News & Current Affairs
26 January 2015
by Adam Brereton
The Aristocrats: why knighting Prince Philip is a joke at Australia's expense
If Tony Abbott absolutely had to knight a royal, why didn’t he choose one who was popular with the electorate, like Prince William?
The trade joke of stand-up comedians is a classic called the Aristocrats. It’s a well-known format: a family turns up to the office of a talent agent to perform their act, which is typically the most depraved scene of incest – in Bob Saget’s version, the family sings Sister Sledge in a pile of their own excrement. The comic doesn’t spare the details, dragging it out for as long as their audience can bear and then, when the talent agent asks what the act is called, the family delivers the punchline:
Chevy Chase used to try to break half an hour in his telling of the joke. Tony Abbott almost lasted a whole year. He started telling his own variation on the classic in March 2014, and today he delivered his own zinger:
Ta-da! Meet Prince Philip, the Aristocrat!
Philip represents everything Australians hate about old-world aristocracy: his racist bon mots, his pickled appearance, his unearned wealth and privilege. He is a natural “type” for comedy. You can imagine “pissometer” Philip stepping effortlessly into the setup of a truly vile telling of the Aristocrats: the Duke of Edinburgh and his family go to see a talent agent ...
He is such a bizarre choice because he’s actually the deadweight holding back what increasingly appears to be a monarchist revival. Wherever he goes, his “gaffes” breeze ahead of him like a bad smell. He couldn’t be further from the young dream couple William and Kate, who have seized the world’s imagination with their sensitive, virtuous public profiles.
If Abbott absolutely had to knight a royal, couldn’t he have chosen Prince William instead of drawing attention to the least popular member of the monarchy? If this is about re-establishing the monarchy’s place in our regime of honours and titles, why not choose a royal recipient who will play well with the punters? And who is Angus Houston again?
Already there’s chatter about how dopey the appointment is, how it will play poorly with an electorate who are discovering anew how strange their prime minister is. If there is a single person in the country for whom this decision would swing their vote, I’d like to meet them. Is there anyone demanding the Queen’s rarefied consort be given yet another gong?
In the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t matter to Abbott. A former director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, he has always considered royalty to be an integral part of Australian life outside and above partisan politics and, indeed, democracy itself. It’s “a reminder of the transcendent in the life of the world”, he wrote in 2006. An ideal “always beyond the reach of actual human beings but towards which all should strive”.
Or as Philip put it in a comment to Alfredo Stroessner, the Paraguayan dictator who turned his country into a sanctuary for escaped Nazis: “It’s a pleasure to be in a country that isn’t ruled by its people.”
Now that’s a joke! Try the veal, I’m a Knight of the Order of Australia all week!
The Aristocrats is a gag comedians tell each other in private. It’s a “secret handshake”, a dirty joke that keeps the profession together. Abbott’s version is the same: a joke for the benefit of the few true monarchists left in the country, overwhelmingly men of Philip’s ilk. The rest of us aren’t meant to get it, because it’s told at our expense.
On Australia Day, when many Indigenous Australians are mourning, when we’re asking ourselves questions about what kind of democracy we actually have, when the republicans among us are navel-gazing about the flag, and when Abbott’s own supporters are tucking into their beer and snags, the prime minister goes and knights a member of the royal family. That’s what John Howard used to call a “barbecue stopper”, a clanger so bad it could ruin the fun for everyone.
Except, that is, for the person who made the joke and his intended audience. Except for … the Aristocrats!