Here’s why ‘Here come the Habibs’ isn’t funny

By Candy Royalle

For those who haven’t seen the promos for Channel Nine’s new comedy, Here Come the Habibs, the general premise is that an Australian Lebanese family wins the lottery and moves from the lower socio-economic suburb of Lakemba in Sydney’s west to the affluent Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.

Here’s how Screen Australia describes the show it hopes will bring a “fresh comic perspective to multicultural Australia”. The Habib family’s new neighbours, the O’Neills, are “Vaucluse royalty – old money and proud of it”.

“They’re extremely uncomfortable with goats and chickens, shisha pipes and people of Mediterranean appearance, but the Habibs can’t understand what all the fuss is about.”

Goats, chickens and shisha pipes? Yes, because Middle Eastern people commonly have chickens and goats in suburbia. Look, we’re just a really uncivilised bunch. Mind if I start this spit on your front lawn and make a kebab?

The show panders to so many stereotypes and racist ideas – Lebs in Vaucluse? How hilarious! – that it’s hard not to feel angry, which is why I started this petition.

I am a first generation Lebanese Australian. My parents were both born in Lebanon. They met and married here and have lived here most of their lives. We are an atheist family though I was baptised, as my family’s religious ancestry is Maronite. I have always felt a deep connection to my family’s cultural heritage – the incredible food, the wonderful music, the tradition and importance of family, the storytelling of my father about Lebanon, my mother’s Australianised version of the Lebanese language.

Despite this beautiful culture, I have experienced a great deal of racism because of my heritage. Growing up, the standard jokes were about hairiness, garlic smells and funny accents (even though I didn’t and don’t have one). The terms Leb, Lebbo and Wog were bandied about carelessly by non-Lebanese. These days the most common thing I hear is “You don’t look Lebanese”. Actually, I do, just not like the Lebanese portrayed on Australian television – caricatures and stereotypes pandering to white ideas of what Lebanese people look like.

Because most people don’t realise I am of Lebanese descent, I have sat around many tables where friends of friends have launched into racist diatribes about Lebanese people based on perpetuated myths (all gangsters/thugs/uneducated etc). I’ve even sat across from an off-duty police officer who declared “I f—ing hate the Lebanese”. I’ve seen a 15-year-old Lebanese Muslim girl cry as she described having the hijab torn off her head on the school bus. I could go on.

I don’t know what’s funny about any of that – do you?

And that’s what most of the criticism directed at me boils down to – my apparent inability to take a joke. The majority of the people who have told me to calm down are white people. People who sit at the very pinnacle of privilege in this country. People who have no idea what it’s like to experience the threat of violence because of the colour of their skin. People who’ve never had racist slurs yelled at them from across the street. People who haven’t had to deal with the systematic racism in this country. Apparently, Australia’s humour is that larrikin behaviour of ‘good natured’ teasing. Well, who’s laughing at white people? On national television? Pandering to stereotypes which further racist experiences?

Those same critics pointed to Chris Lilley – who uses black face and yellow face to play Asian, Tongan and other characters – as a comedian who laughs at everyone equally. This view is so incredibly flawed – once again, he is a white male poking fun at marginalised groups. For humour to be equal, history has to be equal, and that is, of course, not the case – colonialism, oppression and marginalisation ensure absolute inequality.

Kath and Kim is another show used in defence of “Australian” humour – this classist show poked fun at those in lower socio-economic circumstances (as does Housos). All this humour is based on othering – making fun of the marginalised, the down-trodden, those that are outside the so-called “mainstream”. And isn’t that the crux of Australian humour? Making fun of anyone not white, not middle-class, not “mainstream”? Haven’t we moved beyond Acropolis Now, Wog Boy and Fat Pizza? Given the high level of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment in this country right now, the timing of this show beggars belief.

Here Come the Habibs was created by a mix of Lebanese and non-Lebanese people and written and directed predominantly by non-Lebanese people. Many of those defending the show argue the involvement of a handful of Lebanese people makes the stereotyping OK – it absolutely does not. It is simply colonialism doing what it does best.

I have the right, as an Australian Lebanese person, to push back against these stereotypes and to call out racism where I see it – in fact, I believe I have an obligation to do so. I would do the same if a show written by women was misogynistic even though I’m a woman. I don’t speak on behalf of all Lebanese Australians – and neither do the creators of this program, including the Lebanese ones.

For those of you who claim I have no sense of humour, I challenge you instead to rethink your ideas about humour and engage with intelligent, compassionate humour instead – it’s a powerful tool when used well.

Here come the Habibs? There goes progressive Australia.

Candy Royalle is an activist, writer and performance artist. Follow her on Twitter @CandyRoyalle

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