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Playing it straight: Why jock jokes are bad form

‘He’s been up his mum and his legless sister and he thinks he’s killed his old man!’

Sport and humour are not the unlikeliest of bedfellows. Jock’s famous line from David Williamson’s The Club points not only to some less likely bedfellows, but also to the fact that sporting drama can be funny. Particularly sporting drama that centres on the off-field.

It does seem to be a delicate balance, however. Given the size of this country’s sporting preoccupation, there is surprisingly little great sporting humour. Roy and HG famously achieved it with The Dream at Sydney 2000 — making it impossible for Australians to watch the sport of gymnastics without muttering the expressions ‘battered sav’ and ‘hello boys’ to themselves. The Working Dog team hit the mark with Graham and the Colonel and their infamous nag Duffel Coat Supreme on The Late Show in the early nineties. Tom Gleisner’s The Warwick Todd Diaries were a one-joke wonder, but for anyone who had read the Steve Waugh diaries, it was a brilliant joke. And John Clarke’s reports from the world of farnarkling— a sport where one team attempts to prevent the other team from arkling, while using a flukem to propel a gonad through sets of posts situated at random around the periphery of a grommet — were pure genius.

In terms of international examples, Monty Python’s Wide World of Novel Writing is the greatest ever parody of sporting commentary, the test match team providing an enthusiastic call of local boy Thomas Hardy’s attempt to start the first sentence of ‘The Return of the Native’. ‘World Championship Staring’ on the sketch comedy show ‘Big Train’ explores similar terrain and is equally brilliant. And The Simpsons touched dizzy heights with the power plant softball episode. My favourite line in Blackadder Goes Fourth relates to sport, Lieutenant George fondly recalling the 1914 Christmas truce, asking Captain Blackadder if he remembers the famous football match against the Germans. ‘Remember it? How could I forget it? I was never offside! I could not believe that decision!’

In most cases though, sport and comedy don’t happily coexist. One of the problems is that most of the people trying to be funny on the topic of sport are sportsmen. It’s no coincidence that Before The Game, the only one of the football shows that ever snares a laugh out of me, actually employs comedians to deliver the gags, rather than ex-jocks. Similarly the songs and fictional callers on the Coodabeen Champions require a talent that cross-dressing at the players’ skit night doesn’t prepare you for. They’re funny because they coodabeen. The ones who were, usually aren’t. There are notable exceptions of course, the equivalents of writers who can paint. Fred Truman was funny. And the audio recording of Wes Hall describing the last over of the Tied Test is practically as good as the game. ‘Don’t bowl a no ball. If you bowl a no ball, you will never land in Barbados again.’

Practically, but not quite. That’s the other obstacle to writing great comedy about sport. For those of us who love it, there is a natural theatre to sport and we treat it with reverence. Woody Allen once explained his love for basketball by saying that ‘sport is the only drama where even the actors don’t know how it will end’.

I sent my satirical sporting novel Players to my literary hero Nick Hornby before reading in an interview about his attitudes to sports fiction: ‘I never buy the premise of sports fiction. I’m kind of nerdy about it, but I wind up saying, “Who is this team? When did they beat the New York Yankees? They never!” I can’t imagine this alternative universe. A novelist can fool with anything, but not sports results.’

Hornby is right (although I still wish he’d read my book). There is a dramatic momentum to sport, and it is almost never comedic. The comfortable narrative paints our sportsmen and sportswomen as superheroes, supreme physical specimens who will punish their bodies for our entertainment. They are gladiators. Gladiators don’t have to make us laugh. That’s why charity tennis matches are so annoying. Any sports fan who says he liked Henri Laconte’s work with giant oversized racquets is not a real sports fan.

Great comedy tends to tear down rather than exalt, and for sports lovers we don’t want our obsession torn down. It might be that in our hearts we know that we have constructed a false edifice around sport. It gets us up in the middle of the night. It occupies our minds, fills our viewing hours. If someone tells us that the winning and losing is ultimately unimportant or somehow corrupted or that we’re wasting our petty useless lives, we don’t really want to hear it. At the very least, they’d want to be very very funny.

It’s for this reason I choose the genius of Roy and HG for rugby league grand finals, about which I don’t care, and yet spend time with the deeply untalented Drew Morphett for AFL grand finals, about which I really do. When you’re hanging on the result, you want it straight. Or with the slightest twist of humour, as true greats such as Dennis Cometti sometimes manage.  ‘Barlow to Bateman … the Hawks are attacking alphabetically.’

Personally, I prefer my sports comedy served as a side to the main event. I want Roy and HG at the Olympics, but not at the expense of the Olympics. I loved John Clarke’s The Games, because it lampooned the politics of sport more than it did sport itself. And I’ve already purchased my tickets to Shane Warne The Musical, because it promises to be the best sporting theatre since The Club. Although writer Eddie Perfect will have to take the story off-field. Mobile phone scandals, an all-Heinz diet, slimming tablets from Mum — I don’t know how they’ll manage.