An armful of Logies and AFI awards. Four top-rating TV series and an American adaptation. And now a film that is capable of actually luring Australians to the multiplex. In terms of Australian comic creations, Kath Day-Knight and Kim Craig are in the pantheon alongside Dame Edna and ”Crocodile” Dundee. But why?
Comedians simply do not have that kind of impact without expertly massaging the hopes, fears and prejudices of a significant proportion of the population. I would argue the key to the foxy morons’ success has been their ability to appeal, for very different reasons, to two crucial demographics. The descriptors applied to these two groups are frequently pejorative so, for diplomacy’s sake, let’s refer to them as the aspirationals and the educated.
Their supposed identifying features are so well recognised as to barely need reiterating: the aspirationals own suburban McMansions, make a good living as tradies or driving trucks around remote mine sites and were John Howard’s battlers. The educated are white-collar professionals in inner-city latte belts and are left-leaning, or at least socially liberal. The chasm between the two tribes is the fault line around which much of Australia’s politics is organised.
It is hard to believe now, but when Kath & Kim took off there was some hand-wringing among the educated as to whether it was appropriate to be laughing at the aspirationals. Gina Riley’s response at the time – that Kath & Kim wasn’t about ”mocking the disadvantaged” and the characters were ”aspirational people, doing quite well, thank you. For them it’s not an economic issue, it’s just a case of bad taste and, of course, a lot of people with money have bad taste” – encapsulates why her show manages to appeal so effectively to two audiences with otherwise divergent viewing habits.
In real life, Turner and Riley are Prue and Trude rather than Kath and Kim. Riley, the daughter of a psychiatrist, trained as a classical singer and dated Nick Cave’s bass player. Turner is married to the chief executive of top-tier law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth. Both were professionally successful and presumably well remunerated long before Kath & Kim. After its success, they are millionaires several times over. They may not be snobs but they are definitely voyeurs rather than participants when it comes to the suburban milieu they are parodying.
Over the last decade and a half, the educated have had to make the painful adjustment to living in a society where aspirationals often out-earn them and largely determine the political agenda. Like galled aristocrats confronted by a rising merchant class, their typical response has been to snigger at the tastelessness of the newly affluent. Kath & Kim does this more gently than much of the ”cashed-up bogan” comedy but it still does it. The malapropisms, mispronunciations and mixed metaphors of the characters allow the university-educated to chuckle at those who don’t understand the hilarious implications of wanting to be effluent rather than affluent. Many of them would see Kim – bloated by junk food, addicted to tabloid media, bedazzled by hyper-consumerism, utterly self-absorbed – as a portrayal rather than a grotesque caricature.
So what’s in it for aspirationals? Well, no doubt they are also having a laugh at the over-the-top gaucheness of the characters but they are also having a self-deprecating laugh at themselves.
While the educated like to think that only the type of people who attend David Williamson plays are sufficiently resilient to cope with seeing themselves satirised, most people enjoy it.
Perhaps the biggest drawcard for aspirational fans is simply that it is a rare, keenly observed and largely positive representation of their culture, a world where people may be daggy but are also, by and large, decent.
Kath & Kim may be the only force capable of uniting the educated and the aspirational politically.
The show first aired in the months after the Tampa election, which established Howard’s dominance, and wound up about the time he lost office.
Kath & Kimderella, set in a fictional European principality and structured around an awkward melange of fairytale plots, suggests Turner and Riley have found nothing to work with during the Rudd-Gillard years.
But, having been provided with such rich pickings during the aspirational golden age of the Howard era, they might just feel inspired to write another series if the purveyors of fine meats and purveyors of fine sentiments can propel Tony Abbott, the self-proclaimed ”political love child” of the former prime minister, into The Lodge.