Following the premiere on Monday of SBS's long-awaited/dreaded new series, Housos, the Institute of Tenancy Culture Studies convenes a colloquium of the Brown Couch's regular correspondents: Chris, N.C. and Leo.
Chris: Housos depicts life in public housing in suburban Sunny Vale, with Shazza and Dazza and their assorted friends and enemies – notably Franky, played by the show's mastermind, Paul Fenech. We're told by series narrator, pokie-lounge lizard Wazza, played by Ian 'Turps' Turpie, that Franky is the sort of fellow who has very good luck, and very bad luck, while Shazza and Dazza seem more consistently unfortunate. So, in this week's premiere, Dazza attempts to acquire a disability for the purposes of qualifying for the pension, while Franky literally falls into one, after resisting arrest and fleeing from the police, then stealing a fire engine, then sparking a rampage by the local Lebanese gang. (Franky loses it all when he administers an incriminating beat-down on his ex-fiancee's de facto in the Centrelink car park.)
Ostensibly a madcap satire, Housos transcends the conventions of the genre, effecting a shift in the satirical subject from the characters to the viewer. It ridicules not just its characters, but our own recognition of, and implication in, the stereotyping on which the humour depends. In this sense Housos is, so to speak, a post-satire -
No, sorry, I can't go on in this vein. The show is rubbish. I wish it wasn't. I wanted to have something other than the predictably negative reaction to it, but Housos is so predictable, and so bad, that it deserves the predictable response.
Housos is a tedious rehearsal of old insults and stupid antics. It's just wretchedly unfunny. What did you think, Leo?
Leo: Housos isn't for the latte-sipping yuppies. Paul Fenech says it's by, for and with the "real people", the ones who are never shown on TV because the rest of us don't like them. Fenech knows his audience, and he plays to them. When his first series, Fat Pizza, started, it was beloved in the first place by the wogs, the young men in cars who've maybe watched Scarface a few too many times, who've listened to Tupac a few too many times.
He's continued this tradition here, along with enough hangovers of the older shows to retain the audience built in Pizza (his one-man revival effort of the word stooge cracking on after more than a decade). Is it a high-brow, intelligent comedy that Oliver Wilde fans will quote to each other as wittily constructed repartee? No, no it's not. This tickles the funny bone with just a little bit of petrol, a little bit of flesh, and a lot of crude humour. That may be exactly what his audience is after.
The gallow's humour of those faced with a horrible reality is often incomprehensible by observers. The Brown Couch has discussed the work disincentives that "Housos" face, the inadequacy of the benefits and the hoops recipients have to jump through. Is it surprising this becomes fodder for comedy? It's a ridiculous situation after all. There seems to be no political will to effect change, and there's no shortage of people willing to decry the residents of Housing as various forms of lazy, undeserving and so on. Maybe that's the way to see this show – it appeals to and deals in the life that the rest of Sydney and Australia don't want to deal with. It's the laughter of the hopeless, perhaps even the voice of the voiceless.
Chris: Oh come on, Leo! Housos employs the same sort of humour as dwarf-throwing, and is probably enjoyed by the same people.
N.C.: Well I'm not too sure about any dwarf-throwing, Chris, but look I agree. It's shaping as a series of predictably unfunny cheap shots and tired insults that have ultimately diminished my opinion of Fenech. I have struggled to find something to redeem him, given the calibre of his previous work Pizza, but I keep coming up short. There is nothing funny or clever about Housos....
It's a misguided piss-take on how 'poor people' live – but it could so easily have been something good. It could have – no, it should have taken a shot at the very bureaucracies that routinely fail to alleviate the kind disadvantage it pokes fun at. During the first episode we saw enough glimpses of incompetent cops, ambivalent Centrelink workers and a dysfunctional public health system to get a sense of just how badly Housos misses the mark. Instead of shining a light on the maze of absurdities and inconsistencies that are inherent within our welfare system – the kind of thing that would make you laugh if it didn't make you cry – we get half an hour of name-calling, money-grubbing, substance abuse, child neglect.... Need I go on?
Chris: You know I wanted it to be better, but I'll admit, going into the show I wondered: could this sort of show – given its subject (public housing tenants), given its intended approach (sharp, skewering humour) – ever be funny? And as I watched Housos, desperately wishing I was watching something else, I thought of other similar attempts at humour. Good Times (same subject) was pretty funny, though the approach is a lot more friendly. Andy Capp was occasionally funny (when it wasn't making light of domestic violence), including when it skewered Andy's own conduct. Then I thought of other recent shows, not about public housing tenants, but about other 'little guy' subjects – like Kath & Kim, The Office and, yes, Fat Pizza – which were cruel to their subjects, and funny. They worked because they exposed pretension, vanity and other foibles that all of us recognise, including in ourselves.
As you say, Leo, public housing has ways of making people poor, and to insist that there must be no joking about public housing is to inflict an appalling additional degree of poverty upon public housing tenants. And I'm sure, like you N.C., that the 'situation' of public housing can elicit responses like pretension, vanity, greed, cunning and other human qualities that are the stuff of comedy. So to answer my own question, I think Housos could have been funny – which makes its failure all the more disappointing. If I had to say something nice about it, it would be that the stunts were OK.
N.C.: If you want to see how this subject matter can be dealt with far more sensibly and sympathetically – heck, I'll even go so far as to say humourously – go and track down a copy of the British series Bread. Now there was a household of scheming Housos, who could do whatever it took to stay above the bread-line... and still have you wanting them in your neighbourhood.
Leo: Don't forget the immensely popular UK series Shameless, a comedy-drama that also focuses on a public housing family. Occassionally violent and crude, and yet it clearly connected with a wider audience than just the housing estate dwellers it is based on.
On the subject of the audience: Fenech has created a dedicated following around this brand of humour and I expect a large number of those fans to follow him here. His inclusion of characters very similar to previous shows will certainly help with that. At the same time, he also proclaims that the show is for the people living in public housing. Angry Anderson claims that one third of the cast grew up in housing commission and are simply portraying themselves.
N.C.: I keep thinking to myself, "look it's only been the one episode. Maybe we should reserve our judgement for another couple of weeks. After all, these are the guys who brought us Pizza. When it comes to stinging social satire and holding up a mirror to PC backlash, they've got runs on the board. It's possible that they've got something up their sleeves, and will surprise us next week..." But I'm not sure I really believe that. Because with Pizza you had a bunch of self confessed "ethnics" making jokes about ethnic stereotypes. With Housos they've moved into an entirely new arena, and it's one that they appear far less comfortable with.
Chris: I see next week's show is about Dazza getting Shazza to hospital to give birth – a jesting jab at the feckless fecundity of the poor. Count me out.
N.C.: Certainly they're missing the key ingredient of self-reflection that made Pizza so marketably funny.
Leo: Pizza, at its core, was about sticking it to the stooges – the customers, the boss, the cops, anyone in authority who didn't understand what really mattered to the heroes. The core here is the same, but the range of authority figures has grown as the characters are further down the ladder. That finger-in-the-air attitude has appealed to Fenech's fans for over a decade, I think it will continue here.
N.C.: I'll give it one star.
Chris: Me too. One star. For the stunts.
Leo: The jokes, the stunts and a fair number of the characters could all be lifted directly from Pizza – and that's the way the fans like it. Three stars from me.