A Can Of Words
By Clare BlumerOctober 25, 2012
On Wednesday, October 10, a comedian stood up in the Great Hall of Parliament House in Canberra and delivered a 15-minute performance that contained 15 seconds of material that has been described by Australia’s Prime Minister as “deeply offensive”.
The responsible comedian has been called sexist by commentators, and personally targeted by talkback radio host, Ray Hadley, who first outed the comedian by name.
What was the joke? Very few people, including many of its outspoken critics, know — and nobody thus far has aired it or published it. More about that joke later.
But the performer did not write the joke; indeed, his whole character is a creation of a Sydney company called Manic Studios, which describes itself on its website as “professionally insane”. Its main aim is to provide clients with satirical content. Charles Firth, best known for his work with the politically brattish The Chaser team, is Manic Studios’s CEO and senior writer.
The Global Mail contacted the performer, whose name is Laurence Coy, and asked him to reenact the day of the alleged crime.
The morning of the Parliament House dinner, Coy, 52, was sent the freshly edited copy of his character’s speech, and retired to his hotel room to learn the lines.
Before the federal election in 2007, Coy had attended a casting call with Manic Studios. The company had been hired by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) to produce a video titled What Have The Unions Ever Done For Us? (The campaign was so successful, Manic has sold the concept all around the world — just last year it was copied by an American production company.)
Coy got the part, and developed the character of the CEO of eVILcorp as he evolved into Allan Billison: billionaire, mining magnate, and best friend to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Coy played Billison in television ads and numerous videos online and as part of a campaign created by Manic: Fair Go for Billionaires. Coy’s character got a Twitter feed (now deleted), website and Facebook page.
This Billison character has become particularly popular among union officials and members, so when Coy entered the Great Hall at Parliament House that night, he was treated as a celebrity.
“I was widely recognised,” says Coy. “I think everybody in the room, perhaps with the exception of a few MPs, knew who I was because of the exposure through the website and on telly… There was a lot of backslapping and laughter and bonhomie.”
After the Prime Minister had given her speech, and just before the main course was served, Coy got up to deliver his performance.
The routine shot bullets at many people, several of whom were in the room. Coy says: “Various people were criticised for being inept, lazy, avaricious, threatening, macho, gluttonous, vengeful, cowardly, eccentric and manipulative — this was a piece of political satire after all.”
About a third of the way through the written script, the moment arrived.
Coy and Manic Studios have declined to say exactly what the joke was, but after speaking to a number of sources, The Global Mail can gather this much: The joke recalled a (fictitious) conversation between the character Billison and his ‘best mate’ Tony Abbott, in which Billison chastises Abbott for parading his wife in front of the media for publicity, all the while possibly having an affair with his (unnamed in the joke) chief of staff.
The fictional conversation continued, with Abbott denying any such relationship. All Coy will say about it is: “As Tony Abbott’s best mate and boss, [Billison] denied a scurrilous rumour that was circulating around Canberra for months.”
Throughout the speech Coy says there was a lot of laughter, and the performance ended to generous applause. Coy reckons that he was asked to have photos taken with at least two dozen attendees after the speech. He left the function at around 10:30pm, with the sense that the performance had been a success.
It wasn’t until the next day that he found out how explosive the joke had been. Coy went into media lock-down as Manic Studios fielded questions from media outlets about the joke.
The Prime Minister had left the dinner straight before Coy’s performance, but after hearing of the joke about Tony Abbott, she called the National Secretary of the CFMEU first thing in the morning to say she found the content offensive.
Tony Abbott said nothing about the joke; the incident was not mentioned in Question Time that day. That afternoon Prime Minister Gillard, Abbott and his wife, Margie, and Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, were photographed boarding a plane headed to Bali for the 10th anniversary of the Bali bombings.
Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop told the ABC that she’d heard the joke and thought it “was tasteless, it was offensive to Tony Abbott's female chief of staff… Wayne Swan and other ministers remained in the room after the joke was made so by Labor's own test, they endorsed and condoned the joke”.
On ABC’s program Q&A, Labor MP Bill Shorten said, “I know from speaking to the organisers of that event, as soon as a stupid joke, which I'm not going to give oxygen to, was said, everyone went, ‘Oh, what an idiot.’”
Popular ABC political commentator Annabel Crabb called Coy a “buffoon”.
He says he is confounded by the reaction, and the personal attacks on him by media, and politicians, who have sought to distance themselves from the joke.
“I’d never experienced that kind of vitriol in my life,” says Coy, who has been an actor for three decades.
“There’s a side of me that’s pleased people think Allan [Billison] is real. But when I’m called a sexist buffoon and politicians are falling over each other to say they’d wished they’d rushed the exits during my performance, surely they’re missing the point,” says Coy.
Coy says people have started to invent the content of the joke in order to support the view that the act was sexist.
“There was no sexist joke, that’s the big story,” says Coy. “The character challenged every MP in the room about hypocrisy — someone tell me the sexist joke!
“I concede that some people find Allan Billison’s voice, politics and turn of phrase vulgar. This is as it should be. He’s not meant to be a sophisticated, tasteful, politically correct orator. He’s based on vulgar, politically incorrect, vile people.”
Attempting to quell the uproar, Manic Studios apologised “unreservedly to all parties for any offence” and clarified that the joke had not been vetted beforehand by the union, or the Labor Party.
But this made little difference. Opposition pundits labeled the Labor government hypocritical for not leaving the function, after Labor members had charged their Liberal counterparts should have done after Alan Jones’s comments at a Young Liberals function.
It now seems as if public officials are falling over themselves to be the first to disapprove of satire if there’s any chance they could be judged for not protesting. But what price do we pay if our national sense of humour is lost at the top end?
For his part, Piers Grove from Manic Studios told me: “Satirists always walk a fine line between challenging and offending their audience. If we’re not pushing the boundaries, we’re not really doing our job.” He added that the greatest crime the Manic writers committed was that the joke wasn’t funny enough.
As an actor, Coy wonders how audiences came to lose the differentiation between satire and reality, and is still stunned by the aftermath of the dinner.
“It caught me completely by surprise, there was no inkling of it the night before,” he says, recalling the post-dinner bonhomie. “The horror of being called sexist; the horror of being paired with Alan Jones who unfortunately is not a piece of fiction.”
“I like to think [Billison’s] very different to me — as Sir Les Patterson is far from Barry Humphries, as Borat is far from Sacha Baron Cohen, as Mr G is far from Chris Lilley.
“Alan Jones is real. He’s earned millions and millions of dollars from a loyal audience that worships daily at his altar.
“Allan Billison is not a real person. He’s the creation of someone’s imagination. He’s a satirical character. And I’m not a billionaire. Not by a long shot. See the difference?”
With walk-outs now de rigeur for public officials attending functions (see the Family Court Conference dinner saga), organisers may find themselves scratching their heads about what to provide as entertainment at a dry political event. Suggestions anyone?
Clare Blumer has worked for Laurence Coy's company, Sporting Declaration.