‘The Insane Asylum (You’re Standing in It)’
Melbourne Comedy Festival 2011
Bananas, according to Rod Quantock, are good for your sense of humour. It’s the lecithin in them, he says. With Queensland flood damage pushing prices up to $4 a piece, the comedian worries for his audience, who won’t be able to claim the fruit on tax like he can. By his reading of the future we’ll be needing plenty of them.
Quantock’s ‘The Insane Asylum (You’re Standing in It)’, is coming to the end of its comedy festival run. The show, which poses the question ‘Are people stupid?’ and answers it with a resounding affirmative, does not so much address the issues of climate change and resource depletion as posit the imminent collapse of civilisation as we know it. All that’s left to do, then, is hand out the Nembutal, hope the disaster might be mitigated, and enjoy the cosmic humour of the situation.
In the flickering candle-lit ambience of Melbourne Trades Hall’s Bella Union Bar Quantock swigs on a carbonated passionfruit drink and holds forth on the doom that awaits us.
‘You think to yourself, “That can’t possibly be happening. People can’t destroy an entire planet and most of the life on it within the next hundred years.” But if you do the homework and you do the reading, you see that’s exactly what we’re doing.’
‘It’s depressing, deeply depressing, but you can put yourself in a position where you stand back from it and find it really funny. It’s cosmically very funny’.
Best known for his stand-up segments on the groundbreaking early ‘80s TV sketch series ‘Australia, You’re Standing in It’, and an 18‑year spot selling mattresses and sheet sets as the nightcapped Capt’n Snooze, Quantock, 62, is a pioneer of Australian comedy who’s been dubbed a ‘living Melbourne treasure’ by the Age.
He also achieved widespread notoriety with his ‘Bus’ and ‘Tram’ tours, on which, brandishing a rubber chicken on a stick, he led large groups of people wearing Groucho Marx noses and glasses on visits to unsuspecting people and places— from massage parlours and bingo games to private homes and police stations.
While the situational silliness that’s the hallmark of Quantock’s humour has always been underlaid with a strong sense of social responsibility, the urgency of the situation he now sees humankind confronting has flipped the focus of his material. For several years now his shows have been exclusively about climate change and the pressure on resources.
Quantock’s conversation, like his shows, is peppered with bizarre and darkly funny bits of information that attest to humanity’s excesses and its impending doom: a North American company has developed a toilet seat programmed to recognise the user; another’s selling shares in massive exclusive survival bunkers in secret locations; human urine is now being mined for scarce trace elements.
It also covers the big picture information: population, peak oil and parts per million CO2. In terms of human residents, the planet is 5 billion over capacity. Production of oil, ‘the lifeblood of capitalism’, has already peaked and the resource is running out. And sometime in the last few months carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere hit 390 parts per million, a level many believe will prove to be a tipping point for catastrophic climate change.
‘Four or five years ago I was saying we must stop burning coal and if we do this now it will make a difference,’ Quantock says, ‘but we’ve reached 390 parts per million now and we’re going to hit more than 2 degrees hotter than it’s been in 10,000 years, and that then becomes self-sustaining. Things start to happen. It just changes more and more and quicker and quicker’.
There’s not much chance, in Quantock’s opinion, of humanity pulling itself back from the brink. The scale of change needed would require ‘everybody on the planet to stop hating one another and work cooperatively.’
‘The problem with people is they’re only human. It’s always been thus, and every civilisation that has ever collapsed has collapsed because of human greed and stupidity.’
Despite his bleak view that it’s too late to stop the disaster Quantock nurtures the hope that Australia will get on with making the changes that would mitigate it: stop burning coal and building freeways and start putting up seawalls and getting serious about urban food gardens.
With an audience of 40 or 50 people a night, mainly ‘on the happy side of deceased’, Quantock doesn’t think his conviction comedy is changing the world. But, he says, he can ‘see nothing else worth talking about’.
Like an extra in a skit, a Big Issue vendor who’s been hovering by the table plonks his VB stubbie down, adjusts his cap and leans in, squinting, to listen. Quantock, who’s once again suggesting that taking Nembutal is the best response to the situation, doesn’t bat an eyelid.