( Photo via http://www.comedyfestival.com.au )
Who could say, with any degree of certainty, what the Ongals were? At first glance, they appeared to be clowns, with the tell-tale thick white face paint, heavy-handed blush, frizzy hair, and bright onesies. It was also easy to think of them as overly large babies, what with their lack of coherent language and their preoccupation with the toy box that set off their humorous hour-long experiment at the Famous Spiegeltent. All anyone knew was that they were Korean performers known for their “family-friendly”, “babbling,” and “physical comedy.”
I suggest that the Ongals are best thought of as a metaphor. As they cavorted onstage with nonsensical noises and animated gestures, taking the audience on an existential joyride of making sense of brightly-coloured, oddly-shaped objects they pulled out of a box labelled “Toys”, I realised that these guys were making impressions upon the audience that were similar to how Asian immigrants might present to homegrown Australians. Funkily dressed, and occasionally clumsy. Gawking at trams and koalas. Loudmouthed and non-English-speaking. With all the charm, innocence, and harmlessness of infants. With the clown’s likelihood to exist solely for the amusement of the adult gaze.
The Ongals turned this logic on itself. If they were babies, they were not “innocent”; they were just as energised by fart jokes, forward hip thrusts, and the prospect of stuffing long sausage-shaped objects into their mouths, as adults are. If they were clowns, they were the originators of laughter, looking and laughing not only at each other but at the audience in general, and some good-humoured individuals dragged onstage for impromptu participation.
The Ongals, those unclassifiable unclearly-gendered crossbreeds between Teletubbies, K-Pop stars, and French mimes, highlight the strangeness of the Asian insider-outsider in a materially multicultural, multi-religious, multi-gender but often discursively white-identified, Anglo-Christian, heteronormative Australian society. As Joel McHale’s character Jeff Winger in Dan Harmon’s “Community” tells Alison Brie’s Annie Edison, the age-inappropriate object of occasional sexual desire and eternal fondness, “The easy loophole through danger is to treat them like a child. It’s a crutch.” Australia needs Asian investments, Asian labour, and Asian-Australian workers’ taxes, to sustain the Australian way of life in a country that is so much luckier than even other first-world countries. Amidst rapidly changing global conditions, this sense of profound vulnerability generates — though is not solely responsible for — the impulse to belittle, and condescend to, those upon whom this self-identified white Anglo nation has always been dependent.
The Ongals show the audience through gags involving whips, balloons, knives, blindfolds, and tense audience involvement, that coexistence is possible without having to infantilise the immigrant other. The lack of a shared language is never an excuse for not enjoying equal involvement in business, friendship, active citizenship – and even comedy.