Rod Quantock: Comics need a 'united front' on progressive politics

November 24, 2012

Rod Quantock, the “Australian institution” of comedy, is set to headline a special one-off comedy show in Marrickville, Sydney, on December 8 in aid of the Australian Fair Trade & Investment Network (AFTINET).

Quantock ― winner of the Melbourne Comedy Festival 2012’s Director’s Choice Award ― will be joined at the Red Rattler by comedians Matt Wakefield, Alice Fraser, Justine Rogers and James Colley, as well as resident Englishman, Jazz Twemlow for the benefit gig.

This event supports AFTINET’s campaign to warn about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), a free-trade agreement being negotiated behind closed doors between Australia and 10 other countries during the week of the show.

Green left Weekly's Stuart Munckton spoke to Quantock about the show and his views on comedy and politics.

* * *

Why are you keen to do this fundraiser for AFTINET on the issue of fair trade?

I am keen to do it because clearly there isn't a comedian in Sydney who cares about it! Look, it is a great opportunity to discuss free trade. I don't think this event is going to change the world, but it will raise some money, which is very important when you've got the people who are against fair trade charging $10,000 a plate at events to keep it off the agenda.

And its an opportunity for people who are concerned about the issue to get together, which they don't often get a chance to do. And on top of that to have a laugh as well. They'll know what free trade is about, I am not here to lecture them.

One of the challenges of what I do is generally I only get to talk to people who agree with me. Which is nice, I don't like getting beaten up in the lane afterwards. I treat this as an opportunity to celebrate the work that these people do.

You are known as a comic with a strong social conscience who tackles politics. What do you see the role of comedy being in relation to politics? Can comics make a difference?

Well, if comedians could put on a united front, and there more chance of the left doing that than comics, then yes perhaps comedians could change the world.

But you can see what happens when people in the entertainment industry do try and change the world. Take the case of Cate Blanchett. She put her name and face to a pro-carbon action campaign and was savaged in the right-wing press. She is probably tough enough and rich enough not to give a fuck about it, but it is a warning to others.

So entertainers cannot afford to divide, as they tend to be part of the system. I found that out. I was stupid. I should have left my politics at home and perhaps things might have been different. But I was picked out as a communist and will forever be labelled as that.

But you can look at the long list of entertainers targeted when they speak out, acts like the Dixie Chicks in the US and Pussy Riot in Russia.

In Russia you go to jail [if you speak out]. Here you just don't get employed. So it is difficult for the artist to do much and hope to survive.

Unless we have a united front ― in which case we could withhold our labour! But that ain't gonna happen.

A couple of year ago, you did an entire show (“Bugger the Polar Bears”) on climate change. How do you go about making such a bleak topic funny?

It took took me a long time to make that topic funny. I am very conscious that I am a lot more informed than many people on climate change and the latest climate science ― people don't have time for all the reading in their lives.

But I get paid to think about things. So I have a much bleaker view, probably even bleaker than the bleakest view you get at . So making it funny was very difficult.

Why did I do it? It is not seen as a political issue in the community. If anything, it is seen as an economic issue. I had an opportunity to talk about climate change to a wide range of people. When I do corporate gigs, I talk about it to them.

It is really just another way to get the message across.

How do you view Australian politics at the moment?

It is getting more and more transparent. US politics, for instance, is is corrupt. Their elections are a blatant carnival of corruption. It is in the hands of two wealthy people.

You can see this reality even clearer now in Australia with people like Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer. Billionaires never made comments in the past, now they are constantly arguing their views.

Both parties in this country are in hock to the resource sector.

How easily is it for comics to make a living in the industry? How are comics treated?

There is not much space for political comedy. There are some. There is a guy called Scott Abbott who is a Sydney-based political comic. There is a group of them down here in Melbourne, who operate under the “Political Asylum” banner.

They show that people are willing to go and see really good, smart political analysts doing comedy, but the ABC would not touch them. It is a gutless organisation thinking it is doing a big thing by putting on something as tame as Q&A.

So it is difficult for young comics who want to talk about anything other than relationships. But I see these comedians out there who are prolific writers, churning out material faster than they can put it on for people to see.

There is a disconnect in this country between talent and success.

Is it something that has been getting worse?

These days, you have to have a pre-existing condition of celebrity to get on TV. It is all panel shows and game shows. I don't particularly care that I never got involved in Spicks and Specks and the like. I learned very quickly I was not a celebrity of an A or a B kind.

These days, it is not even a case of shows on TV like The Chaser, it is really just The Chaser. They have their moments and have achieved some extraordinary things ― whether by design or by accident ― but that is the limit of it.

I just don't find the passion for change. Until you have that passion and you are “one joke away from assassination”, then it is just entertainment and acceptance of the status quo ― people willing to mock it to make a living, but who accept it.

What is next for you?

Well, all I really do these days is talk about climate change. There is nothing more important than the extinction of species and potentithatit is happening now. It really should be the only thing people talk about.

Implementing the solutions needed the scale of the crisis is often compared to putting Australia onto a war footing, like World war II. Then, industry was changed overnight to serve the war machine. That is what we need to do to tackle climate change.

But the climate threat doesn't seem as urgent as the bombing of Pearl Habour. Then again, the recent “bombing” of the east coast of America [by Hurricane Sandy] must make people think about the issue more.

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