With their new show Get Krack!n, Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney have expanded their satirical universe from food culture to the dumb decline of the knowledge class.By Helen Razer.
ABC TV’s ‘Get Krack!n’
The effort to describe the nature of comedy is ancient and ongoing. Though some of history’s thinkers have provided very serious responses to the question, “Why did I find that thing so damn funny?”, it remains unresolved. Nor will it be decided here. If Hegel failed in his attempts to answer, then this critic must not even ask. Let’s keep our inquiry more modest, then, and ask only why one particular comedy is so damn funny.
Get Krack!n, written and performed by the stars of web series The Katering Show, is funny. Certainly, the show, ostensibly a parody of “light” morning TV, has tickled all Australian reviewers and a large Australian audience. At the time of writing, no newspaper critic has given anything less than gratitude to Kates McCartney and McLennan, and these ladies are themselves yet to be beaten in their timeslot. That the ABC has managed to outrate the rest and please News Corp with a vulgar half-hour created by two feminists is a moment the national broadcaster should pause to enjoy. Nothing this persuasively funny will soon recur.
It is worth asking why a nation so currently conflicted has paused to agree for a moment that its tax dollars are working well. Of course, this is due in no minor part to the comic talents of the Kates. Not only are these performers, now approaching their late 30s, funny, but they have the comic confidence that can only be built by being funny for years and having very few people notice. I have seen Kate McLennan perform top-shelf stand-up to a hall full of Comedy Festival drunks who met her best lines with, “Where’s Arj Barker?” I have heard Kate McCartney declare in an interview that for years the only payment her premium gags received was in Twitter “likes”. Such ignominy, I imagine, either weakens the comic’s spirit or sharpens her wit.
While the pair are hardly hostile to blunt gags – an upcoming episode will include full description of the smell of the postnatal vagina – they sure are sharp. It is clear that they have no fear or ignorance of big ideas, and it is likely that they have spent years working collaboratively to translate these into laughs. They are, like Shaun Micallef, bright, funny and unusually competent performers. But Get Krack!n holds something that even the marvellous Mad As Hell does not. It holds a moment in history some have begun to recognise.
Every era, of course, has its grievances. But not every era has a gloriously obscene half-hour of television comedy that utters them so well. Certainly, Micallef addresses a part of what some of us agree are the problems of our age: a news media that does little but obfuscate truth; a policy class whose interest in policy has evaporated. While the truly good Mad As Hell pokes fun at people in powerful institutions, Get Krack!n pokes fun at a class of everyday people compelled to live with those institutional effects. It’s not a case of mocking external power, but mocking those external powers – consumption, labour, the conventions of gender – as they battle inside the individual.
The Kate personas are not powerful people – aspiring breakfast television personalities consigned to failure by their own mediocrity, a 3am timeslot and a vindictive crew – but people beset by problems many of us may recognise as our normal condition. They have no real power, but we see how they are coerced by it.
This internal conflict is spelled out – often incorrectly by a resentful graphics department – on the crawl across the Get Krack!n screen. Promotions for an upcoming segment on feminine weight-loss will be immediately followed by the advice to feel super-empowered as a woman at any size.
No wonder that McLennan’s hostess is frantically chipper and McCartney’s can barely be bothered to breathe. These heightened Kates present with strong symptoms of our two most commonly diagnosed mood disorders. Their anxiety and depressive illnesses do not appear as they do in beyondblue pamphlets – that is, always as the work of human biology. Instead, these are the afflictions of contemporary life.
There was a time psychiatry made firm division between that mental illness which arose with clear social cause and that which had an internal origin. Many eminent scholars, notably Allen Frances, have lately campaigned for a return to this old diagnostic separation. To enumerate the reasons for patients of both types to be treated and studied distinctly is beyond the scope of this review. Happily, it is not beyond Get Krack!n to make a strong case that society can often be the thing that really does your head in.
On this pre-breakfast breakfast TV set, shrewdly designed not to look designed but thrown together from the relics of Australia’s most unscrupulous infomercials, we see people made mad and divided by the world. This is not mere parody, as in Kath & Kim, where we are seduced to laugh at cartoons of others. It is more of a funhouse mirror in which we of a particular class see grotesque reflections of ourselves. And those not of our class, finally, get to laugh at us on telly.
Our hostesses take care to disclose themselves to be moralising white knowledge workers with progressive and artistic leanings. “I studied drama!” says Anxious Kate, in the pursuit of a legitimacy she knows she’ll never own. “I can feel Australia’s wounds heal,” says Depressed Kate, as she congratulates herself for “raising awareness” on the topic of “raising awareness”.
These women poke fun at a hubristic class with far more accuracy than any soy-latte-fixated columnist at The Australian ever could. Moreover, they do it on the broadcaster in the usual business of preserving the conceit of that class, the ABC.
As was their habit in The Katering Show, McCartney and McLennan occasionally break out of their universe to blurt about their “real” lives. As the Kates talk about their thwarted dreams, noisy babies or meagre wages, sometimes in desperate sotto voce and sometimes at the hysterical pitch of lifestyle TV, the viewer is drawn into laughter and despair. Whether they are in or out of character, their frustrations appear to have a genuine basis. Their class disappointment, which has hit the asset-poor millennial so directly, is real.
One of those damaged millennials is Helen, a spokesmodel for cheap TV products. The infomercial has been extensively parodied as a desperate act, but comedian Anne Edmonds manages to imbue it with a fresh desperation. Helen is tortured to madness by both the insecurity of her gig and the memory of the exploited Indonesian workers who made her dreadful jeggings. As she squirms on the floor, screaming abuse to imaginary telephone customers, a guest emerges, direct from his parents’ garage, to perform interpretive dance with his vape.
Pre-Kate, the progressive white knowledge class did not have a good record of laughing at itself on television. This was partly down to the fact that it is much easier to get a sitcom commissioned that derides “bogans” or other ABC-approved outcasts. This is largely due to that class’s past, and current, failure to acknowledge that it even exists. White people who watch or make putatively challenging television, choose correct speech and think about voting Green – I am aware that I am depicting my own dying class, albeit far less evocatively than the Kates – have long considered themselves to be default citizens and the guardians of all that is just.
The white knowledge class has only just begun to sense its own existence through endangerment. We’re shrinking right along with GDP. There are those, of course, who remain unconvinced that the end is near – check all recent speeches by either Hillary Clinton or the ALP frontbench for evidence of this denial. But, McCartney and McLennan are onto the disappearance early. And they are not “checking their privilege” with the ritual guilt of, say, a Charlie Pickering or an Amy Schumer. Or a politician. They are charting their economic and cultural decline.
This is gallows humour. While The Katering Show diagnosed a white class weakened by its devotion to vain consumption – a Thermomix is $2000 spent by a person who “always wanted to join a cult but didn’t have the energy for the group sex” – Get Krack!n nearly signs off on its death. And it does not do so with an all-white cast. Nakkiah Lui, Adam Briggs, Nazeem Hussain and Candy Bowers are among those who appear not to simply make the liberal point that first-rate performers often happen to be brown, but, in some cases – notably with Black Comedy’s Bjorn Stewart in a bit so scandalous, I dare not spoil it for you at all – to joke about race with material they have written.
The effect of this is not, as it may have easily become, to elevate the Kates for their generous commitment to diversity. The effect is not to celebrate or even to helpfully explain cultural difference. The effect is truly comic, which is a statement that now demands at least a partial answer to the old question, “Why did I find that thing so funny?”
Get Krack!n is funny, then, because it deals with estrangement, a sensation that may be part of the human condition but one revved up by our age. This is a time when familiar things, such as a living wage or a smiling white woman on breakfast television, can quickly come to appear to many as foreign.
Even the very best satire – and this is some of our nation’s very best – won’t guide us beyond our estranged time. When making this point, one is obliged to remember Peter Cook’s mocking celebration of “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”. But when we are socially estranged, the satirist, so accustomed to wedding the familiar to the foreign, can offer a brief sense of life without struggle. The death of a class can be something to laugh at. It is.
MULTIMEDIA This Woman Is Not a Car
ACE Open, Adelaide, until September 30
MULTIMEDIA Energies: Haines & Hinterding
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, until October 29
CULTURE Melbourne Fringe Festival
Venues throughout Melbourne, September 14-October 1
CULTURE Brisbane Festival
Venues throughout Brisbane, September 9-30
CINEMA Sydney Underground Film Festival
Factory Theatre, Sydney, September 14-17
MULTIMEDIA Jonathan Homsey: Fragments and Remnants (Far)
Blindside, Melbourne, September 13-30
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Venues throughout Nimbin, NSW, September 15-17
CLASSICAL Melbourne Youth Orchestra Concert 3: Homages
Melbourne Recital Centre, September 17
MULTIMEDIA Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until September 10
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 8, 2017 as "Kate minds". Subscribe here.