Monday, June 09, 2008

The Lucy Family Alphabet, by Judith Lucy

Some are born comedians, some achieve comedy, and some have comedy thrust upon them. Having read Judith Lucy’s first book, The Lucy Family Alphabet, I’d have to surmise that for this local funny lady the latter is the case.

Being raised by two out-of-the-box parents like Ann and Tony Lucy, it seems their daughter had either one of two choices: turn into a furious madwoman, or laugh herself out of the whole sorry mess.

Judith Lucy took her anger and spun it into side-splitting laughter. Beneath the gags and chuckles though there bubbles deeply complex emotional and psychological undercurrents.

In a recent interview with Richard Fidler, the broadcaster noted to Lucy that she was the type of comedian who had to be making a joke every ten seconds, otherwise they'd be reduced to panic. It seems that even a brief cessation in making light of things for Lucy would allow the whole world to come crushing down. Comedy for this performer is a survival tool. At school, Lucy stopped people thinking she was a fringe dwelling freak by making them laugh.

Using her family for material is not something new for Judith Lucy. Horrid family Christmases, bizarre grooming regimes, a mother with a natural flair for lying, all have been exploited for fun and profit.

The seminal family tale of course is the Christmas that Lucy, at the age of 25, discovered she’d been adopted. After a day of hard drinking and inter-family brawling, Judith quipped to her sister-in-law what a fun family she'd married into. ‘There’s something else you don’t know,’ her sister-in-law said ominously. ‘It’s not some weird sex thing is it?’ Judith quipped. ‘No, it’s to do with you.’ Lucy describes a penny dropping moment. ‘Oh my God, I’m adopted.’

Lucy was shocked into writing The Lucy Family Alphabet when she discovered that a birth relative assumed that she hated her parents after hearing one of her more acerbic jokes. It had never entered the comedian’s mind that some in the public might have misconstrued her humour as an all out attack on her parents.

This revelation knocked her for six. ‘No, I really loved them,’ she informed the relative. ‘Who doesn’t love their parents?’

Reading The Lucy Family Alphabet though, you get the sense that Lucy has been subconsciously writing this book for years. The bad case of joke indigestion experienced by a relative was just a good excuse to start writing a detailed a-z of her parents’ nuttiness.

Lucy’s Family Alphabet, as the title suggests, is a lucky dip into the obsessions, oddities, pathologies, and eccentricities of Ann and Tony Lucy. The Lucy family portrait is not painted with big-picture strokes, but it rather built up by show casing an array of strange family curios and relics.

There are passages on bad taste, hypochondria, Neil Diamond and Val Doonican (of the latter, Lucy notes ‘If I were Irish I’d be pretty quick to handball this cardigan-wearing no talent to Wales or maybe Indonesia’), bizarre diets, lousy holidays, psychologically disturbed pets, embarrassing fashion ensembles, useless cars, inadequate sex education, the obsessive use of gladwrap, and of course, the tales of drinking until you pass out.

Many readers will recognise in these pages a familiar suburban Australia. That is one of the book’s great strengths, and makes it, in its funny way, a book about Australian culture and social mores. The people and behaviour, the bad Christmases, boring holidays and excesses of alcohol. You either knew people like this, had them as neighbours, or worse, suffered them in your own family. It's ironic that so many of those ‘normal’ suburban houses we grew up in were really hotbeds of eccentricity.

It’s common to talk these days of ‘Australian values’, but you have to wonder what the Lucy household would have made of such an idea.

Despite this family alphabet being ostensibly a gag a page funny book, there are some very poignant moments. In one section Lucy describes as an adolescent bursting into tears while out shopping with her mother.

‘It was hard to miss how unhappy she was,' Lucy writes of her mother. 'I remember one occasion, shortly before adolescence hit, when my mother and I went shopping and in the middle of trying on some burnt orange corduroy culottes (probably), I burst into tears. Not, as you might expect, from trying on such an attractive article of clothing (hopefully I’d teamed it with a poncho), but from a feeling I didn’t fully understand at the time. When Mum asked me what was wrong there was nothing I could say, because the answer was her. Everything about her life made me sad, but I didn’t know how to help. We had no connection whatsoever.’

For those who grew up in a complex battle with their parents, for whom life in suburbia was full of loneliness, frustration and alienation, in short, for many who grew up in suburban Australia, you will consume each page of this book for the truth that it speaks so plainly.

Judith Lucy’s Family Alphabet comes close to poetry in describing the suburban condition. I laughed a lot, recognised people I’d grown up with and known, and appreciated her wanting to tell the story of her parents.

No comments: