This is the text of the talk given by Dr Nick Holm of Massey University on 25 May. Due to the presentation’s length, it has been divided into two separate posts. Part 1 can be found here.
The first aspect of the Topps’ comedy that I will focus on rolls directly out of the distinction I’ve tried to draw between humour and comedy (if you’ll bear with me just a little bit longer). One of the key ways in which humour is often conceptualised by people like myself is in terms of difference. To be more precise, one of the key ways humour is characterised is as a form of incongruity: the bringing together of things that just don’t quite sit together in a comfortable or logical fashion, like a squirrel in a hat or a dancing baby. Now, in the case of the Topp Twins, we might think that an obvious site of incongruity is that between their identity as proud and out lesbians and the idea of a conservative rural New Zealand identity. Certainly, we could probably imagine ways in which the disconnection between these two different sites of identity might be played up as a source of humour, perhaps by playing up and encouraging scenes of discomfort in the style of The Office. However, what we see in practice is exactly the opposite: the active disavowal of any split between queer and rural identities through the effective management and minimisation of any perception of disjuncture and difference.
Neither rural nor lesbian identity is privileged here. Instead both are whole-heartedly and authentically embraced in the work of the Topp Twins, and as a consequence neither is the butt of a joke. This brings to mind an explanation that Jools Topp provides of their comedy in the 1995 documentary Beyond a Joke, where she explains that their goal is always to “send up, rather than put down.” The difference as she explains is that to “send up” something requires you to know how to do it in the first place and the Topp Twins definitely know how to be rural, they know how to be country, they know how to entertain and connect with provincial New Zealand. Above all else, they know how to yodel and there is no such thing as an ironic yodel as far as I can tell. Given this lack of irony—this lack of any pointed incongruity—it would therefore seem wrong to claim that the comedy of the Topp Twins is saying anything in particular about either provincial New Zealand or their own queer identities, beyond the statement that, “yeah, they’re both pretty good.” This presents something of a problem, though, if we’re trying to think about their comedy as being political. Normally, we might look to humour’s ability to put things down as one of the key ways in which it can do political work but if the Topp Twins are explicitly disavowing those aspects of comedy, how then might we conceive of their comedy in political terms?
One possible answer to this question is that the politics of the Topp Twins’ comedy is not to be found in the meaning of their jokes, but rather the wider purpose to which the Twins put them. What this means is that if we want to understand how the comedy of the Topp Twins does political work, we should not consider the details of their comic routines. Instead, we should look to how, where and why they perform their comedy, which is defined above all else by an ethos of inclusion: by a sense that everyone belongs and is welcome within the context of their performances, both live and mediated. This is the second point I want to make about the politics of their comedy and it follows naturally on from their embrace of both halves of their suppressed incongruity—their insistence that there is nothing incongruous between their own proud queer identities and a homophobic social context—which can be understood, in turn, as part of a larger refusal in their work to draw boundaries or fragment a possible community. To focus on a micro-level analysis of any example of their humour would be to focus on how incongruities (that is to say differences, things that don’t quite fit or make sense) are explored, but to focus on the comedy is to be concerned with how the Twins seek to get everyone to laugh together as a means of building a community out of that laughter. Their comedy is defined then by a tendency—an aspiration—to appeal to everyone within their national and sometimes even international community: to dissolve differences through shared laughter and joy. This is a politics of community-building, rather than one of statements: a politics that is enacted and brought into being through their comedy. Therefore, while at the level of content, the Topp Twins are not, or only rarely, making explicitly radical political statements. Instead, what they are doing is creating spaces where anyone and everyone can be accepted for who they are: communities of laughter defined by acceptance rather exclusion. As Lynda Topp has said “sometimes getting the whole crowd to laugh is the most political thing you can do.” From such a perspective, it is less important to examine what the crowd are laughing at, than the appreciate how they are bound together through shared laughter. For the Topp Twins, their comedy is therefore fundamentally political not because of any meaning communicated through their material, but instead because of the way they use their comedy as a tool for bringing a new form of community into the world. In doing so, they do not so much argue for inclusion, so much as just act as if inclusion were already a fact of the world: they fight homophobia, racism and other forms of exclusion by creating spaces in which those forces do not intrude. This then is a cultural politics of doing rather than saying.
If this seems all seems a bit abstract, I think the best way to make this more concrete is to consider an integral part of the Topp Twins’ performance: audience interaction. Not only a feature of their live performances, engagement with the public was also a distinctive feature of the Topp Twins’ TV show in the late 1990s, where they would interact with people from all walks of life at events such as horse racing, speedway, highland games, and a day at the beach. For example, in the first episode of the third season, the Twins, in the guise of Camp Mother and Camp Leader, wander around the Waipu Highland games striking up conversations, while Lynda Topp, in character as Camp Mother, encourages the punters to try her triple-butter shortbread. Walking around the festivities, Camp Mother and Camp Leader are almost pantomime fictions sprung to life and walking the fields and streets of provincial New Zealand: threatening to drag anyone they encounter into their zany schemes. More than just characters on a stage or screen, they are living and breathing people with whom the audience can potentially enter into an immediate and unscripted relationship. This idea—that the audience could talk directly to a fictional character—has led some to describe the Topp Twins as more affable, less-exploitative predecessors to the infamous character Borat from the 2006 movie of the same name (where British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen travelled across America playing the part of Kazakhstani reporter making a documentary about the USA).
Like the Topp Twins, Borat was also a fictional character who had the freedom to roam the real world leaving chaos and confusion in his wake. However, unlike the Topp Twins, Borat related to those he met on his journeys under false pretences: they thought he was a real person, though it is clear to those who watch the film that he is not. In stark contrast, in the case of the Topps there is no such deception happening because these characters are so brash, so over-the-top, that those they encounter are unlikely to take them as real people. Whereas those who encounter Borat are fooled into engaging with him as if he were serious (when in fact he is not), those who encounter the Topp Twins are invited to enter willingly and gleefully into their skewed world in full knowledge of what they are agreeing to. Participants don’t enter the Topps’ world because they are tricked into doing so; they enter because it is an appealing place devoted to goofiness and fun. To bring this back to my earlier point, this is important because it means that when you encounter a character like Camp Mother or attend a Topp Twins show, you’re no longer really even a member of the audience: you’re really more of a participant-in-waiting who sooner or later will be part of the show rather than just observing it. In this way, the Topp Twins reject one of the most fundamental divisions in cultural production: that between performers and audiences. Even when watching their TV show, there’s always the idea that these characters are out there, in the world, running round, ready to bump into you the next time you step out the door. The community they build through their comedy therefore always threatens to stretch ever further outwards: encompassing ever greater sections of society in a form of life that is utterly sincere, and without pretension or exclusion.
Which brings me to the third and final aspect of the Topp Twins’ comedy that I think is essential for understanding its political nature: the role of characters in their comedy. As we’ve seen, their use of characters is one of the central ways in which the Topp Twins bring their comedy out into the world. It is through characters, such as Camp Mother and Camp Leader or Ken Moller and Ken Smyth, that the twin’s comedy grows legs—as it were—to move off the stage and into the world: to insert itself into actually existing lives and communities as more than just a one-liner. The anecdote that I recounted earlier, where Ken is invited to join a group of farmers at a strip club, is indicative of how these characters create the conditions where the Topp Twin’s performance can take on a life of its own: as more than just a joke, but really a way of life informed by a commitment to fun, inclusion and acceptance. By their own account, these characters are not simply roles that the Twins can take on and take off, but parts of themselves that take over once they’re in costume. Moreover, like their yodelling and country music, in different hands, the different characters that they play could potentially be an exercise in parody: as an opportunity to emphasise the flaws and limitations of the provincial gentlemen or cowgirls or bowling ladies whose persona they adopt. However, that’s not the Topp Twins style and as a consequence their characters tend more towards careful and lovingly generous studies of their subjects, rather than broad sendups. At their best, characters like Camp Mother, Ken and Belle Gingham are nuanced and warm portraits of individuals who don’t exist simply to be laughed at, but rather as vehicles for the inclusive and accepting community that is key to the Topp twin’s comedy.
Now, while Camp Mother and Camp Leader and probably the most prominent and popular characters in the Topp Twins stable, I think the more interesting examples when we consider a possible politics to their comedy are Ken and Ken. Not only do they look to be the heroes of the upcoming Long Drop film, but given their basis in cross-dressing they seem to be the most obvious place to look for an expected challenge to gender norms and a bit of cultural subversion. However, as with so many things with the Topp Twins, it turns out that it’s a bit more complicated than that. The Kens are sophisticated guys after all. Or perhaps more accurately, they’re complex guys: not just one note caricatures of provincial masculinity. Sure they might not be perfect, but they’re good people: passionate, steadfast, accepting and honest. This complexity and generosity that underpins the characters makes it difficult to offer what might be thought of as the traditional line about the gender politics of drag performance: such account would emphasise the ways in which the performance of the norms of masculinity by someone who does not identify as male can act to unsettle the apparent naturalness of male identity. In this sense, drag is often figured as a revelation that gender is a cultural performance, rather than a biological fact. Following this line of thought, Ken and Ken would be read as radical disruptions of traditional forms of provincial New Zealand masculinity. And yet this reading sits pretty uneasily with any experience of the Topps’ wider work, which is not positioned in any way against the community in which that masculinity is located. As I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s very hard to yodel ironically, which reflects a larger point about the Topp Twins’ commitment to the value of provincial ways of life.
Taken in this way, the Kens are not so much disruptive impersonations of masculinity, as they are essential parts of the Topps’ career-spanning paean to the non-urban communities of rural Aotearoa. The wider point here is that the Topp Twins’ comedy is too invested in—has too much respect for—Ken and Ken to reduce them to self-aware performances. Ken and Ken are not presented as joke delivery systems, but legitimate parts of a provincial New Zealand culture that is seen as a site of honest, progressive and desirable version of this country. Consequently, the Topp’s performance of Ken and Ken is less an instance of drag, and more an instance of women simply playing male characters: not so much unsettling ideas as mucking around with them, subtly reconfiguring rather than rejecting them. Their comic characters therefore match the overall politics of their comedy, where they don’t tear down anyone’s community or identity: instead through the characters to Ken and Ken they democratise provincial forms of masculinity: carefully stretch them out as desirable identities that more people could potentially lay claim to than have traditionally been able.
These then are the three ways in which I think we can make sense of the politics of the Topp Twins’ comedy: through the building of connections rather than exploration of differences; through the use of comedy as a basis for communities of fun and joy; and through the embrace of the best aspects of provincial identity, rather than their subversion. These are not the ways in which the politics of humour usually operates: they are less confrontational, less aggressive or openly committed to subversion or transgression. But I think this account goes some way towards explaining UK folk legend Billy Bragg’s comment in Untouchable Girls, when he says “you wouldn’t realise how political the Topp Twins are until you scratch the surface.” This is a different style of cultural politics than is usually understood by the concept of queering, which typically works with an assumption of queerness as inherently radical and disruptive. In contrast, the Topp Twins, like Liberace before them, enact a form of cultural politics that emphasises connection over subversion: that opens up spaces for greater acceptance and approaches queer identity and performance as the basis for celebration and affirmation. The comedy of the Topp Twins’ is less concerned with challenging what is oppressive than with noting and celebrating that which is different.
In this way, their comedy is political insofar as it provides a means by which to re-imagine a better, more accepting and more fun way of life rooted in the traditional communities and practices of provincial New Zealand. Through their use of comedy, then, the Topp Twins demonstrate how popular culture can do political work without being explicitly political by creating spaces in which audiences become participants who laugh together as a way to begin to experience what a truly accepting and affirming Aotearoa New Zealand might feel like.
Images courtesy Diva Productions/Sally Tagg
Dr Nicholas Holm is a Lecturer in Media Studies at Massey University, New Zealand where he teaches courses in popular culture and advertising