Tom Ballard is a busy man. He’s been talking to a lot of people, recording their conversations, appearing at the MidSumma Hypothetical, making radio documentaries, and writing not one but two brand new shows for the 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. It’s not surprising then, that Ballard is a recipient of this year’s Moosehead grant for one of these shows. It is surprising that he took a moment to chat to Popculture-y’s Til Knowles about it all.
The show, Boundless Plains to Share, is “kind of like a comedy lecture”, complete with slide show, according to Ballard. It addresses the history and hypocrisy of Australia’s immigration policies, particularly surrounding ‘boat people’, refugees and people seeking asylum. “It just seems like someone needs to sort this out, and I’m the man for the job,” Ballard laughs in a self-satirizing manner. It is obviously an issue close to the stand up’s heart. Ballard was in grade six in 2001, so events like 9/11 and the TAMPA fiasco hit him at a formative age. There was a cultural sense of “never quite understanding” what was going on, something Ballard wants to address.
The fear-mongering stories told about people seeking asylum are contradictory, “it’s like, ‘boat people are wealthy because they’re paying to skip the queue! What about people in refugee camps?’ And yet when they get here they’re a drain on the economy.” Boundless Plains to Share takes its title from the Australian National Anthem, and a key concern of Ballard’s is just how hollow those traditional Australian phrases sound when contrasted to the way we treat people. “It’s about people. There’s a moral case behind it. I think it gets to the heart of who we are.” Australia cannot hold onto the myth of being a welcoming culture if it doesn’t extend beyond our borders.
Ballard is also an ambassador for Welcome to Australia, who he found through Twitter. “They’re a practically minded and positive group. I want to talk about how awesome it can be too,” he says, referring to the frequent tragic headlines regarding the issues. Ballard is excited by the community based movements, the every day actions, people who offer their time, money, skills and even their homes. As research, he’s been interviewing people involved at every level of advocacy. Talking to the intellectual lawyer types was terrifying, he admits, but ultimately quite easy, as discussing these issues is what they do.
Visiting the detention centres, however, is a whole different endeavour. “I was hung over the first time I went,” he winces “but it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. You sit there and people are happy to talk to you and they offer you coffee and you think ‘this is nice.’ And then you feel bad for thinking that, because you get to leave after an hour.” Unfortunately, the Government is making such visits more and more difficult. The crackdown on information and access definitely plays into the idea that Border Force and other Government organisations dealing with immigration are “Orwellian and creepy”, as Ballard describes. “They’re the perfect comedic villains.” Ballard is engaging in politically active comedy, the kind that seeks to “speak truth to power” and provide social commentary.
Ballard has no desire to be a white saviour. He has a platform that he’s using to help people until they have platforms of their own. “It’s all about humanising people,” he says “demonstrating that these are people with diversity and agency and stories to tell.” Aamer Rahman, of Fear of a Brown Planet, once told Ballard that “white people listen to white people”. Ballard is operating for a position of privilege and is hyper aware of that. But the experiences of people seeking asylum are often so unfathomable to us that they’re unrelatable. Ballard is seeking to use that contrast, to create a thought experiment and try and get Australians to imagine just what it would be to flee your country.
A lot of it comes down to language. Rather than asylum seekers, the term is now people seeking asylum, a phrase which places the people first and their situation second, rather than having it define them. Appeals to nationalism turn people off, but using inclusive plurals works – perhaps because we can seek to disassociate with Australia but cannot help but be a part of the communal we. It’s an interesting contrast to the language and slogans of conservative anti-immigration rhetoric.
It’s a rhetoric Ballard has encountered a few times on his podcast Like I’m a Six Year Old, where he discusses what makes his guests passionate, topics including gender politics, racism, and religion. “It’s fun to put together!” he exclaims. Ballard enjoys podcasts but was hesitant to start one, given how many comedians also run podcasts. That’s when he hit upon the political angle and decided to privilege it over humour. “It’s a good excuse to talk to people I want to talk to!” Ballard says. “I enjoy sitting down with them and trying to get a grip on what they believe.” This goes for people he agrees with and those he doesn’t. It’s this intimacy of the medium that allows it, he thinks. “You can trick people into relaxing. You’re usually sitting on a couch, it’s informal. It’s not like television or radio”. Still, some of his guests have been particularly confronting. “Peter Reith has an inability to back down. Everything is partisan when you’ve spent that long in politics, living the day to day conflict.”
Ballard thinks Moosehead is “amazing,” and that it’s a wonderful way to support shows that are different. “It’s just the coolest thing!” He says enthusiastically “and it’s such a good tribute [to Brian McCarthy]”. As part of the grant, Ballard is being directed by Scott Edgar of Tripod, something he’s very pleased about. “Tosswinkle the Pirate is the reason I got interested in comedy”, Ballard admits. Edgar is passionate and a theatrical genius, in Ballard’s opinion. “He’s got a good eye and can tease out the details,” always knowing what should go where and how Ballard should move around the stage. It’s only the second time Ballard has worked with a director, the other being his first comedy show, which Celia Pacquola helped with. Working with a director is helpful, Ballard says, because it adds extra depth. “You start thinking of it like mini theatre,” he explains.
Boundless Plains to Share is on at the Melbourne Town Hall at 8:15pm on Mondays, and Trades Hall at 5:15pm Saturdays, 4:15pm Sundays from March 26 until April 17 as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.