at that list, there is an absence of Japanese names. The Asian names seem to lean towards Vietnamese/Korean. Melbourne Fringe is obviously racist to the core – any Asian will do, right? They all look the same, right? They’ve decided to homogenise all Asians into one, have they? Did they ask Asia if they were fine with that?
And, frankly, most of them look like they are KHC’s competitors for a gig. How do you get rid of the competition? Be better? Nope. Get ’em banned.

James Knight

29th August 2019 at 5:44 pm

“impure art” needs to be cleansed.

James Hillier

29th August 2019 at 4:22 pm

“She even wore a sombrero to hammer home her point.”

Jesus, but Shriver is fantastic. And I would say that even if it were my sensibilities she were offending, which I imagine it will be one day.

“An arts magazine published an open letter from 70 writers, artists and performers, denouncing the show and the Fringe for choosing to host it.”

Po-faced, clenched-buttock, pinched-anus , simpering little self-righteous censors. May they enjoy living in the world they have created when this comes back to bite them, as it surely must.

H McLean

29th August 2019 at 2:37 pm

The irreverent “Aussie” comedy of yore is long gone with the golden years of the 80s and 90s but a distant memory. Yasmin Abdel-Magied, probably the most detested of the Aussie woke crowd (along with the loathsome commentator Waleed Aly of ‘The Project’), is not fit to tie the shoelaces of the Intellectual titan Lionel Shriver. Unfortunately, her live tweet meltdown over Shriver’s talk was a watershed moment in Australian politics. From that point on the ABC and Australian universities went all-in to woke identity politics and governments of all stripes, including the supposedly right-of-centre Liberal Party, just played along hoping to stay out of the line of fire.

Kate Hanley Corley’s show sounds like the sort of thing that audiences would love (while twitterati and journalistic heads explode in outrage). I’m reminded of the new Dave Chappelle Netflix special where he absolutely slays multiple sacred PC cows to the delight of the crowd and effusive praise from the public. There’s a turning point coming where more comedians see political correctness and identity politics as fair game. There sure is a lot of material to work with. We may not get back to the glory days of Australian comedy but the stand-up backlash against identity will be hilarious.

jessica christon

29th August 2019 at 3:53 pm

Apparently a woman got up to walk out of one of Chappelle’s pre-shows saying “I’m sorry I was raped” and he replied “It’s not your fault you were raped. But it’s not mine either – don’t let the door hit you, bitch!” and he got cheers for that. The point is that no one is up there saying rape is a good thing, but you don’t get to use it as a silencer anymore.

I think your right, the comedy backlash will be huge and the ID left can’t do comedy so it won’t have an answer except to demonise the backlash comedians and their audiences.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.