8MMM Aboriginal Radio is a situation comedy in which an Indigenous woman always has the last laugh. That makes it a rarity on Australian television. What’s more, it’s funny, which too few sitcoms, local or otherwise, ever are. For both these feats we can thank Trisha Morton-Thomas, who created the show, writes the scripts, and plays the redoubtable Lola, a fixture at 8MMM, a community radio station in Alice Springs where nothing ever runs according to plan. No mishap escapes Lola’s watchful eye – not that she’s in the habit of intervening to clear things up. She simply shakes her head and clutches the office biscuit jar more firmly to her, convinced, as ever, that the world is ridiculous.
Like most sitcoms, 8MMM is a family affair, even if the motley crew at the radio station aren’t, strictly speaking, related to each other. Lola is like the live-in grandmother who’s seen too much and lived too long to suffer any fools, blackfella or whitefella. The well-meaning but nebbish dad is whitefella Jake (Ian Meadows), the general manager who is forever bowing to cultural protocol but never succeeds in raising any of the money that might make a material difference to the station’s running. The mum is Jessie (Shari Sebbens), a trainee station manager, who veers between infinite patience and outbursts of frustration. Sebbens is such a personable performer that it can be difficult to believe she’s angry at anything, but her plight is nevertheless a real one: she’s a black woman continually passed over for promotion in favour of white men who are deemed to be more competent than her. Jessie’s nemesis is Dave (Geoff Morrell), a city fly-in on a six-month contract. Dave’s bigotry is such that he offends anyone within earshot whenever he opens his mouth, and Morrell plays the mad uncle character with obvious relish.
Completing the circus are the bickering kids: receptionist Milly (Elaine Crombie), who does nothing but buff her nails and stare in disdain at the goings-on around her; white hippie volunteer Koala (Laura Hughes), and young station host Jampajinpa (Zac James), who was brought up white and has recently discovered his Indigenous heritage, which makes him ever-eager to stake his claim as a blackfella. In one episode, he pleads to be left in the back of a police paddy wagon with a group of other Aboriginal men, who look upon his posturing with total bewilderment.
Nothing is sacred to the show’s script, not even sacred lore. Jampajinpa sets the office on fire with an ill-conceived smoking ceremony. (‘Since when do us desert blackfellas smoke out a dead person’s office?’ inquires Milly, raising her immaculately groomed eyebrows. ‘We sweep our spirits away.’) Jake heads out bush to record a hunting ritual, and asks what body decorations two elders are using in place of traditional desert flowers. ‘Cotton wool,’ comes the reply. ‘You know, woolly one.’ White piety is one of 8MMM’s main targets: Jake and Koala (who boasts that she has been given seven skin names) are even more laughable that the openly racist Dave. ‘I wouldn’t want to be a blackfella in this country,’ Dave declares, and his contempt at least has a certain candour, which is more than can be said for Koala, who is constantly on the look out for an Aboriginal boyfriend to complete her picture of ‘the black experience’. In a recent interview with Margaret Pomeranz on Foxtel Arts, Trisha Morton-Thomas observed that whitefellas are allowed to make idiots of themselves, but blackfellas must constantly be on their best behaviour. The show generates many of its laughs from the constant misunderstandings between black and white culture, but 8MMM also allows its Indigenous characters to be funny on their own terms, without making them stand-ins for some kind of moral lesson.
In the show’s fourth episode, Lola is trying to raise money to buy a new water tank and pump for her remote outstation. She heads, with Jake in tow, to one government department, where she is informed that there is no funding available to purchase fixed assets, though she can apply to buy all the bottled water she likes. Such are the absurdities of white bureaucracy on black land. Jake gets suitably righteous, which wears on Lola’s limited patience. ‘Like I needed flash whitefella getting me kick out!’ she yells at him. ‘I can do that myself!’ The plot line was like a small, unexpected echo of Mad Max: Fury Road, the Australian production that’s been on everyone’s lips for the past few weeks. However, where Fury Road is spectacular but bombastic, 8MMM is modest but sure. The Central Desert politics of 8MMM are here and now; you don’t need an apocalypse for water rights to be a problem. The farcical elements of 8MMM’s storylines are no stranger than the reality of contemporary Australian Indigenous life. As Lola describes it, ‘Blackfella learning that one way. Then that other way: whitefella schooling. They’re really different way, them two.’
8MMM Aboriginal Radio screens on ABC on Wednesday nights at 9.30pm.