“Controversial is kind of a meaningless word.” Corey White on ethical questions in comedy

6 years ago
Til Knowles

Corey White is debuting his solo show, The Cane Toad Effect, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year. You can expect stand-up covering foster homes, mental illness and of course, love. Matilda talked to Corey about ethical questions, art and of course, comedy.


You’re pretty forthright when it comes to the more controversial topics, and you ‘call out’ all kinds of behaviour. Why do you do this? Is it a moral point?

The thought experiment I employ when I write a show is: what do I have to say that I would want to say if I had a terminal illness? What do I really, truly feel must be said? How do I think we can we better as people, as a species? The extent to what I’m saying is controversial is the extent I disagree with how the world is and my stand-up attacking the status quo.

But ‘controversial’ is kind of a meaningless word that has a bunch of negative connotations which aren’t particularly useful other than to implant resistance or dumb eagerness. I feel maybe we ought to drop the word ‘controversial’ and let people make their own judgment about the merits of an idea or point without being essentially told: “this is naughty so you better get your Tumblrs ready.”

All of my stand-up has a moral point. Ethical question are the only things I’m truly passionate talking about in stand-up. I’m not Seinfeld, I don’t care about socks going missing, I care about suffering and pain and our obligations to one another as human beings. I’m interested in injustice, my hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of broader society, the gap between lovely words and the horrible world. I’ve always liked that old saying, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That’s always resonated with my anal chakra.

Do you think it’s integral to the role of a comedian, or just your type of comedy?

I don’t think it’s integral to the role of a comedian. At bottom, the definition of a comedian is simply someone trying to be funny. Everything else is construction.

Corey White Comedy Festival 1

What, in your opinion, is the role of comedy?

I’m uncomfortable assigning an Absolute Role of Comedy. To repurpose an old cliche: the role of comedy is in the eye of the beholder. A personal belief regarding the role of comedy is just that – a confession of individual taste.

The most cursory knowledge of history will tell you that comedy has had different roles at different times. To Native Americans before European genocide, comedy’s role was performed to remind people they weren’t better than others, whereas today Jimmy Carr titillates the middle-class with boring ironic horribleness for fat stacks. Personally, the role of comedy, for me, is to try to make the world a better place (I know how terribly naive that sounds).

More generally, though, I think modern comedy has been well and truly incorporated into the machinery of capitalism, reduced to yet another ultimately temporary product of what Theodor Adorno calls the “culture industry.” It’s become a part of the bread-and-circuses of late capitalism. I’m talking in broad generalities here and there is of course exceptions but I think that’s the trend.

In a society ruled by the dollar, whose engine is profit, there’s not a lot of money to be made from the kind of comedy that repudiates the system that enables it. What passes for political comedy is mostly concerned with preaching-to-the-converted (generally left-wing) “here’s your beliefs barked back at you and spliced with dick jokes and oh aren’t we such good people.” So what you end up getting is comedy that makes superficial criticisms of surface-level issues without really offering anything too challenging. And I can feel myself being absorbed by this system and it worries me. But in the meantime please buy tickets to my Melbourne Comedy Festival show.

What’s the best way to tell a joke that centres on a ‘delicate’ or ‘touchy’ topic? Does this change depending on the audience?

I suspect there’s no algorithm for it i.e. each ‘delicate’ or ‘touchy’ topic necessitates its own unique form and beat. I used to try to write stuff about ‘delicate’ or ‘touchy’ topics that could appeal to everyone, obsessed as I was by the idea of some bit from the Platonic Realm of Forms that would be truly universal. As I’ve gone on, I’ve started to think that sometimes audiences aren’t going to want to even hear you bring up certain topics. I don’t know, I could be completely wrong. I am a dum-dum.

What’s the one thing you wouldn’t talk about onstage?

Farts, I legitimately think it’s really hard to say anything new about farts. It seems as if all the angles have been done. I mean the whole of humanity has been doing fart jokes since time immemorial. What can I bring to the table? Nothing. It’s the most crowd-sourced comedy topic ever. One day I will retire to a log cabin in the Blue Mountains and try to come up with the perfect fart bit. Of course, that’s only if greater-than-human Artificial Intelligence hasn’t already come along and solved fart jokes like computers have solved checkers.

Corey White Comedy Festival

A lot of your material involves your experiences, and you’re pretty open about your own history as a foster child, amongst other things. How do you go about crafting your onstage persona?

I loathe the idea of an ‘onstage persona’ – it’s completely inimical to the sort of comedian I want to be. Who I am on stage is not a result of volition. I try to be as honest and truthful as possible. The one concession I’ve made was to find a balance between saying what I want and being likeable. 80% of comedy is having the audience want to hear what’s coming out of your trap and sometimes that involves altering the superficial way or structure of what you say while (hopefully) preserving the kernel of ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’ in the bit, what you really want to say.

Sometimes it means lowering yourself before taking morally righteous positions. But that’s tactical, group psychology shit and not what I’d call a ‘persona’. Maybe I’m deceiving myself there though. Like the rest of our species, I’m the master of self-deceit. The other day I walked to the shops to get a pork roll and when I got there I rewarded myself for the exercise by buying a second pork roll.

You’ve said previously that the title of your show, The Cane Toad Effect, comes from Plato’s idea that no man does what they believe to be evil, not dissimilar to the idea of the banality of evil. What’s the most accidentally hurtful thing you’ve ever done?

I slept with a woman and I thought it was a casual thing when in fact she wanted more. It upset her and I regret it.

I should be quick to reassure people – you’re not bleak or downtrodden. What’s the most intentionally beautiful thing you’ve ever done?

I double-shelved good ecstasy (2007 was a great year for ecstasy, now bikies are just going through the motions) then I climbed trees in New Farm Park in Brisbane with two of my friends who were madly in love (also on ecstasy via butt). For 3 hours I wrote poetry about them and read it to them as the sunlight shot down through the trees as if it were bullets from a benevolent machine gun in the hands of God. It seemed beautiful at the time. In reality we were 3 twenty-something drug pigs taking up tree space children wanted.

How would you describe your stand up in two sentences?

For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.

If you were making another kind of art/entertainment, what would it be?

I’d direct non-nude pornography.

Who is the least controversial act (that you’d go and see) at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival?

James Masters. He wears a dumb trucker hat and tells clever jokes. Good, pure, funny jokes. There’s none of this politico-existential bullshit.


Corey White’s The Cane Toad Effect previews from the 26th to the 29th March, and shows from the 31st March to the 19th April at the Portland Hotel. Tickets start from $15 and you can get them at the MICF website, Ticketmaster at 1300 660 013, or at the door.

Leave a Reply


%d bloggers like this: