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First Nations Funnies: Moving Beyond Tokenism

Comedian Steph Tisdell brings a collection of the best First Nations comedians from around the country to the Sydney Opera House stage.


Steph Tisdell is no stranger to the stage. Ever since she won the 2014 Deadly Funny National Grand Final, her award-winning shows always sell out and she’s a regular on mainstream television shows such as Hughesy We Have A Problem and The Project. After many years of successful shows, she’s now turned her attention to a new project — running a talent agency dedicated to First Nations talent. “I know blackfellas out there that are really talented and haven't had the opportunities, because they've not been seen by the right person,” says Tisdell over the phone. “I thought, let me, as somebody in this space, show you how good we are. Let's add that prestige. Let's get that excitement happening, because it needs to happen!”


Tisdell explains that the idea for First Nations Talent Agency came about during COVID-19. “Everything stopped for me for a little while. I had time to really reflect on what it is that I was trying to do with comedy, who I wanted to reach out to, and who I saw my audience as. I recognised that people were desperate to have diversity on their lineups, but without really caring what that meant,” she reflects. She thought about what kind of stages she would like to see First Nations artists perform on, and landed on Just For Laughs. “I thought I’d really love it if we had one of the international festivals that come into the country really shine a light on First Nations peoples because I feel like that's a beautiful gesture,” she says. Just For Laughs “totally understood”, and thus First Nations Funnies was born. The event will also double as the launch of First Nations Talent Agency. “I'm pretty nervous, I'll be honest,” laughs Tisdell. “But I'm really, really, really excited.”


Key to First Nations Funnies is the inclusion of a diversity of Indigenous perspectives, something Tisdell is a big advocate for. “On our lineup, we have Kevin Kropinyeri, who is this really staunch, cultural man who grew up speaking his language fluently, and grew up on a mission. Then you’ve got me and my experience, which is very different, where my mum and her mum wanted to make sure we had all the right opportunities, and we almost had to give up elements of culture in that pursuit,” she explains. Janty Blair, last year’s winner of Deadly Funny, was a midwife for 30 years and began studying drama in her 50s. Jay Wymarra is a proud, queer Torres Strait Islander that Tisdell describes as an “amazing conundrum of a person because he represents this intersection of queer, black living in a white world”. While the lineup may all be First Nations comedians, their differences are just as important as their similarities. “We're so committed to having these diverse voices,” says Tisdell. “Everything always comes down to lived experience at the end of the day. There is no one perspective in any space. And the more that we accept that, from all of the minority communities in Australia, the more that we understand we're all exactly the same. We're also beautifully different.”


Tisdell has big plans for First Nations Funnies and beyond: “I want to take over the world!” She sees Just For Laughs Sydney as the launchpad for a bigger movement. “I was having a conversation with Jodie Choolburra, and I said to her, ‘I hate being tokenised’. And she said, ‘Well, what you need to remember is that tokenism is only tokenism until it isn't anymore’. That's what we’re trying to do. Celebrate these comedians in this space, and have people recognise that it's funny enough for it not to have to be ‘Indigenous humour’. It’ll just exist as ‘humour’.”


First Nations Funnies will take place at Sydney Opera House on Wednesday 30th November as part of Just For Laughs Sydney. More details and tickets can be found at https://justforlaughs.sydney/portfolio-item/first-nations-funnies/.


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