Australians Know How to Light Up a Room
A few years back I got a call from the Maine Department of the Interior. They were planning an international symposium in Portland, a prestigious scientific forum where experts could compare notes and ponder the future of wetlands, tidal estuaries, salt mashes, and things of that nature. I was advised that a very elite international group of scientists would be coming to Maine for the event. As often is the case, I was being asked to either kick off or finish up the conference on a lighter note. Hey, I figure my job’s as green as they come. Since my raw material is hot air and the by-product is laughter, I’m the obvious choice for the environmental crowd.
There was some concern, however, about audience demographics. Since these folks were traveling to Maine from Europe, Asia, and other distant exotic locales there was concern as to whether such a culturally diverse audience would actually even understand , much less appreciate our famous Maine style of humor. I probed a bit and was told to expect an audience consisting of a fair number of residents of the British Isles, a few from Scandinavia , a smattering of Germans and Italians, etc. Oh yeah, they were also expecting a few Japanese scientists and maybe a couple of Australians.
Well, I figured that pretty much anybody from the British Isles or any of the former colonial crowd would “get it”. There is, after all, a good reason why they call this part of The U.S. “New England.” The rest of the Europeans should be OK with my performance as well. Enjoying one of my monologues has more to do with the enjoyment of good storytelling than anything else — well, that and the ability to understand basic conversational English. After all, Maine dialect aside, I do in fact speak English and English is more or less the language of science right? I assured them this group was right up my alley.
One great thing about conferences like this one is that they often have a collegial feel. The attendees feel that they’re all part of the same like-minded club. This is a good thing if you are providing the entertainment, particularly good, if you’re doing comedy. Since they’re already feeling pretty comfortable with one another they’re much more likely to be comfortable laughing out loud together.
So when the big night rolled around so did I. Interestingly enough, the people who sign up for a conference a year in advance are not the always the same people who actually show up at the event. For example when we discussed the details almost a year earlier nobody really expected that when I got up to speak over 60 percent of the audience members would be Japanese with plenty of enthusiasm but almost no understanding of conversational English! I learned of this minor glitch about an hour before showtime.
Of the 400 or so conferees in the ballroom that evening, there were about a hundred and a quarter assorted Europeans, a few Brits, a smattering of Koreans, and well over 200 Japanese. Somebody told me that there were exactly five Australians in attendance and that they were really looking forward to catching my act. It looked like a long night.
After dinner was cleared there were a few bits of housekeeping, then I was introduced. As I headed for the lectern I noticed the five Australians sitting right down front and center. It may seem strange in the re-telling, but it wasn’t hard to pick out the Aussies in this crowd.
Australians have a unique and quirky culture and style, a Crocodile Dundee/Shrimp on the Barbee kind of thing which is very connected to British humor which is also one of the primary sources of American rural humor. It’s all coming from the same place. There’s a common lineage giving birth to humor that is a little dry, a little tongue-in- cheek, a little over the top in the same odd places. In other words, the humor the Aussies are familiar with back home is very much in the line of what I was going to be doing. I knew they’d laugh since they’d already come up and slapped me on the back, wished me luck and called me “mate” and so forth. But, the Japanese were a whole other colander of sushi.
Fortunately for me, just like the Aussies, the Japanese also have their own distinct culture which has it’s own shape and style and some pretty specific rules of conduct. Three minutes into my monologue I knew that I was going to be a smash hit. The five Australians, sitting right up front, began laughing hysterically at my very first line and never looked back. The Japanese, as far as I could tell, did not understand one single word I was saying. But, a half second after the Australians laughed the Japanese erupted in gales of laughter, slapping their knees, slapping one another on the back and howling with laughter. Why? Because that’s their culture. They laughed because the Aussies were laughing and not to laugh when others were laughing would have been impolite!
It dawned on me about ten minutes into the show that I could probably tour Japan and play to an S.R.O. crowd at The Budokan if I just brought these five Australians along and made sure they were sitting in the front row. All I really needed at the conference that night was a pilot light to ignite the massive propane burner of visiting Japanese scientists. Once lit by those five Australians, they laughed all night long.