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The Best Australian Yarns ... and Other True Stories
By Jim Haynes
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Jim Haynes
All rights reserved.
The one thing I always say, when asked what makes Australian humour different from other types, especially American humour, is that we like to laugh at ourselves. Old-fashioned Australian humour is all about mocking pretension and laughing at our own quirks and characteristics in a gentle, often deadpan way.
The homogenisation of Western civilisation, due to television and the internet and other technology, is gradually destroying the unique nature of what makes Australians laugh, but we still have some identifiable traits to our sense of humour. As our humour loses its unique character, due to the effect of American entertainment dominating our lives, it is ironic that the cartoon often touted as the funniest example of Australian humour was actually drawn by a man born in the USA.
Stan Cross was born in Los Angeles in 1888. His family were British and moved to Perth in Western Australia in 1892. After school, he worked on the railway and studied art at night until a wealthy brother sent him to London to study and there he began drawing cartoons for Punch.
He returned to Australia and worked on Smith's Weekly from 1919 for £5 a week. He drew a number of comic strips, including The Potts,Dad and Dave and Wally and the Major and, in July 1933, drew what is said to be the funniest joke ever produced in Australia, with the caption, 'For gor'sake stop laughing, this is serious!'
The words are spoken by a workman clinging to a girder at the top of a skyscraper. Another bloke is clinging to his trousers, which have fallen down around his ankles. The bloke hanging close to death is laughing uncontrollably.
Cross continued to draw Wally and the Major until he retired to Armidale in northern New South Wales in 1970. Cross died there in 1977. His gravestone is engraved, 'Stop laughing, this is serious!'
I think the funniest Australian cartoon ever is one Norman Lindsay drew for The Bulletin. An old cocky and his rather large missus are leaning on the pigpen and she says, 'It's our golden wedding anniversary soon, dear, will you be killing the pig?'
The old cocky answers, 'Why should an innocent animal suffer for something that happened years ago?'
Cartoons are not yarns, of course, but that one demonstrates the real understated humour and practical view of the world that seems to me typically Australian.
Real-life situations are often funnier than fiction and the amusing incidents that brighten our day-to-day lives often make the best yarns and become part of our family history to be shared between friends over a dinner or a few drinks.
This section begins with some gentle, everyday, amusing yarns, but also contains some examples of typical Aussie male humour and also some zany Australian humour from the likes of Lennie Lower and Henry Horne.
KING KONG'S BUM
Travelling with my two young nieces on a Sydney bus one hot afternoon, I witnessed one of the funniest confrontations I have ever had the pleasure to observe. My nieces were around eleven and nine years old at the time and having a day out in the city with Uncle while on a holiday from Adelaide. A Sydney bus trip from the city to Nana's place out at Banksmeadow turned out to be as much of an adventure as a ride on the Manly ferry.
A rather strange-looking fellow boarded the bus at Central Railway Station. He was a short man with a goatee wearing an oddly old- fashioned three-piece suit and a trilby hat, and carrying a very old suitcase. He paid his fare and sat in the disabled seat right at the front of the bus, leaving his suitcase in the aisle. He was quite odd to look at and rather eccentric in his deliberate mannerisms and movements and my nieces giggled silently at his appearance and behaviour, as kids often do at anything out of the ordinary.
The other main character in the drama was a rather large bloke who had obviously had just one beer too many after work and was on his way home standing up, strap-hanging, although there were still several seats available.
An elderly woman with a walking stick boarded the bus and, the disabled seat being occupied by the eccentric little chap, stepped awkwardly past his suitcase and looked for a seat.
'Hey, mate!' the big bloke said loudly. 'Get out of that seat and get your port out of the way, that's for old and disabled people.'
The small man with the goatee ignored the comment and the elderly lady found a seat further down, but the large tipsy bloke was not going to let it go at that. He began to aim a tirade of abuse at the little man in the suit.
'Are you deaf as well as stupid, mate?'
'What's that growing on your chin? Looks like it belongs on a billy-goat.'
'What's in the suitcase? You taking your brain to the cleaners in that?'
'Hey, mate, that seat is for the physically handicapped, not the mentally handicapped.'
Finally, the response came. It was rather prosaic and disappointing.
'You should drink less and mind your own business,' said the small man primly as he stood to get off the bus.
The whole bus was shaking with suppressed merriment and it was one of those moments when you daren't look at whoever you are with for fear of bursting into laughter. Everyone was amused except the small man with the suitcase, but nobody laughed out loud.
'I'd need to drink a lot more to be as stupid as you,' the big man replied.
The small man left the bus by the front door but the middle doors were also opened and the bus was stopped at a red light which coincided with the bus stop. The small man walked a few steps along the pavement until he was level with the middle doors of the bus which remained open for a few seconds. He was now directly adjacent to his strap-hanging nemesis and the two made eye contact for a split second.
It was in the few seconds before the doors closed that the small man, now safely off the bus, fired his only real shot in the verbal battle.
With his suitcase in his hand, he stood staring at the big man and then said, quite casually but in a loud, clear voice, 'What are you going to do for a face when King Kong wants his bum back?'
The doors closed and the lights changed and the bus moved off.
The big man said, 'Smart arse,' dismissively and the bus broke into snorts and laughter.
My nieces were giggling like crazy, and when the big bloke got off a few stops later, I said, 'That was funny, wasn't it?'
'Yes,' my oldest niece replied quite seriously, 'that doesn't happen on buses in Adelaide.'
IF YA CAN'T CATCH 'EM, SHOOT 'EM!
I have a mate who is a great yarn spinner and we were swapping stories of things we had witnessed on bus trips around Sydney when he came up with a beauty that topped mine.
According to my mate, he was on a bus travelling out to the western suburbs from Railway Square many years ago. Somewhere near Annandale, a rather large woman ran to catch the bus, struggling with shopping in those old-fashioned string bags women used before the advent of plastic shopping bags.
The bus driver kindly waited for her and she struggled onto the bus, all red-faced and panting heavily. She fumbled with her purse and paid her fare and attempted to move down the bus. The strain on her shopping bags as she juggled them with her purse, plus the movement as the bus pulled away from the bus stop, caused her to stumble. She grabbed a seat to steady herself but her string bag broke and several large oranges rolled along the aisle of the bus.
The poor woman bent forward and chased the oranges down the aisle but the effort of bending forward after the exertion of running for the bus, and all the stress she was under carrying her shopping, caused her to break wind violently as she chased the oranges.
'Most people on the bus were too polite to laugh out loud,' my mate said, 'but there was a lot of snickering and a general murmur of suppressed laughter at the poor woman's plight.'
Eventually one of the passengers — there's always one — probably a bloke who'd had a few beers after work, broke the whole bus up into gales of laughter when he said loudly, 'That's the way, love, if you can't catch 'em — shoot 'em!'
'IT'S NOT SYDNEY, YOU KNOW!'
There is a very mild kind of humour in this next story, more amusement than humour. Still, it's a very 'Aussie' story and Melinda and I have laughed about it for years. We use the phrase as a kind of catch cry when anything doesn't come up to expectations. I think it's the fact that we all know the situation and this type of character; we have all met her somewhere!
Touring shows into rural areas is always a good way to get some 'city versus the bush' yarns. City dwelling musicians and entertainers often have no idea about how things work in the bush and it used to be a great source of fun for those of us who have lived in the bush to watch the city slickers cope with things like no shops open after six o'clock and no room service in country motels. These days, things have changed. You can get a decent coffee in a country town and most towns of some size have the obligatory Maccas and Red Rooster and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets open until midnight.
I remember touring back in the 1980s and 1990s when you would shudder when one of the musicians ordered a coffee in an outback town. Back then most country towns had never seen a real coffee machine and it was wise to order a pot of tea and not risk whatever sad excuse for real coffee might arrive in the form of instant or, even worse, hours-old pot coffee.
'Stick to tea,' I'd often whisper to musicians or entertainers on their first rural tour, when a request for 'latte' or even 'cappuccino' met with a blank look. 'They know how to make tea!'
It is still great fun to find that there remains, even in recent years, a certain lack of sophistication in country cafés. It's amusing to be an observer when a city slicker meets a relatively unsophisticated bush attitude head on.
Touring with Melinda Schneider was always great fun. Melinda was a country music superstar in Australia before she branched out and became an all-round musical theatre and television performer and personality.
Although she has great empathy with country people, Melinda is very much a city girl and my funniest memory of my years touring as her opening act was an incident that occurred in Griffith. Now, Griffith is a town very well supplied with good cafés and it's certainly not a town where you would hesitate to order a coffee.
The normal routine when touring is to rise late the morning after a show, leave the motel, have breakfast somewhere in the town and then drive to the next town. Often it is hard to sleep late due to the 'trolley gestapo' wanting to clean rooms and get you out of their hair, and it's no good driving to the next town too early because the rooms at the 'moey' (motel) are never ready until afternoon and the sound check isn't until two or three o'clock.
Griffith has a number of very fine cafés with alfresco dining on the wide pavements of the main street and it was in one of these that the classic confrontation occurred — between the sophisticated city entertainer and the young, gum-chewing fifteen- year-old country waitress.
Various breakfasts were on the menu but Melinda couldn't find exactly the right one for her.
'Can I have this breakfast but without the bacon and with poached eggs?' she enquired politely.
This seemed to be a huge imposition on the young waitress. She sighed, took the menu, pocketed her pencil and rolled her eyes. 'I'll go and ask,' she said with the stoicism of one who had just been asked to undertake a polar expedition without a dog team.
After the appropriate interval, she returned, took out her pencil and order book and said, 'The cook says "yes", you can have that. Wattle ya have to drink?'
Oblivious to the great difficulty she had already caused to the entire establishment, Melinda asked innocently, 'Do you have Earl Grey tea?'
That was the final straw. The waitress's hands went onto her hips, her eyes rolled, her shoulders drooped and her whole body was involved in one enormous sigh of exasperation and disbelief as she informed Melinda of a fact she probably already knew.
'It's not Sydney, ya know!'
COLOGNE OR DUBBO
Another wonderful memory of touring with Melinda Schneider comes from the days when Adam Brand was the hottest thing in country music and he and Melinda and I were touring a show called Good Friends, which happened to be the name of Adam's latest hit song.
Part of the tour involved a concert at the Dubbo Show, where the audience sat in an uncovered wooden grandstand and we performed on that most hated by performers of all stages — the back of a truck, converted into a temporary stage. We were right next to the cattle stalls and it was drizzling rain. The organisers had kindly set up a small tent beside the stage, but it was not really weatherproof and the floor was muddy and getting muddier by the minute.
While Melinda and I were attempting to dress in our stage clothes without getting mud all over them, her mobile phone rang and it was soon obvious she was chatting to her famous mum, the great cabaret performer and yodeller, Mary Schneider.
After the usual 'mother — daughter' chat, Melinda said, 'Jim's here, Mum, I'll put him on to say hello, I'm changing.'
Backstage phone chat with Mary was not unusual. She and her daughter talk daily and Mary and I had recorded a song together years before and often had a catch-up phone chat.
'Hello, Mary,' I started out, 'are you on tour, too?'
'Yes, darling,' came the reply.
'Where are you?' I asked, innocently.
'I'm backstage at the Opera House in Cologne, Germany, darling. José Carreras is on and I'm on next. There's a hundred- piece orchestra and I'm all frocked up. Where are you and Melinda?'
'We're standing in mud and cowshit at the Dubbo Show.' I told her. 'It's raining and we're about to perform on the back of a truck.'
Ahhhhh — showbiz!
Dubbo is a beaut town really, one of the most progressive rural cities in Australia. Like Wagga Wagga, however, the name 'Dubbo' just sounds funny to many Australians and always seems to get a laugh when it's used in a yarn or joke.
This next piece is a send up of Marty Robbins' classic song 'El Paso'. I have been doing this onstage for years. The tune is obviously missing but you can sing along to yourself. Those of you who know the original words to 'El Paso' might find it vaguely amusing.
When you go west in the USA, there are mountains and lone riders on the horizon and girls dancing in cantinas. When you go west from Sydney — there's just Dubbo!
Out in the west New South Wales town of Dubbo,
I fell in love with a sheila called Maude.
Night time would find us all down at the pub, oh
We'd sit there all evening and get really bored.
One night just one other drinker came in,
He had a bad case of wi i i i ind.
Dashing and daring, with us he was sharing
The results of the baked beans he ate from a tin.
Just for a moment I stood there in silence,
Shocked by the foul, evil deed he had done.
No one was breathing, 'twas time we were leaving.
We had but once chance and that was to run.
Out through the back door of that place I ran.
I had to make it outsi i i i ide!
He dropped such a good one, I left while I could run,
But poor Maude fell over, and inhaled and died.
Lost my love to pollution, there was just one solution.
I wrote this sad song about it, of course.
Then I galloped and galloped, until I reached Tamworth
It took a long time — 'cos I don't have a horse!
LUNCH FOR DIPSO DAN
Here is a yarn I heard years ago and turned into a poem. It's one of the funniest stories I ever heard based on horses' names. The central idea of a drunk confusing a horse's name with the advertised lunchtime in a pub was how the joke worked when I heard it. I added a few twists and turns and it took me a while to think up the final tagline. Then I put the whole thing into rhyme so I could copyright it. You can't copyright a joke, but you can copyright a poem.
Dipso Dan is the town drunk in my 'perfect country town', Weelabarabak.
Dipso Dan is a man who can strike any time,
You rarely get any warning,
He's thrown out of the pub as the minister passes
Late one Saturday morning.
'G'day there, Reverend,' says Dipso Dan,
'Got any good tips today?'
'Well, Dan,' says His Reverence, 'Lunch might be
A good thing for you, I'd say.'
'Thanks for that, Reverend, good on ya,' says Dan,
'I never forget what I'm told.'
To himself, he mutters, 'Never heard of Lunch,
It must be a two year old.'
Back in the pub goes Dipso Dan,
The drinking day is still young.
And the first thing he sees is a sign that says,
'Lunch is 12 to 1'.
'Look at the odds!' says Dipso Dan,
'That's gotta be worth a chance!'
But a firm hand grips his collar
And another the seat of his pants.
He's back on the street, but now he's obsessed,
'That Lunch might be a goer.
I'll go down the Royal and back it,' says Dan,
'Before the odds get any lower.'
So Dan staggers off to the other pub,
At the other end of the shops.
Halfway down there's the Chinese restaurant —
That's exactly where Dan stops.
And he stares at the sign in the window.
It says, 'Lunch is 11 to 2'.
'They're backing the thing for a fortune,' says Dan,
'That minister musta knew!'
'Fancy missin' out on 12s,
That's just the thing to spoil
Me afternoon, I'll hurry up,
I'll back it at the Royal.'
Dan staggers on and he's almost there
When he stops with a strangled yell.
'Lunch 1 to 2', says the blackboard sign
At the door of the Royal Hotel.
'Bloody odds-on, I've missed it,' says Dan,
'Me chance of a fortune is wrecked!'
Then he slides down the wall of the Royal Hotel,
Booze and exercise take their effect.
He sleeps through the paddy-wagon ride
But he wakes when they lock the cell.
He hears them walking away with the keys
And he knows he'll have to yell.
'I wanna know about Lunch,' yells Dan,
'And I've got a terrible thirst.'
'Bad luck about lunch,' the sergeant yells back,
'Cos I'm telling ya, sober up first.'
'Sober Up first, eh,' says Dipso Dan,
'So much for the minister's hunch.'
He lies down on the bed, 'Sober Up first, eh,
Thank gawd I didn't back Lunch!'
Excerpted from The Best Australian Yarns ... and Other True Stories by Jim Haynes. Copyright © 2013 Jim Haynes. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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