Sirak Keeghan is a 16-year-old student at University High School in Victoria. He came to Australia from Ethiopia when he was four years old.
What distinguishes him from others who may share his aversion to doing homework, or who cop sideways looks for their brown face in a predominantly white country, is something uniquely Australian, and distinctively potent as a weapon in any uncomfortable situation — it’s Sirak’s ability to make people laugh.
And whatever else he may like to say about his life, it’s getting the laugh that’s paramount.
“I never go too deep,” he mused on his comedy. “If you go too deep you’ll start preaching or something, instead of anything funny.”
Laughter. You could hardly call it the new resilience, as oppressed peoples for generations have used it as a tool for survival and optimism.
But in Australia in particular, the ability to make others laugh — to “take the piss” in the antipodean colloquial — sustains as the ultimate social passport.
‘Processing life through jokes’
It’s this wondrous skill in life’s unique tool box that the Melbourne Comedy Festival have harnessed with their Class Clowns competition, now in its 21st year.
Class Clowns is a stand-up comedy program and ultimately competition for secondary students. More and more, its organisers are finding students harvesting personal tussles with family, teachers, ethnicity, or just growing up in their quest to put a funny spin on their lives.
“Often the young comedians are like, ‘People laughed? People laughed?'” said producer Wes Snelling.
“So I think it is more about having another form of expression and finding your voice and having this need to kind of say something about who you are or where you come from, or what bothers you or what excites you or — to be able to kind of communicate that. And I don’t think the end point is at first about making a whole audience lose their shiz.”
Class Clowns alumni include Josh Thomas, creator of the award-winning global hit TV show Please Like Me, Joel Creasy from I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and co-host of Eurovision, and Tom Ballard, former Triple J Breakfast host and sometime Q&A fill-in for Tony Jones.
“I don’t know if I did any deep psychological exploration when I was 15 or 16 because I was just terrified about people knowing the truth about me,” Ballard said.
“But after I did Class Clowns I came out to a lot of my friends in the comedy world just by getting up one night and talking about being gay.
“Processing life through jokes I have found extremely helpful in my life.”
‘It’s cheaper than therapy’
The Class Clowns national final at Melbourne Town Hall featured 14 contestants from around the country performing in front of an audience of around 500 parents, teachers and students and a panel of judges including Catherine Andrews, wife of Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews.
Lana Pigeon, 14, a finalist from Alfred Deakin High School in the ACT, finds stand up to be a relief. “Its cheaper than therapy,” she said, before launching into a routine about her Italian-Australian family.
Solomon Lancini, 15, from The Gap State High School in Queensland, has a far more altruistic view of making people laugh. “I feel like I’m doing them a favour,” he said, and proceeded to lampoon his teachers while wearing an Angus Young rendition of school uniform.
Sirak’s comedy is studded with references to his experience being brown in a white, white world. It confounds him that people would treat him differently because of his colour.
“I don’t see it as racism,” he said. “I see it more as ignorance. I deal with ignorance a lot. People think I’m less educated or something. But I could totally drive a Prius.”
Snelling surmises: “All that stuff you are terrified of — being bullied, being crap at school, not getting dates — here are kids talking about it live on stage and making other kids laugh about it. It gives a real ownership of that experience.”
And that it seems is the beauty of Class Clowns. It’s a reminder and a primer that the real key to resilience in life is the ability to laugh, and stand back up.