Brigidfest’s guest speaker on 12 February 2017 was Mary Kenneally, who in the late 1970s and 80s was part of a team pioneering new forms of sketch comedy and remaking comedy in an Australian vernacular.
Australian Comedy on TV in the early ’70s had been lean. British comedians tended to dominate – Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Till Death Us Do Part, Monty Python and, of course, The Goons and Spike Milligan. It was her elder brother who introduced her at an early age to the Goons and later to to a very significant and scintillatingly innovative Irish comic writer, Flann O’Brien.
Her family delighted in comedy, and had its own comedic critiquing and favourite comedies and comedians, all carefully evaluated and rated.
Mary’s mother and her aunts were all trained in classical music and had a great sense of humour, and two cousins with whom she often spent time were extremely clever mimics of Australian characters and had her constantly in stitches. Later while at Melbourne University she would discover more women performers who inspired her, such as Irene Handl, and the American (often Jewish) singers, Mae West, Fanny Brice, and Sophie Tucker whose songs she sang on the comedy circuits in Brunswick Street Fitzroy – The Flying Trapeze, Mietta’s and the iconic Comedy Cafe.
She was later thrilled to meet Spike Milligan in person on set in Sydney. Spike loved the new alternative character of ‘Debbie, and took the time to tell her so, an act which she found inspirational and generous.
In thinking about the epiphanies which led her into comedy, Mary remembers relishing writing an answer in an examination on the portentous but to her revealing topic, ‘Comedy is serious but not solemn. Discuss‘. A chance event, but what she thought about in answering that question in her final English Honours exam never left her.
From the wireless came Milligan’s The Goon Show which was to influence the future generations of English-speaking comedy practitioners. Mary thought Spike’s description of The Goon Show as ‘madness with great intelligence’ was very accurate.
On the syllabus at Melbourne University was Joseph Heller’s subversive anti-war comedy Catch 22 – while different in style, it certainly fitted in with Spike’s description.
Mary sees comedy as a possible antidote to suffering, a means of coping with the pain of the human condition that none can escape. By identifying the absurdity, the pain is somehow diminished, or at least deflected for a while.She paid tribute to the enriching quality of her English Language and Literature studies at Melbourne University (and in particular to poet, Professor Vincent Buckley), and to the wit and humour of her colleagues in the legal profession (for which she trained and in which she practised for 5 years).
Although fascinated by law, and finding career satisfaction in a Common Law practice where she handled all manner of crime, divorce, motor and industrial injuries, and later in Legal Aid where she daily saw the tragedies and social disadvantage that so many suffered, she discovered that she lacked the killer instinct, the intellectual aggression necessary at that time. She was already forging a new path. She had gravitated into singing and writing and performing comedy at night (she was billed as ‘The Singing Solicitor’ long before ‘The Singing Detective’) and decided that she could more successfully address social and political ills by getting under the radar and highlighting them via comedy.
Gradually she and husband, Rod Quantock, moved into their own venue, the Comedy Cafe. Its purpose was to expose and satirise the voices, the cadences, the emerging idiolects of real contemporary Australians, in particular the voices of women and girls. There was no censorship. Comedians were welcome to try out original material and to hone their craft. So many of today’s highly successful comedians developed at the Comedy Cafe.
Mary is best known for the character Debbie who performed mainly as a duo with her friend and cerebral sparring partner Tim, played by Stephen Blackburn.
The duo was born out of revenge at the bogus and smug intelligentsia then cruising the shabby streets of Fitzroy. Brainspace, the enlightenment engine fired by Tim and Debbie on ABC radio, Channel 10’s Ratbags and ABC TV’s Australia You’re Standing In It, captured the fashionable language of the all too prevalent new inner city type – the slightly stoned, highly ignorant and exceedingly confident new age poseurs. In so doing, the trendy pretension, shallow egotism and the internally contradictory nonsense were displayed in all their absurdity, while at the same time serious issues became even more so in the face of the ridiculous analysis offered by the two
Mary talked of completing many pilots for the ABC before her career highlight: Australia, You’re Standing in It (1983). Illustrating her talk with excerpts from the show, she paid tribute to the comic brilliance of her partner Stephen Blackburn (Tim of ‘Tim and Debbie’), and to comedians like Evelyn Krape (‘one of our great character actors’ and the first Jewish woman to be portrayed in Australian television comedy), and Sue Ingleton (‘a national treasure’).
It is striking in retrospect to note how much Australia, You’re Standing in It so presciently identified and tapped into emerging issues which have subsequently become central and defining issues in Australia – among them, sexual harassment in the workplace, resentment of Vietnamese ‘boat people’, nuclear testing, East Timor, women in football, sperm donation and the rights of the child to know its progenitor – even Mormons!
It was the first sketch comedy show made by the ABC in Melbourne and opened the way for the avalanche of shows such as The Gillies Report, The D Generation and The Big Gig which were suddenly allowed to fulfil the demand of a dedicated audience impatient for new, contemporary Australian comedy.
Mary also spoke about how fearfulness about political comedy made the life of a politicised comedian highly precarious, and the high price paid – or rather not paid – for exposing inconvenient truths.