The comedy of climate change

Robyn Williams: And so to WOMADelaide and the comedy of climate change.

My name is Robyn Williams, and in 1971 I did my last Monty Python, and it was a raid on the Tate Gallery to put bras and knickers on all the rude statues. And one of the most delightful things was Graham Chapman dressed as the Queen's mother standing with his moustache and a pipe, and people were wandering past in the street, almost collapsing with amazement at this incredible sight. He took absolutely no notice of that.

Now, I interviewed him for The Science Show a few years later and he was slightly unwell, so I was making him a cup of tea and I said, 'Do you take sugar?' And he said, 'No, I'm gay.' [laughter] That's exactly what my kids did, they laughed as well. It's got no logic to it. And the most amazing thing is, that that juxtaposition of what makes funny, because we are about to talk about climate and comedy, the funny thing about comedy is you can't predict it necessarily.

I have some colleagues here. Rod Quantock used to be in travel, I think he used to take a dead chicken on a stick and go to various other people's posh receptions and lovely dinners. Would you please welcome Rod Quantock?


Hannah Gadsby is a boxer, obviously. Really, she is, and a very enthusiastic one. Would you please welcome Hannah Gadsby?


Andrew Denton has lots of rope but never enough, and we miss you on telly.


So we have a number of juxtapositions in climate where an awful lot of scientists are in this world conspiracy, and some of it is funny, some of it is terribly sad. Rod Quantock, you've done a number of presentations over the years about climate change. I want to ask you, how can comedy illuminate a subject as serious and complex as that?

Rod Quantock: Easily. Okay, next question. Just to give you a bit of my background, I probably am the only comedian in Australia and I think I'm quite rare in the world who actually devotes all of his comedy shows to issues around climate change, but particularly things like peak oil. But to get to that point takes an awful lot of work. And I spent a lot of time being a political comic, and I have the advantage that most of you don't have; I've got nothing to do during the day. I work for an hour or two hours at night, and the rest of the time is my own. And I spend that time reading what you don't have time to read. And I've had people come to me at the end of a show about politics and people say to me, 'I love coming to your shows every year because it means I don't have to read the newspapers for a year.'

So when I got involved in climate change I applied for what used to be called a Keating Fellowship and Howard changed that very quickly to an Australia Council Fellowship. And I applied for it because I was broke, a condition which is with me constantly. And I thought, well, I've been around a while, I deserve some money. So I was about to turn 60 and I thought, well, what I'll do is I'll apply to them to do a project about the world from the day I was born. I was born in [mumbles], and I just look at the world, where it came from and how it got to where it was, contemporaneous with this application.

So I did that, and I began in 1948, the declaration of human rights, the division of Israel and Palestine, North and South Korea, Velcro was invented in 1948, the first Holden rolled off…you know, the roots of our contemporary world are there and a lot of it is still festering today. I'm not what you'd call a bright person but I'm methodical, and I did it chronologically. And as I went through I started to see things like the impact of chemicals in our environment. I'd been aware of that, but as you march back through time and then push your way forward, these become more and more apparent.

And then I hit the 1973 oil shock when the world economy collapsed through lack of oil. So I got interested in peak oil. But as I got closer and closer to the day, I saw climate change looming and looming and looming larger in discussions. So I took that and I really knuckled down and I read everything there is to read about it, and I came to the conclusion that we are all going to die. That's it.

Now, I have a preconditioned attitude to apocalypse. By the time I was 10, I'd seen black-and-white footage of the Hiroshima bomb, I'd seen black-and-white footage of the Holocaust, I'd seen black-and-white footage of Japanese prisoners of war, I've seen the worst that humanity could do to one another. And so it was very clear to me that climate change is something we weren't going to stop because it's not in our nature to be intelligent and clever about these things.

And then you throw in peak oil and you suddenly realise that the brick wall is approaching very, very quickly. So I thought, what do you do? And I thought, well, you tell people about it, that's what you do. So I did a show called Bugger the Polar Bears, This Is Serious, because people were always thinking it's about polar bears. And I did shows called The People We Should Eat First. I actually have a list of people we should eat first. And when climate change really hits, I want you to remember that the person sitting in front of you is made of protein. Just keep that in mind. And as a general warning to you all, try not to look delicious. I actually used to be 18 stone but I'm trying to get less and less a source of food.

But it's a lot of work to understand it. The basics are simple. CO2 is a greenhouse gas and there's lots of it, more in the atmosphere, so we are heating up. But the consequences, the flow-ons, the shift changes in the state of our environment that can happen very, very suddenly, those sorts of things you've really got to study. And I got to a point where I thought it's all over. And I thought, well, you're a comedian, what would you know? So I rang a professor at Melbourne University, one who shared in the Nobel Prize for the IPCC report and said, 'Can I come and have a coffee with you?' And I said, 'We are all going to die, aren't we?' And he said, 'Yeah, we are.' And I spoke to a few more.

And in the end I rang Robyn Williams because I was going to be in Sydney, and I thought he's the man who speaks to all the scientists, I'll save myself a lot of coffees that I can't afford and go and talk to him. So I went to him and I said, 'Look, are we all going to die?' And he said, 'Yes.' So that's where I got to.

And then turning that into comedy was very difficult. It took me approximately two years to be able to go on and do a two-hour show about climate change. But as I go on and I see that my rather naive hopes I suppose of telling people here's the problem and people will respond clearly hasn't worked. So I'm now in a position where I'll keep doing the comedy but I don't have terribly much confidence at all to make a difference.

Robyn Williams: What I want to know, Rod, give me two names of who you would eat first.

Rod Quantock: Well, Tony Abbott…

Robyn Williams: He is too chewy!

Rod Quantock: I know, he's too thin, and I mentioned this to an audience, and a woman put her hand up and said, 'Stock. Boil him down for stock.' That's right, isn't it, that's what you do. You know, Gina Rinehart…

Robyn Williams: No, please!

Rod Quantock: I put out a recipe book called How to Feed a Family of Four to a Family of Eight. But anyway…so…anything else?

Robyn Williams: All right. Hannah, same question.

Hannah Gadsby: Assuming I'm not here because I'm an expert on climate change, as is Rod, I do have all day to myself, but I don't put it to use. A lot of naps, which I think is an energy saving technique. I think I'm doing my bit. I'm here because I've used comedy to make unpopular ideas palatable. In the early days, one of those was making homosexuality palatable in Tasmania.

Robyn Williams: It worked!

Hannah Gadsby: It worked, yes, I take all the credit. When I first started doing comedy I realised comedians are the underdogs, and then I saw that most of the comedians and especially the successful ones are white, middle class, heterosexual men who went to private school. I love it when they get angry. They are like the canaries; you know the world is screwed if they're angry.

What I came to learn very quickly is that I was not only up against it in life, I was up against it in comedy. I'm not everyone's picture of what a comedian should be. I don't hold true to most of the clichés of what I am, as a Tasmanian lesbian with mental health issues. That's an uphill struggle in life, and great for comedy, but I don't hold true to any of the clichés; Tasmanians are simple, lesbians are angry and don't have a sense of humour, women are moody and irrational and emotional and can multitask. None of these things apply to me.

And of course mental health being something that has come into the public consciousness, but certainly when I was first talking about it, it was still a shock that comedians were sad. The cat's out of the bag now, I've lost the element of surprise, that a lot of my work isn't done at these lovely festivals where you're instantly on my side. I do clubs and pubs, I do regional tours, and I will follow comedians who make homophobic, sexist, racist remarks. And I cannot be angry to an audience who have just laughed at that, because they are not going to listen to me, they are not going to like me and they are not going to laugh at me. And if someone is not laughing, they're not listening.

So part of what I think I'm really good at is making people listen to things they normally find uncomfortable. And one of my favourite things that has happened to me in my career is I was in Tasmania once and this bloke came up to me, and he's not my demographic. He'd look at a lot of you and beat a lot of you up, that kind of guy. He came up to me, and I felt threatened, I felt physically threatened, I'm like, oh no. And he just came up to me, 'You're that piss-funny lesbian.' I'm like, 'I hope, because I don't want to disappoint you.'

And then he said, 'That stuff you do about depression, spot on, good onya mate.' And I'm like, 'I don't know what I've done.' It was just a really lovely moment, to think that someone like that has looked at someone like me and listened, and I think that's what comedy can do in a situation like this, take an unpopular and a very miserable topic and make a conversation that is a little bit enjoyable other than just, 'We are all going to die.' It's, 'We're all going to die, ha ha ha.'

Robyn Williams: Yes, it is funny. Thank you. It's actually incredible how serious this bunch were when we were briefing for an hour and a half. How do you do this in front of an audience, an unforgiving audience like us? In the middle of that, Paul Willis turned up with his son Chester, and they had just been to Argentina, to a cathedral, and they walked in and there was this wonderful statue of the Madonna and Jesus, and Chester, who's eight said, 'Look Dad, there's Brian.' It was too. Andrew, same question.

Andrew Denton: Well, my favourite definition of comedy is Mel Brooks who said that tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die. I think it's important to frame this conversation with that.

I have for some years now been attempting to form a group of what I refer to as fundamentalist moderates, and our aim is to travel the world and slaughter anyone that won't see both sides of the argument. Because it's hard not to see people of good intent and great intellect and hard work such as scientists who are working on this traduced in the way they are, to hear them referred to as millionaires (although I prefer Jon Stewart's description of them as thousandaires), and to see the scientific method being so thoroughly rubbished and disrespected.

And it's hard not to respond to that with some degree of anger or some degree of sarcastic humour. Part of me tends to think that those who believe that the scientific method that has led us to understand global warming is ridiculous, should have their electricity and planes and cars taken away because clearly they don't work either.

I sometimes think that Andrew Bolt should be given a holiday home on the shores of Vanuatu for a year from which to write his articles, just to get him a little closer to the subject. But then I've realised that the getting angry is kind of a waste of energy, it's not useful energy, and energy is the source of what we are talking about here, and that the energy we should be expending is on that vast group of people in the middle who are uncertain and who are looking for cues about what to think and how to act. And it's a difficult subject to get your head around because it's distant and it's abstract and it's existential, and it's inviting people, as Rod and Hannah have reminded us, to attend their own funeral procession.

So where does comedy sit in this mix? I think we tend to overstate the effectiveness of satire quite often. I thought the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks where some people posited that the terrorists only killed these people because they were so terrified of them was ridiculously and patently nonsense. These terrorists acted with such brazen impunity, terrified was what they were not.

And I'm often reminded of Peter Cook's response when he set up the Establishment Club in London, which was a satirical club, and Peter Cook was one of the finest comic minds we've ever produced. And he was asked, 'What difference do you think this is going to make to British politics?' And he said, 'Well, I think it will affect British politics in the same way as German cabaret unseated Hitler.' And I think we can overstate the value of satire and its impact greatly.

However, I do think comedy, when done in a certain way, has its place. And as evidence of this, those of you that saw John Oliver do that piece where he got 97 climate scientists to debate three climate deniers to visually represent the actual statistics of the debate was a very effective piece of comedy, because even if you're on the other side of the argument, you could sure as hell understand what he was going to say.

Comedy when it's done well shows people ways of thinking, ways of organising their arguments, ways of critically analysing the world. It's why people like Bill Hicks and George Carlin and Lenny Bruce are still remembered and quoted and watched and listened to and read today because they didn't just tell jokes, they put together an argument and they used comedy to make it stick. As Hannah said, if people are laughing at you, they are listening. And people on both sides of the divide, left and right, have a universal desire to laugh and to be made laugh.

However, I think the issue is if comedy is just preaching to the choir, as we are today, hallelujah, then I think it is limited. And the question to me is how does comedy become useful, how does it speak across the gap, how does it speak to the elephant in the room? I keep hearing climate change referred to as the elephant in the room. Well, actually it's not the elephant in the room, it is the room, it is the room we're in, there is no other room. So how do we speak across the gap, and how do we reach that vast group of people in the middle who are looking at ways to act? So my belief is that the way to do that is to put humour together with humanity.

Robyn Williams: Hannah, were you about to use your microphone?

Hannah Gadsby: No…it's not a shape I'm used to…

Andrew Denton: We all want to live in a world, as George W Bush said, where man and fish can live together peacefully. And the question to me is what is it…let's reach beyond the things that we dislike about our opponents and that they hate about us, and what is it that we have in common? One of the greatest primal drivers of civilisation has been the desire to protect the next generation. Even those who you most despise on the other side would not argue the thought of a clean planet would be nice, food security would be good, wars not based on immigration would be excellent, and a decent planet for our children would be great. So if we can agree on those things, and it's surely possible to do that, then how do we move from there? And this is the ultimate human problem, this is human made, and I believe our response to it needs to be based in humanity, emotion, as Hannah said, because when people respond with their hearts…a lot of the climate change argument is about intellect, it's about graphs and information and statistics, and they are shocking and sobering. But if you want people to act, you've got to speak to their heart.

So, for example, the demonization of scientists. I think it would be a very worthwhile thing as a response to what's being talked about, as the entire scientific method has been trashed and their motives have been questioned, to actually go and talk to these people as human beings, and talk to them not just about the work they've done and why they do it and the passion they feel about it, but what about what their doubts are as well. And I think it would be worthwhile and useful to accept the fact that the people who are most passionately committed on both sides of this argument, the activists and the denialists and those who would lie about it, perhaps their motives and passions come from a similar place which is the incredible fear and the almost incomprehensible task of trying to face up to an existential threat.

And in George Marshall's book, one of the interesting things he does is he goes to speak to Christian fundamentalists, and he does this because he wants to know how religions who have been the most effective communicators and instigators of mass communal action, how they've done it. And a man he goes to speak to is Joel Hunter at the Northland Church who says one of the most important things we do is we have a process whereby we accept that there is doubt and uncertainty and there is backsliding in this process, and we encourage people to express it and we acknowledge it.

And I think it would be worthwhile for us in this conversation, rather than simply demonising…and the tactics are deplorable and mendacity needs to be called out where it is, but I think it would be a more worthwhile exercise rather than just launching into that pitched battle, to actually try and get a broader understanding as to why these people think the way they do. Because it's not simply about 'they hate us', and I suspect that their fears and their desires for the planet are not that dissimilar to ours, but when somebody is connected emotionally they can transcend ideology, and that's the broader point I'm trying to make today, which is when we get locked into ideology we don't move forward.

Robyn Williams: Andrew Denton, with Hannah Gadsby and Rod Quantock, at WOMADelaide.


© Australian Broadcasting Corporation