Laughing in Public: The role of Humour in navigating Public Life, Politics and Space

Thu 24 Feb 2022

This is a past program.
ACCA Gathering Space: Ngargee Djeembana

“It’s just a joke” is a common refrain. While often used to dismiss criticism or deny accountability for harmful speech-acts, something more profound is at stake in this trivialising claim. In an increasingly digitalised and decentred society, humour has a pertinent, sometimes insidious role in public life—a reality that is far from unacknowledged but is rarely addressed with nuance and empathy.

Featuring David Attwood, Maddison Stoff, Harry Reid, Ursula Robinson-Shaw, Angus Gordon and Matthew Vasquez, this program will include stand-up comedy, artist talks, readings, and a lecture on comedy and cancel culture in the public/digital realm by academic Dr. Sarah Balkin. Laughing in Public will interrogate the role of humour as it operates in the various dimensions of public space. Prioritising the voices and stories of creatives of diverse backgrounds and experiences, including non-binary identifying, speakers from migrant backgrounds, or living with a disability, this program will consider comedy and humour in its capacity as a political device, a way of asserting or complicating identities, and as a method of enforcing or examining subtle forms of access and denial in public life.

This project is commissioned as part of Who’s Afraid of Public Space? public program call out where two new programs have been selected to activate the central commission Gathering Space: Ngargee Djeembana, an installation and gathering space in ACCA’s main exhibition hall developed by N’arweet Carolyn Briggs AM and Sarah Lynn Rees.


SARAH BALKIN will deliver a lecture on comedy and cancel culture:
“On Quitting: Comedy, Cancel Culture, and Public Speech”

Like Hannah Gadsby, Dave Chappelle understands the art of quitting. Chappelle famously walked away from a $50 million deal with Comedy Central in 2005 because he became concerned that his use of racialized humor was perpetuating stereotypes that harm African Americans. At the end of his 2021 Netflix special The Closer, Chappelle quits again, but differently: following a show full of jokes about LGBTQ people, he announces that he is “done” making jokes about them “until we are both sure that we are laughing together.” Chappelle’s performance of quitting responds to and often inverts the politics and structure of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (2017), the show in which she infamously quit comedy because she felt it reinforced her marginalization as a gender-nonconforming lesbian from rural Tasmania. Nanette is an unnamed intertext in The Closer, an emblem of the “cancel culture” Chappelle rails against. Where Gadsby’s performance of quitting in Nanettestrives to show how comedy harms marginalized performers, in The Closer Chappelle invites cancellation by leaning into the persona of homophobic, transphobic comedian, making a platform out of the accusations levelled at him. In this talk I examine the efficacy of Gadsby and Chappelle’s performances of quitting as interventions into comic conventions and public debate.

DAVID ATTWOOD will speak with Tara Heffernan about some of his recent projects relating to public space, including My Beloved’s Shit (2018) a billboard showing his loved one’s faeces, Human Shit (2018) a meandering poop emoji mascot, and others. Attwood and Heffernan will unpack these projects in relation to humour and the artistic subversion of public commercial media and space.

ANGUS GORDON will perform his story “Bush Doof in the Killing Fields”—a dark comedic tale about gentrification at its worst.

HARRY REID & URSULA ROBINSON-SHAW the co-directors of sick leave, a journal and reading series, will do a reading from a recent issue and discuss humour and transgression in their practices.

MX MADDISON STOFF will speak of humour and the way it functions in her work, before deep-diving into her experience with psychosis through a reading and brief discussion of her story “Doing The Right Thing”.

MATTHEW VASQUEZ will perform stand-up on the theme of public space.

The contributors:

SARAH BALKIN is a Senior Lecturer in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her work spans nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first-century literature, theatre, and performance. She is currently researching the historical emergence of deadpan performance (1830-1930) and its derivations in contemporary queer and feminist comedy. An article from this project, “The Killjoy Comedian: Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette,” was awarded the 2021 Marlis Thiersch Prize for excellence in academic publishing by the Australasian Association for Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies.

DAVID ATTWOOD is an artist based in Naarm/Melbourne who makes work in the form of readymades and sculptural assemblages using contemporary commodities. His work broadly explores the competing notions of value that exist within market-societies. In 2016 Attwood completed a PhD in Art at Curtin University, and in 2019 completed the SOMA Summer program, SOMA, Mexico City. He has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions nationally and internationally in commercial, institutional, artist run, online and offsite settings. Attwood is the co-editor of the book The Art of Laziness: Contemporary Art and Post-work Politics (Art + Australia, 2020) and runs the project space Disneyland Paris.

ANGUS GORDON is a comedian and writer whose work explores the uncanny nature of contemporary life through dark satirical stories and whimsical observations. Described by The Guardian as ‘sad and hilarious – and completely original’, his unique style earned him the Best Newcomer award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (2017). He has previously featured in Comedy Zone (2016) and was the national champion of Raw Comedy (2015).

HARRY REID is a poet from Naarm/Melbourne. He is a co-director of sick leave and the author of the best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend (Puncher & Wattmann, 2021).

URSULA ROBINSON-SHAW is a writer living in Naarm/Melbourne. She is co-director of sick leave.

MX MADDISON STOFF (she/her) is a neurodivergent non-binary essayist, independent musician, and author from Naarm/Melbourne, Australia, writing unapologetically leftist, feminist, and queer fiction set in a continuous universe which blurs the line between experimental literature and pulp sci-fi.

MATTHEW VASQUEZ is a Naarm/Melbourne comedian who’s brought his unique charm and warmth to festivals across the country. His jokes about his life and Chilean background granted him a place in the Raw Comedy Grand Final in 2018.


TARA HEFFERNAN is a blind art historian and critic. Her academic work focuses on global modernism and the avant-gardes with an interest in their ongoing aesthetic and political relevance to contemporary debate. She is currently completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne on the work of Italian mid-century artist Piero Manzoni, focusing on his use of transgression and humour in relation to capitalist aesthetics. Her writing regularly appears in Australian and international art journals and publications such as MeMO review, Eyeline Magazine and Third Text Online.