Kenny: The Return of the Decent Aussie Bloke in Australian Film Comedy: Throughout Australian Cinema History, the Figure of the Bloke Has Come in Many Guises: The Lovable Larrikin, the Ocker Abroad, the Naive Dad, and Now, with the Popularity of Kenny (Clayton Jacobson, 2006), the Decent Everyman. Felicity Collins Traces This History

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ACCORDING to one enthusiastic reviewer, Kenny is the kind of film airlines need to show on incoming flights to teach tourists about Australian values: 'Kenny is like The Castle [Rob Sitch, 1997] without the patronising or Crocodile Dundee [Peter Faiman, 1986] without the brashness ... its values are those of most Australians, indeed most human beings.' (1) Online fans lauded the film for its 'very Australian' sense of humour, exemplified by the eponymous everyman Kenny Smyth (Shane Jacobson)--'the hard-working bloke' notable for 'his complete decency as a human being'. (2) The film's 'Australian' values, although never clearly specified by reviewers, seem to add up to a sense of humour, the capacity to appreciate an inventory of toilet jokes, and a home-spun philosophy which valorizes the ordinary Aussie bloke (oddly Americanized in the press kit tagline as 'A lovable guy, in a not so lovable job').

The box office, word-of-mouth success of Kenny reaffirms low-budget comedy as the most popular genre in the history of Australian cinema. This history is worth retracing here in the light of what interests me most about Kenny: its conservative recasting of the national type as a 'decent' rather than 'dinkum' bloke. Kenny is an unassuming--if not downright daggy--urban comedy which borrows freely from sketch comedy, reality TV and the mockumentary. Reviewers agree, however, that the appeal of the film lies not in its generic hybridity but in its affable protagonist-narrator, Kenny the Portaloo man whose job is to provide portable toilets for public events and carry away the effluent. The comic conceit of the film is the looming threat that it will bring something vile into view. But instead of excremental visual stunts, what we get (until the finale) is a verbal spray of puns, metaphors and jokes which wear down our defences against knowing that our clean and proper, public bodies generate great swills of communal pee and poo.

A linguistic rather than visceral comedy, the film is resolutely local, placing Kenny at the centre of Melbourne's annual calendar of outdoor events--from the St Kilda Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade, held in February, to the Melbourne Cup horse race that stops the nation in November. Apart from Kenny's monologues to camera, the appeal of the film for many reviewers seems to arise from its Australian 'authenticity'. The much-publicized fact that the film's only investor was Splashdown, a business that provides outdoor toilets for major events, supposedly guarantees a realistic, fly-on-the-wall look at a low-status service industry. Shane Jacobson's day job as a lighting designer/production manager for the major events industry is said to ensure the film's behind-the-scenes authenticity in several sequences shot on-location during major public events. And the involvement of the Jacobson family in multiple roles, on and off screen, cements for some critics an ideological nexus between the film, honest workers, small business and family solidarity as somehow quintessentially 'Australian'.

Authenticity aside, the problem Kenny raises for me is not so much its one-joke contribution to mockumentary comedy, in the footsteps of The Office and Kath & Kim, but, rather, its transformation of Australian comedy's national type from a beer-swilling larrikin or sex-crazed ocker into a decent bloke whose ultimate role in the social imaginary is to affirm and preserve the supposed decency, goodness and superiority of the Australian way of life. By transforming the 'dinkum bloke' into a 'decent Aussie', Kenny becomes an exemplar of a long-standing, popular and, arguably, deeply conservative strand in Australian film comedy.

While film critics have been almost unanimous in proclaiming Kenny the funniest Australian comedy in years, what's interesting about the film's populist reception is the way that various newspaper columnists have co-opted the film into the culture wars--as a victory for the 'ordinary' Australian 'battler' over the professional, middle-class 'elite'. …


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