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Meet the Future of Australian Comedy Television

Humyara Mahbub and Naomi Higgins are the women behind the local series on everyone’s lips: ‘Why Are You Like This’
Naomi Higgins and Humyara Mahbub

There’s a lot to be said for how online we are. And perhaps even more to be said about the smooth brain state most of us enjoy as a result.

Do you understand that sentence? If not, I have good news for you: you’re probably well-adjusted. If you do, then the ABC series Why Are You Like This was made for you.

Set in Melbourne, the show follows three best friends – Penny, Mia and Austin – failing to figure things out as very, very online millennials. Penny is a straight white woman who tries to be the Ultimate Ally but usually just ends up taking up an unnecessarily large amount of space, Mia is a South Asian bisexual woman who’s a bit – okay, no, quite a bit – cruel but gives few shits about it and Austin is a baby drag queen who treats his depressive episodes with tiktok dance videos and memes. They kinda suck, but that’s kinda the point. As co-creator and writer Naomi Higgins (who also stars as Penny) tells marie claire: “The whole point of the show is to just be like: ‘hey, look, this is fucked’”.

The series satirises the “hellscape that is 2021” with nothing off limits; from cancel culture to identity politics they mine that hell thoroughly and to very entertaining ends.

The brainchild of Higgins along with lawyer and illustrator Humyara Muhbub, and comedian Mark Bonanno (Aunty Donna), the series was developed through Fresh Blood – the joint initiative between ABC and Screen Australia to foster new talent. The team received a grant in 2018 to produce a four-part web series and subsequently got the order for a six episode first season. It’s already been picked up by Netflix and will stream internationally later this year.

Here, marie claire has a fairly chaotic chat with Mahbub and Higgins about their friendship inspiring the show, cultural criticism that makes them feel suicidal and the dire need for arts funding in Australia: “give us money!” (You should do what they say.)  

Austin (Wil King), Penny (Naomi Higgins) and Mia (Olivia Junkeer) (Credit: Image: Supplied)

mc: Where did you start with Why Are You Like This?

Naomi: It was when Fresh Blood came about. I’ve always wanted to make a sitcom, they’re my favourite, and when I was thinking about who I could write it with, I thought of Hum. I talked about it with Mark  (the other co-creator and writer) and we decided to try get Hum on board to write about mine and Hum’s friendship. And Hum had never really written any comedy before but–

Hum: I was actually illiterate; illiterate and blissful.

Naomi: Absolutely. And I said, ‘Do you want to write about a terrible friendship? Because it might make good TV’. And she said, ‘yeah, I’m not doing anything else.’

mc: Hum, when I first met you, I thought you were a TV writer. Because you’re so funny.

Hum: Someone else said to me recently that I would make a great celebrity, like I was meant for it. And I was like, you know what? I am meant for this.

mc: Tell me about how you both met.

Hum: We met at Splendour one year because Naomi’s boyfriend was performing and my boyfriend was also performing, so unfortunately we were brought together by men.

Naomi: We were brought together as chuckle fuckers.

Hum: Anyway, so we spent all three days hanging out, walking around in the dirt. Naomi saw me yell at multiple men and I think she liked that. There was a guy who tried to sell me coconut water and I said, ‘No.’

Naomi: Literally; a white man with dreadlocks came up to us and said, ‘would you like some– ’ Hum was halfway through a sentence and she went, ‘literally never!’ Then just kept talking. And I was like, ‘this is my kind of woman’.

mc: So the show started with your friendship, was there anything about your friendship that you particularly wanted to tease out or explore?

Naomi: The first conversation that Hum and I had was in a group setting at about Taylor Swift and Kanye West. We started basically emphatically screaming and agreeing with each other about the gendered and racial aspects of that feud, and no one else cared. I thought: ‘finally! Someone who cares about the intersection of very important issues and things that don’t matter at all!’ And I would say that’s what the show does.

Hum: The yelling and agreeing is really important. It’s like we’re agreeing, but we’re still mad about it. It’s something I really value about our relationship.

Naomi: We’re always mad, but usually in agreement…usually. If we’re talking about Matt Damon, then we’re screaming in disagreement and it gets really heated.

mc: Who is pro and who’s anti Matt Damon?

Naomi: I’m anti, Hum’s pro.

Hum: Naomi’s only anti Matt Damon because she’s white and she feels she has to hold her kinsmen to account or something.

mc: Matt Damon’s fine. He’s kind of random, I mean, he’s one of those white men who’s always just…there.

Naomi: Well, this is the thing. Hum’s greatest flaw is that her favourite movie is Ocean’s Eleven. So that probably has something to do with it. Print that. Print that!

Hum: I love Ocean’s Eleven, it’s a perfect movie. I love an ensemble cast.

mc: I agree. I don’t know if it’s problematic, but I do love Brad Pitt.

Naomi: So you are cancelled, unfortunately, Courtney.

mc: I mean, I was cancelled long ago, so that’s all good. The show feels quite specific in both characterisation and references. When you were developing it, was that ever a concern? Or did you go into it like: we know who this is for and who this serves?

Hum: We did. We built the show out of very specific incidents that have really happened to us. So a lot of the stuff in the pilot, for example, really happened to Nom. We were pretty adamant about a lot of it just being for the people it’s for. There’s no reason for it to be for everyone. It’s tiny. We maybe don’t want too much money and it’s about us and what we think is funny. But also, we did try exploring concepts that would be alien to people who aren’t permanently online. We wanted to explain them in a way that won’t be annoying to the people who already know what it is, but will provide enough context clues for the people who don’t understand it. For example, Episode Five is set during Ramadan. So we did do a bit of work to make it understandable for people who don’t know what Ramadan is. However, it shouldn’t be like: “And this is what Ramadan is! And at night time we do this. Anyway, here’s another religion!”

mc: You mentioned at the start that your favourite genre is sitcom. Did you have any shows or comedians in mind that you drew from for inspiration?  

Naomi: Yeah, one of my favourite shows is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I’ve always been more drawn to shows where the characters aren’t good people, which is very true for our show as well. It’s different to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, because that’s about a group of mostly white men just sort of fucking around. We wanted to expand on that, make these people minorities, like a bisexual, Muslim woman and be like, oh yeah, she’s also a huge piece of shit. That’s just funny. To me, that’s funny.

mc: It is funny when people are bad. Can you elaborate on that? Why it was important for your characters to be bad people?

Hum: Yeah, I’m actually gonna go full red pill in this interview. I feel like a lot of cultural criticism now is just, I don’t know, people who got half a degree  in literature or something and now are like, ‘this show has a person who did a bad thing and therefore, this show is condoning said bad thing’. Which is so lame, every time I see it, it makes me wanna shoot myself. First of all, it’s funnier [to have bad people]. But also, if we’re talking about making serious art, it’d made for better serious art, too, because we can actually explore what really happens in the world, and how people are mostly, I don’t know, capricious, and venal and terrible and disgusting. That’s people!

Naomi: When you have a really simplistic view, like when Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri came out, and they’re like, ‘wait, this character’s racist!’ And that was the entire criticism. It’s like, you’re trying to see the world in black and white and, yeah, that guy is racist and he said one funny comment once, that doesn’t mean the movie is saying he’s a good person worthy of redemption. So, we really like exploring those grey areas and those grey areas are really easy to explore when everyone’s doing something wrong. Having bad characters means you don’t have to present certain characters, like the protagonist, as the moral centre of the show. Because what we don’t wanna do with the show is preach or teach any lessons about how to be a better person in the world. The whole point of the show is to just be like: ‘hey, look, this is fucked’.

mc: Because it is.

Naomi: Yeah, everything’s fucked. Stop trying to pretend things aren’t fucked. Everything is fucked!

mc: I mean, Sam Rockwell seems to play a racist piece of shit in almost every film he appears in.

Hum: He’s got a racist face

(Credit: Image: Supplied)

mc: I think so. I want to expand on that point about cultural criticism. When it comes to representations of women or minorities, there can be an instinct to gloss over how much they suck and instinctively justify their shittiness by making it empowering or something. It’s often like: ‘how are they empowering? How are they powerful?’ And sometimes, it’s like, well… they’re neither. They just are. Or, they’re just a bit shit!

Hum: Bitches need representation!  

mc: At the same time, it’s not always that deep. You can just have a really funny show with the people who are super entertaining.

Naomi: I mean, exactly. There are so many shows where they’re like ‘how can you paint this minority in a bad light?’ And it’s like they’re just a person, you’re still the one putting them in a box. Just chill, bro.

Hum: We got to have a lot of fun with the Ramadan episode because we got to deal with a lot of different kinds of women and Muslims and girls being brown and/or not brown – Naomi’s white, I don’t know if you know that – So we got to have a fun breaking people out of those boxes. That was something I enjoyed doing.

Naomi: Yeah, which is very easy for Hum to do as someone who has grown up Muslim and for me and Mark to just sit there and be like, I guess we’re saying it. Okay!

Hum: They made me cut out a “Muslims are terrorists” joke. And that was a real infringement on my artistic freedom.

Naomi: Hey, that wasn’t me. 

mc: You were saying that a lot of stuff in the show is drawn from real life; have you ever had a gay male friend fish a moon cup out of your vagina?

Hum: Well, the moon cup thing happened to me. Unfortunately, I did not have a gay friend around and for that; I blame the entire LGBTQI community. So I had to go to the doctor like an idiot. It was… it was fine. We got it out. But after, I was like, that would have been a lot better if I didn’t have to go to a doctor for that. But then I started the pill and now I just don’t have my period anymore.

Naomi: Print that!

(Credit: Image: Supplied)

mc: How do you see this show fitting into the Australian TV landscape? I read somewhere that you said you wanted to make the filthiest show possible.

Naomi: I don’t know, I guess people have compared it to Please Like Me, but I think the only thing that it really has in common with that is that it has queer characters, and that it’s sort of young and Australian? I wouldn’t say in any other way that it’s really similar at all. That and the names of the shows are sentences.

Hum: So it’s basically the same obviously.

Naomi: Yeah, exactly the same. And it’s like Broad City because it has two girls in it.  It’s quite different to other stuff that’s on TV. And I wish I wasn’t saying that. There are so many talented comedians and writers in Australia that are so funny. And there should be so many more shows. Not like ours, but alongside ours that are different. Because it’s a shame there aren’t more.

Hum: Yeah, I would say that we’re different from other stuff on Australian TV, not because Australian TV is all the same. But nobody’s giving people money to make really cool shit.

Naomi: Give us the money!

mc: What do you what do you want people to take away from the show? If anything.

Hum: I want people to be worse after watching our show. Believe in your worst self.

mc: Do you think people are better by being their worst selves? Do you think we try too hard to be our best selves?

Hum: I just think it’s funny to be a bitch. It’s great.

Naomi: Yeah, I would say you’d save you save a lot of time. Since knowing Hum – I was already a bitch, to be fair – I’ve become a lot more of a bitch and I have so much extra time on my hands from being a bitch.

(Credit: Image: Supplied)

mc: This has gone really well. I hope you’ve enjoyed this very serious investigative interview into your show. My final question: If there would be a legacy for the show, what would you want it to be?

Naomi: A legacy for the show? Hum?

Hum: Oh, a legacy? I mean, ideally, I’d want us to be cancelled.

mc: Really? Should I print that?

Naomi: And write “Naomi disagrees”; “Naomi, as a white ally, respectfully disagrees”.

mc: Hum, you’re not on Twitter, so you can’t technically be cancelled.

Naomi: Yeah, that’s the thing; I’ve got a fucking target on my back!

Hum: You are the ally, you must throw down!

Naomi: If that happens I will go down with this ship.

mc: Awesome, well, I was going to go with the headline: ‘These Women Are the Future of Australian TV’ But maybe it’ll just be: ‘Hum & Naomi Dare You: Cancel Us!’

Naomi: Hum and NOT Naomi! I much prefer the first title, thank you very much.

mc: Is there anything we haven’t covered?

Hum: I did want to work in the fact that I’ve got the wettest pussy out of the co-creators.

mc: An important caveat. I’ll print that. Naomi, do you have any…

Naomi: No, yeah, she’s right. It’s fine. I know who I am.

‘Why Are You Like This’ is streaming now on ABC iView. 

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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