Australian Tumbleweeds

Australia's most opinionated blog about comedy.

Fresh Blood: The Angus Project

The Angus Project was another of last year’s Fresh Blood pilots that we thought would work as a full-length sitcom. Well, we said “It could work”, which is about as good as you’re likely to get from us. But, like Koala Man, another Fresh Blood show we thought was promising but didn’t work, The Angus Project doesn’t quite work either. What’s going on, here?

The Angus Project

The premise of The Angus Project is decent: Angus (Angus Thompson), a student with Downs Syndrome cerebral palsy, lives in a house in Bathurst with live-in carer Nina (Nina Oyama of Tonightly), and together they have crazy, often drink or drug-fuelled, adventures. There have been sitcoms built on less, although they’ve usually had decent plots, which sadly this doesn’t…

In this pilot episode (available on iView and YouTube), the pair visit local newspaper editor Ron (Rob Sitch) to see if there’s any writing work going, and amazingly there is: Angus can cover a motivational talk given by wheelchair sports hero Wizza (Adam Bowes). But things don’t quite go to plan with Wizza, in fact, he turns out to be a massive dickhead, and they end up having to score him some horse adrenaline to make amends. Cue a visit to dodgy local drug dealer Kane (Sammy J), who proposes they visit a horse stud to get the adrenaline they need without paying for it.

Actually, in other hands, that could be a decent plot, particularly with an array of experienced comic actors in the show. Problem is, the show frequently goes off on surreal flights of fancy that don’t quite work. Or indulges in silly gags that hold things up. Put it this way, it’s not exactly coherent.

We enjoyed Veronica Milsom as Kath, who does a memorable turn as a bitchy local disability worker, and Sammy J as “high on his own supply” drug dealer Kane, but the rest of the characters, including the leads, don’t quite work. Someone obviously told Thompson and Oyama (who also wrote the show) to dial up the crazy. Or to dial down the crazy. Or something that makes this show feel slightly different in each scene. Whatever happened, this is a bit of a mess, and we can’t see it going further in its present form.

Marriage is a Struggle

They bumped up last week’s episode of How to Stay Married to an earlier timeslot without telling us so we had to wait until yesterday’s repeat to get caught up because TV is free but bandwidth costs and Peter Helliar’s latest effort isn’t really something we want to think about spending money on. Was it worth the wait?

To be fair, it has been improving (a little) since the disastrous first episode. Don’t get too excited: we’re still firmly in “damming with faint praise” territory here. Last night’s episode split things in two, as over-excited basketball coach Greg (Helliar) tried to push his clearly un-interested daughter into sports while wife Em (Lisa McCune) had to deal with a children’s author turned elderly sleaze at her publishing job. Oh, and their youngest daughter got so much change out of a vending machine she became a playground queen paying people in gold coins to do her bidding.

Now that this has settled down a bit it’s a little easier to see what it’s going for, which at least makes it easier to figure out why it’s not as funny as it should be. On the plus side, the characters now play to the actors’ strengths, with Helliar actually engaged in his role as a sports-mad dickhead (*cough typcasting cough*) and Em’s workplace dramas playing to McCune’s comedy strengths, which mostly seem to involve giving off a vague sense of befuddlement.

But while How to Stay Married now “works” as far as the character dynamics are concerned – Greg is excited about being a stay-at-home parent but doesn’t know what he’s doing, Em is glad to be back at work but is discovering she has to actually do work – that doesn’t make those dynamics funny or entertaining.

Greg’s story hinges on him not spotting a fairly basic fact about his going-through-puberty daughter, which “works” as a character moment but isn’t particularly funny or insightful unless it’s 1983 at your house, while Em’s story is just “he wrote kids books but now he’s all about teh sex” which again isn’t exactly gut-busting comedy material as presented here.

If this was Outnumbered then perhaps having the littlest kid’s subplot as the comedy highpoint would be a good thing, but here it feels more like the result of everything else failing to work than something resulting from solid comedy planning. And if the idea is to push the more out-there flights of fancy onto the kids’ subplots (plus Darren Gilshenan, who barely registers as Helliar’s wacky coaching sidekick) then perhaps Helliar needs to sit down and think about what his actual strengths are as a writer.

This is a sitcom where the situation works because it’s about as generic a situation as you can get, and everything after that struggles. Helliar as a bungling but enthusiastic dad is a minor supporting character at best and in any other show he’d have been sidelined by now, while McCune is the kind of bland leading lady who needs at least one and preferably three wackier friends to do the actually funny stuff while she occasionally says something like “what is the deal with airline food?”

How to Stay Married seems like the kind of show that would appeal to actual struggling parents if you were a network executive who let their au pair raise their kids, because last time we checked struggling parents simply didn’t have the time to waste on sitcoms that went for being “relatable” over being funny. In fact, just about every kind of audience we can think of would much rather watch a sitcom that was funny over a show like this where the point seems to be reminding viewers that bungling dads mean well.

If Helliar really did mean well he’d have never made this show in the first place.

Fresh Blood: Why Are You Like This?

It’s fair to say that we hated Why Are You Like This? when we reviewed the initial Fresh Blood sketches last year. So, we were pleasantly surprised by the recently-aired pilot edition (also available on iView and YouTube).

Why Are You Like This?

The Why Are You Like This? pilot features the same characters, Penny played by Naomi Higgins and Mia played by Olivia Junkeer, and the same concept, they’re two uber millennials getting up to stuff in inner city Melbourne, as the original sketches but in the pilot there’s more time to understand who they are and what their lives are like. The original sketches (also on iView) probably would have worked better if there’s been some kind of set-up or backstory, rather than just presenting two people in some situations.

In the pilot, Penny has a job as a coder at a tech company where she’s both the only female employee and the staff member who enthusiastically organises special events for things like RUOK Day and Pride. The rest of her colleagues clearly hate her and, if anything would rather have a meat-tastic barbecue with lots of beer. One co-worker, Daniel (Lawrence Leung), also makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be involved in her Pride event, leading Penny to assume he’s a homophobe.

Mia, meanwhile, drifts from job to job – she’s fired for bludging, she gets a new job but quits for ethical reasons, she then gets another new job and is fired for incompetence – and sponges off Penny to make ends meet.

Penny and Mia are a sort of Herald Sun reader’s nightmare: self-centred and entitled young people, pushing their politically correct views down other people’s throats, who goad and bully anyone who doesn’t conform to their worldview. During a brief stint as a doctor’s receptionist, Mia delays treatment to Nic, a sworn enemy of their friend Austin, which means Nic almost dies. And when Daniel refuses to take part in Penny’s Pride event, and she accuses him of homophobia, it’s her who turns out to be the baddy, as Daniel’s gay but not really “scene”. As a result, Penny ends up in a sensitivity training class. Oh, and Mia gets fired from the doctor’s. They really are awful people.

Having said that, though, this isn’t a comedy that’s about political correctness gone mad or political correctness being bad, it’s a comedy about bullying. The point seems to be that any ideology can turn people into totalitarian nightmares. And if Why Are You Like This? is anything, it’s Mean Girls meets Broad City rather than some kind of old school attack on modern ways.

Having properly set up the sit- in this -com, Why Are You Like This? could make a good series. It’s funny, it’s timely and who doesn’t enjoy laughing at people who deserve it being brought down a peg or two?

It’s a bird, It’s a plane, It’s a Koala Man pilot

Definitely one of the better entrants in last year’s Fresh Blood, animated superhero series Koala Man has now been made into a full-length pilot episode. (You can watch it on iView along with the pilots from the three other Fresh Blood winners – and we’ll be posting reviews of each one over the next couple of weeks.)

Koala Man

Koala Man’s basic premise – an everyday bloke dresses up as a superhero koala to solve problems in his local area (such as annoying groups of layabouts taking over the park) – was a good one. And the initial three Fresh Blood sketches (also available on iView and YouTube) were strong, showing our hero helping typical suburban Aussies involved in typical suburban problems, but in the style of a Marvel film, complete with over-dramatic swells of music, and Koala Man giving a philosophical monologue to camera about the difficult and tortured super life he leads at the end of every episode.

What was particularly promising about Koala Man was the last of the three sketches, which showed Koala Man enjoying his weekend only to be interrupted by a door-to-door salesman touting cheaper electricity. After Koala Man sees off the annoying salesman, the action cuts to the lair of a mysterious half-seen figure with a beak congratulating the salesman on riling up Koala Man. Cliffhanger: the guy with the beak wants to bring Koala Man down, one annoying electricity salesman at a time…but why?

So, if you were expecting more Koala Man along the same lines (or to learn more about Beak Guy’s evil plot) in this full-length pilot, you’ll be disappointed, as there have been some changes made to the concept that don’t necessarily work.

Koala Man turns out to be Kevin, a divorced middle-aged man with a teenage son and a day job. So far, so kinda in the style of Clark Kent/Superman, except we don’t get a sense of Koala Man’s origin story and we spend way too much time with Kevin and not enough time with Koala Man.

In the pilot episode, Kevin is excited about an event happening at work; he works at the local council and they’re unveiling a new fountain the next day. Except, the fountain’s annoyed local residents to the extent that they’re protesting outside – and someone’s taken matters into their own hands by putting detergent in the fountain and now there are bubbles everywhere. Who or what will resolve this?

While Kevin’s colleagues attempt to get through various bureaucratic local council hoops, such as filling in the correct forms, before they can take action on the fountain/bubbles problem, Koala Man tries to track down the fountain vandal. It’s a decent episode plot idea, for sure, but comedy-wise there isn’t enough good material in the script to make this solidly funny for 23 minutes.

There are some good ideas for gags, such as the stuff about local government bureaucracy form filling, which culminates in an amusing sequence in the council’s “War Room”, but overall the show lacks the comic spark of the original short episodes. That and understanding Koala Man’s real life doesn’t seem to add much. It would probably be funnier not knowing Kevin or his personal life at all, making Koala Man a mysterious but slightly full-of-himself guy who thinks he’s making a difference to the world by keeping local streets safe. It’s a bit like what would have happened in Frasier if we’d ever been shown Maris: a massive comedic letdown, and a total joke killer.

The other problem is, well-known animated shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad and even Australia’s own Pacific Heat, usually have very high gag rates, so there was an expectation that Koala Man would too. An expectation it just hasn’t delivered on.

Having re-watched the original Fresh Blood sketches of Koala Man, we’re wondering what went on in the process of producing this pilot. Why was the decision made to focus less on the superhero parody comedy and more on the man behind the superhero? And why did anyone think that would make a better show?

Chasing Their Own Tail

Here’s a question for you: when exactly did Charles Firth rejoin The Chaser? Because he definitely left for a while there – his reports from the US fizzled out fairly early in The Chaser’s War on Everything, and he hasn’t been an on-air part of their television work since then – even their last Election Special didn’t have room for him on their “hilarious” giant desk in 2016.

Not that he hasn’t been busy with Chaser-like work – he was behind-the-scenes at a number of other comedy projects (the less said about “fake news” series WTF! the better), he did “additional writing” on their last Election Special and we’re sure he’s been back on board with their printed stuff for a few years. But he was definitely outside the Chaser tent for a while there, especially as far as television is concerned. Which is why this had us raising an eyebrow:

Satirical comedy group The Chaser are known for their War on Everything, but now they have launched a war on the hand that has fed them for decades.

The group made a surprise announcement on Twitter on Monday, revealing the ABC, its home since 1999, had “declined to fund” an election year series for 2019.

“First time since 2001 that the ABC has declined to fund it. Perhaps Sky News provides enough satire nowadays?” the group’s tweet read.

It is understood not all of The Chaser‘s original members were onboard for an election series next year, but member and founder Charles Firth says the majority of the crew – which expanded to include comedians Zoe Norton Lodge, Ben Jenkins and others after 2016’s The Chaser’s Election Desk – was interested.

Does he now.

The Chaser have stuck together over the years in a way that most other Australian comedy teams of similar size can only dream of (the crew behind The Late Show couldn’t make it to a third season). Aside from that female member on CNNNN who was never heard from again and Firth moving to the US, they’ve been remarkably consistent over the years. But that doesn’t mean we should assume they think as one on every project that crosses their desk. Whatever happened to that sitcom they used to mention every year or so?

So while Firth was full steam ahead on the idea of yet another Chaser election special, maybe not everyone else… oh, hang on a second:

It is understood not all of The Chaser‘s original members were onboard for an election series next year, but member and founder Charles Firth says the majority of the crew – which expanded to include comedians Zoe Norton Lodge, Ben Jenkins and others after 2016’s The Chaser’s Election Desk – was interested.

If “a majority” of the Chaser now includes “and others” then sure, he probably had the numbers. But realistically, if you don’t have at least Chris and or Craig, Julian and Chaz out the front, what you’re selling isn’t The Chaser. Attempts to try and turn comedy teams into brand names with rotating rosters have pretty much never worked in Australia; it’s fine for The Checkout because that’s a show called The Checkout, but if The Chaser wanted to keep doing Chaser-esque comedy with a new team they really should have come up with a new name to go with the new team.

They probably should have started a few years ago too, because despite Firth’s assumption that The Chaser and elections go together hand in glove, outside of Sydney they’ve pretty much vanished from the comedy radar. In the past the Chaser got to do election specials because they were the ABC’s main political satire team; now they’re not, and the ABC currently has two very different programs providing humourous (or in the case of The Weekly, “humourous”) political coverage. So why would the ABC let a Firth-led Chaser team swoop in and nab the plum job of mocking the election?

(if your answer is “because they’re the funniest political satire group in the country!”, then maybe you should reflect on Firth’s role as a producer on The Roast)

Even if you think The Chaser – whatever their line-up – are an essential part of the ABC’s election coverage, the ABC currently goes from Mad as Hell at the start of the year to The Weekly then back to Mad as Hell for around 35 weeks of solid weekly comedy. Would the ABC pull one of those shows to replace them with this Firth-led Chaser election coverage? Or would there be two competing comedy shows on during the four or five weeks of the election?

(let’s be honest, a Firth-led Chaser up against Mad as Hell would come off second best, while putting it up against The Weekly would make The Weekly‘s many, many flaws even more obvious. It’s hard the imagine the ABC being keen on either result)

And what would we be missing out on anyway? According to Firth:

“The main thing we really want to do is get out there and cause mayhem and chaos… I don’t know how much we’d raise, but could you raise enough that it would fund us to go around and do a few stunts? That would be ideal, ’cause that’s the funnest part of doing an election special.

“And also we wouldn’t have to answer to anyone at the ABC or anywhere else… We could be totally unleashed.”

So… more “pranks” involving big props and not being allowed anywhere near an actual politician, plus a bunch of safe studio bits designed to make politicians seem in on the joke? Or just more of whatever it is he thought they were doing on The Roast?

The more comedy the better is pretty much our guiding star here, and if a Chaser Election Special 2019 could somehow be magicked into existence on top of the ABC’s current line-up we’d be more than happy to watch it… once we stopped wondering why at least a dozen other comedy teams and individuals weren’t given a shot with that money first.

But when you’re offering a “totally unleashed” show made up of some of the Chaser team “and others” designed to “cause mayhem and chaos” via the hilarious medium of stunts, then…

…yeah, we’re siding with the ABC on this one.

Congestion On All Major Arteries

Press release time!

Big stars back for Season 2 of hit comedy Squinters

ABC in association with Screen Australia and Create NSW are pleased to announce filming is underway on the new season of Jungle Entertainment’s Squinters, the acclaimed, hit comedy series that celebrates the comically mundane ritual of the daily work commute.

Created by Trent O’Donnell (No Activity, The Moodys) and Adam Zwar (Wilfred, Lowdown), Squinters Season 1 has been embraced by critics and audiences alike, becoming ABC iview’s most watched comedy of 2018.* Season 2 picks up with Aussie distribution company ‘Kosciusko’ taken over by an American conglomerate.  Under new management, our travellers have new jobs and for some, new passengers along for the ride. Over six episodes, we learn intimate details of their lives, relationships and struggles, as they navigate their new workplace.

A star-studded line-up of new cast includes Stephen Peacocke (Tina Fey’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Wanted), Claudia O’Doherty (Judd Apatow’s Love (Netflix), Inside Amy Schumer), Justine Clarke (House Husbands, The Justine Clarke Show), Genevieve Morris (No Activity), Anne Edmonds (Get Krack!n), Bert LaBonte (The Book of Mormon) and the beloved Ernie Dingo. They join returning cast Logie Award-winner Mandy McElhinney, Sam Simmons, Andrea Demetriades, Wayne Blair, Justin Rosniak, Jenna Owen, Christiaan Van Vuuren, Susie Youssef and Edinburgh International Comedy Festival 2018 winner, Rose Matafeo. And still to be announced…a major American female comedic talent has been cast as the new CEO.

“Like Marlon Brando, my favourite acting involves remaining seated the whole time, so this is a dream role for me” says new cast addition Claudia O’Doherty.

While fellow newcomer Steven Peacocke says “The scripts are some of the best stuff I’ve read in ages. Thrilled to be a part of the series.”

From Chloe Rickard and Jason Burrows, the Executive Producers behind the international titles Mr Inbetween and No Activity, the behind the scenes talent line up continues to impress with the team of directors including Trent O’Donnell, Amanda Brotchie, Erin White, Christiaan Van Vuuren and Adele Vuko.  Writers include Adam Zwar, Kodie Bedford, Ben Crisp, Lally Katz, Becky Lucas, Mark O’Toole, Anita Punton, Michael Ward and Joel Slack-Smith.

Squinters is currently shooting in Sydney and LA, to air on ABC and iview in 2019.

Hey, here’s something interesting – see this line:

Squinters Season 1 has been embraced by critics and audiences alike, becoming ABC iview’s most watched comedy of 2018.*

That * doesn’t actually lead anywhere. There’s no reference cited, no numbers quoted, nothing at all mentioned to back up that figure anywhere in the press release. So hey, let’s fill it in ourselves:

*bullshit.

Not that we know it’s bullshit, of course, because the only people who do know the iView figures are – you guessed it – the ABC. So they can say pretty much whatever the hell they like and biff bam pow, the Australian television press will report it as fact. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for once and do some real reporting:

Fun fact number one: Mad as Hell (and for that matter, Gruen and The Weekly) aren’t considered by the ABC to be “comedy” but are instead “entertainment” (if you have a live audience, you’re entertaining). So there goes the funny shows that people actually watch on the ABC.

Fun fact number two: Squinters was the first ABC scripted comedy to air in 2018, with the first episode screening February 7th – the same week as when the entire series was made available on iview. So it’s probably more accurate to say it was ABC iview’s longest available comedy in 2018, especially as the handful of other scripted comedies the ABC had on iview were either notoriously shit (Sando) or didn’t air until the back end of the year (Back in Very Small Business).

It also rated pretty poorly on free-to-air (averaging around 350,000 viewers after week one), which is why this press release doesn’t mention those figures anywhere. So the bits where Squinters is called a “hit” that has been “embraced by audiences and critics alike” are also, how you say… bullshit.

All of which should raise the question: why is this poorly-rating show getting a second series? Especially as almost all the big names that presumably boosted the ratings in series one – Jacki Weaver, Tim Minchin, Damon Herriman – are nowhere to be seen. Oh, we forgot:

And still to be announced…a major American female comedic talent has been cast as the new CEO

Which, considering there’s absolutely no reason not to announce this person’s name here and now unless they haven’t actually cast a specific “major American female comedic talent”, we’re also going to file under bullshit.

But the question remains: why, after shit ratings, a critical drubbing (from us) and general apathy towards a show that was little more than a sketch show where all the sketches had the exact same set-up, are we getting more Squinters?

Considering how much the ABC goes on and on about all their programs to find exciting new comedy talent, how about letting some of that new talent make a prime time show instead of once again dusting off Adam Zwar and Trent O’Donnell, who between them have had a hand in around 80% of the most firmly average “comedy” of the past decade*?

Answers on the back of a postcard, please.

*that would be The Moodys, No Activity, Wilfred, Lowdown, six separate series of Agony, The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting, Here Come the Habibs, Laid,The Letdown, The Urban Monkey and – and this remains a pretty big get out of jail free card, let’s be honest – Review with Myles Barlow.

Vale Have You Been Paying Attention? series 6

Have You Been Paying Attention? is a constant on our screens. It’s on air somewhere between 25-30 times a year, providing solid, easy-going laughs on a night of the week when most people are tired and cranky, and reluctantly staring down the barrel of another four days at work.

Have You Been Paying Attention?

It’s a tonic that most people can enjoy. The questions are pitched so that even the most casual of news junkies can get a few questions right at home, and everything including the giving of the answers is an opportunity for a laugh.

The show was good when it first started and its solid foundation of accessible quiz plus as many laughs as possible suggest that it’ll probably still be on air when endlessly rotating series of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are just a distant memory.

Speaking of which, if you’ve been watching Have You Been Paying Attention? since the start, the only changes have been the increase in running gags (most of which are good, and only a few of which are over-done) and the increase in sponsored segments and celebrity guests spruiking something. We could live without the latter, but they’re usually done as well as they can be, with most of the guests prepared to joke around or have the piss ripped out of them to some extent. It’s an approach we wish more entertainment shows would take; Graham Kennedy, in the early days of Australian television, realised that the best way to get an audience to tolerate ads was to make them funny – and that’s exactly what Have You Been Paying Attention? is doing.

And, in many ways, that’s the cleverest aspect of Have You Been Paying Attention?, the sleight-of-hand way it puts across the content it needs to put across, whilst injecting as much slightly-subversive, topical humour as it can get away. It may not seem innovative, or even interesting, if you judge it by the standards of the live circuit, or podcasts, or Mad As Hell, but in commercial television terms it is. When was the last time you saw The Project do it? Or even Charlie Pickering?

In a world where comedy on commercial television is usually somewhere between “not great” and “really awful” (hello, How to Stay Married), Have You Been Paying Attention? is a real stand-out.

Still Number Four

Press release time!

Yours in 2019: ABC’s unrivalled commitment to diverse Australian stories

The ABC will celebrate remarkable Australian stories in 2019 with distinctive new dramas, documentaries and comedies that showcase the country’s creative talent. Highlights include the return of firm fan favourites Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell, Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery and Anh’s Brush with Fame.

David Anderson, ABC Acting Managing Director, said: “The ABC tells the story of Australia and in 2019 we have many great stories to tell. We are Australia’s leading broadcaster in backing home-grown creative talent and content.

“In the year to come, as in years past, Australian audiences will come home to the ABC to share in the stories, conversations and events that shape our nation.”

Major highlights revealed today include new drama series Black B*tch (working title,Blackfella Films), starring Deborah Mailman and Rachel Griffiths and directed by Rachel Perkins.

Just in time for the federal election is the documentary Will Australia Ever Have a Black Prime Minister? (Joined Up Films), examining the barriers to having an Indigenous national leader. The ABC’s commitment to distinctive Indigenous voices will also see the return of drama Mystery Road (Bunya Productions), currently in development, building on the record-breaking success of season one.

The ABC is the home of Australian comedy in 2019, with a bumper six series slated for broadcast. Firm favourite Utopia (Working Dog Productions) was today confirmed for a fourth season and joins a stellar line up, with new series Frayed (Merman Television), starring Sarah Kendall, and returning seasons of Squinters (Jungle Entertainment),Rosehaven (What Horse? and Guesswork Television), Get Krack!n (Katering and Guesswork Television) and The Letdown(Giant Dwarf).

ABC Factual programs will include Australian premieres Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds (Endemol Shine Australia) and Love on the Spectrum (Northern Pictures), as well as the return of the award-winning series You Can’t Ask That and Employable Me (Northern Pictures). Together, these warm and insightful series affirm the ABC’s invaluable role in telling diverse Australian stories.

Beautifully voiced by Barry Humphries, Magical Land of Oz (Northern Pictures) sees the ABC getting back into the natural history genre. In a sweeping journey across Australia, this high-quality documentary plays out across the land, with a cast of unique creatures and landscapes.

Upcoming Arts programs include documentaries China Love (Media Stockade), a look at the phenomenon of Chinese wedding photography, Mystify (Ghost Pictures), the story of INXS’ Michael Hutchence; and Backburning: Midnight Oil(Beyond Entertainment & Blink TV), the story of the iconic Australian band Midnight Oil.

Following on from children’s programming announcements this year, the ABC also announced new series The Unlisted (Aquarius Films) and new episodes of smash hit animation Bluey (Ludo)!

Thrilling news there, true believers! Utopia is back and wasn’t at all played out two seasons ago! Squinters is back and was utterly shithouse! Was The Letdown even a comedy? Our expressions say no!

Seriously, and we know these “upfronts” from the ABC often hold back a lot of upcoming shows, but this is a pretty dispiriting line-up for “the home of Australian comedy” to be taking into 2019. Not only is there practically nothing new here, much of what is coming back was clearly arse the first time around. Oh look, The Weekly is back despite having lost two of the four main hosts. Huzzah.

(and in exciting suspense-building delays, wasn’t Rosehaven initially due this year?)

C’mon, we know the ABC is broke but The Letdown is barely a comedy and barely counts as an ABC series considering it goes directly to Netflix the second it finishes airing. The freshest thing on this list is the second series of the 2017 hit Get Krack!n and bringing Squinters back makes a mockery of the idea that ratings, quality, or not being shit has any effect at all on what gets shown on the ABC. It’s like they’re waiting for the clock to tick down to just giving up on new comedy entirely.

At least Mad as Hell is coming back. Because there would have been riots if it didn’t.

It’s a 50/50 Split

Long time Australian comedy fans – and after the last decade or so of Australian television comedy, are there any other kind left? – were thrilled last week at the return of one of the genre’s proudest traditions: an hour of Australian comedy on a Thursday at 8.30pm. Yes, you did have to change channels at 9pm as no-one’s foolish enough to put two Australian comedies on commercial television back-to-back these days, but at least you could actually do this as they didn’t overlap. It’s a new Golden Age!

Orange is the New Brown

Or at least, it looked that way for the first half hour.

Let’s start with the good news: Orange is the New Brown was good. Most of the sketches were strong, with a focus on race just often enough to give the show an identity – it probably could have been a bit more of a focus really, but most of the non-race sketches were easily strong enough to justify their inclusion. The last few Australian sketch shows we’ve seen have been drifting back more towards one-off gags rather than trying to create “hilarious” comedy characters they can show week after week, and it was a relief to see this continuing that trend; the optometrist who thought all eye contact was flirting and the guy trying to impress his girlfriend by having his coffee poured into “natures keep cup” (his hands) were decent jokes that we really don’t expect to see again.

A few of the sketches were dragged out; the stunt doubles one towards the end was too long and the central joke (haha, they don’t really look like the actors they’re doubling for) didn’t deserve the run time. And with all sketch shows, it’s the later weeks that’ll be the real test. If it turns out we’ve got five more weeks of that optometrist telling everyone to stop flirting with her, our grade for this is going to drop rapidly. But so far so good for Nazeem Hussain and his cast of high profile guest stars (all of which managed to fit into their sketches instead of distracting from them: even Tim Minchin as a Wiggle wasn’t too disruptive); this is the rare Australian sketch show we’re actually keen to see more of.

*

It’s not often we get to say “Dave O’Neil did it better”, but in this case it’s true: O’Neil’s recent pilot Dave was a funnier family sitcom than How to Stay Married. Then again, the opening half hour of that Bruce Willis remake of Death Wish was a funnier family sitcom than How to Stay Married. First Cram!, now this: whatever blackmail material Peter Helliar has on the Channel Ten executives, it must be amazing.

How to Stay Married is about a couple of sad sacks, Em (Lisa McCune) and Greg (writer / producer Helliar). She hates being a stay at home mum and wants to go back to work; he hates work and wants to… die? Honestly, both of them are such low energy grumps it’s impossible to give a shit about either of them. We had to rewatch the end twice to figure out if Greg actually lost his job after swearing at a customer and we’re still not sure.

Initially we thought this was going to be more of a realistic dramedy about married life rather than a straight-up sitcom, and… maybe it is? It’s really hard to tell because the tone is so misjudged from start to finish: we think the idea is to show modern relationships as some kind of death trap that drains the life and soul out of people – but also, funny? – and yet the end result is just so insipid for all we could tell it was meant to be a life-affirming look at a couple setting out on an exciting new path. To the grave.

Also: not funny. Not funny in the way having a character annoy the lead by calling him “big fella” at least once every sentence is not funny. Which is to say, there’s the germ of a funny idea there but by leading with it straight out of the gate we have no idea where the comedy is meant to be coming from. Is it funny that Greg is so annoyed by this woman? If Greg had been established as a Larry David-like curmudgeon then perhaps this would be funny in a “oh man, this is going to set him right off” fashion, but at the start of episode one all we really know about Greg is that he’s a beleaguered everyman. So basically, annoying woman is annoying. Bold move starting out by annoying your audience.

It gradually becomes clear that the comedy is meant to be coming from our two struggling leads as they try to make their way in a crazy world. Only who gives a shit? Both Greg and Em are such unlikable stressed-out drips it’s almost impossible to care about what they want because they don’t even seem to have the energy to care about what they want. Though to be fair, Em wants a job so badly when the cool kids snigger at her “lesbian John Farnham cosplay” outfit she runs off, buys a kimono (?), can’t go to the toilet in it (??), and eventually pisses herself (???) when she sneezes during the interview. Comedy! And then she gets the job anyway because things just happen at random.

(how bad is this show? Judith Lucy has a guest appearance and even she can’t make this material funny)

During all this there are side characters played by Phil Lloyd and Darren Gilshenan as the exact same characters they’ve played in every other Australian comedy they’ve ever appeared in. They also have nothing to to with the main plot and so their scenes may very well be deleted scenes from their previous series. At the end of the first episode Lloyd’s character is revealed to be single so expect a lot of hilarious jokes about how dating is a nightmare in the coming weeks. That’s right, when you’re a regular person everything about modern life is shit.

It’s not that the actual concept here is a bad one. Obviously it’s not: dozens of sitcoms and movies have used it this decade alone. But going by this first episode, Helliar and company have no idea how to make it seem in any way interesting to the viewer. Huge chunks of the set-up require the audience to fill in the gaps: Em wants to go back to work because home life is boring, only there’s no attempt to show us why she’d find her home life boring – we’re just meant to go “oh yeah, of course she’d want to go back to work”. And while Greg’s job is clearly awful – the customers are idiots and his workmates are also idiots – all he does is think “man, I’d love a redundancy” and then… not get one. Why are we supposed to give a shit about his troubles when he doesn’t care enough to make any real effort to change?

Oh wait, because he’s played by Peter Helliar, a man who’s never actually made an effort throughout his career.

Helliar’s ongoing media profile is one of the big mysteries of Australian television in the 21st Century. What was the high point of his career? Straunchie? Laughing at Rove? Being on Rove? Hosting The Bounce? Hosting The Trophy Room? Hosting Cram!? Hosting Pete & Myf? Being nominated for a Gold Logie? Because it sure won’t be this forgettable half hour of blank stares and clumsy line readings that does for family comedies what a cup full of Draino does for constipation.

It’s rubbish. Everyone involved deserves better. Apart from Peter Helliar, who will walk away from this train wreck once again completely unscathed.

Every Time is a Good Time Online

Press release time!

Four comedies and one drama form the latest Online Production slate from Screen Australia. Four of the creative teams are receiving Screen Australia funding for the first time, including producers Karen Colston and Robbie Miles who will create the six-part parody Sarah’s Channel for ABC iview. Claudia O’Doherty (Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, Netflix’s Love) will star in the title role.

Sarah’s Channel follows beauty vlogger Sarah who discovers she’s been reanimated after an apocalypse. Live performer and theatre playwright Nick Coyle will make the jump to screen to write/direct, fresh off the back of his hit play The Feather in the Web.

“I’m thrilled (and surprised) that my idea of a Beauty Vlogger uploading videos in a post-apocalyptic world has been green-lit, and excited to be collaborating with such a fantastic team to bring it to life,” said Coyle. “There is so much comedy to mine in the online influencer world, and so many pre-existing fans who I hope will love this new take on the genre.”

Producer Karen Colston of Yellow Creative Management added, “We’re so pleased Nick’s unique voice will be seen by a wider audience than those lucky enough to have caught his brilliant theatre work, and we hope to create a pathway to screen for other stage practitioners. The concept and execution of Sarah’s Channel is inextricably linked to the internet, so it is uniquely suited to the online series format.”

Emmy-award winning Queensland studio Ludo are also creating a series for the ABC, satirising the web life-coach industry in the six-part comedy Content. Completion funding has been provided to the emerging creators behind comedies How To Know If You’re Dating A Narcissist and Single Ladies, plus family drama Time & Place.

“We have a healthy appetite for creative risk in Online Production, and want to support new creators who are trying out bold concepts,” said Screen Australia Investment Manager Lee Naimo. “I’m particularly pleased to see the majority of projects in this slate have female central characters, and female directors.”

“As we’ve seen most recently with Superwog and Sheilas, online content can well and truly compete with traditional mediums in terms of production values and audience share. Now is the time for emerging creators to be taking advantage of Screen Australia’s revised Development funding opportunities to refine their concepts, and get in touch with us in Online Production to discuss their projects.”

And here’s the details:

CONTENT

1 x 60 min / 6 x 10 min
Ludo Studio (QLD)
Genre: Comedy
Producer: Meg O’Connell
Executive Producers: Charlie Aspinwall, Daley Pearson
Director: Daley Pearson
Writer: Anna Barnes
Platform: ABC TV and ABC iview
Synopsis: Lucy is a woke, successful influencer who wants to help you achieve everything you’ve wanted – a partner, a career and contentedness. Unfortunately, Lucy has a severely unhealthy relationship with her phone which keeps her from achieving any of these things herself.
Production credit: Content is a Ludo Studio production for the ABC. Principal production investment from Screen Australia, in association with Screen Queensland.

HOW TO KNOW IF YOU’RE DATING A NARCISSIST

6 x 5mins
Sweary Canary Films (NSW)
Genre: Comedy
Producers: Kristy Best, Michelle Lia (Associate), Enzo Tedeschi
Directors: Kristy Best
Writers: Kristy Best
Platform: TBC
Synopsis: Follow multi-narcissist survivor Kristy Best as she abrasively whisks you through a surreal lifestyle parody hell-bent on teaching women everywhere How To Know If You’re Dating A Narcissist.
Production credit: How to Know If You’re Dating a Narcissist is a Sweary Canary Films productions. Production investment from Sweary Canary Films in association with Screen Australia.

SARAH’S CHANNEL

6 x 5 mins
Yellow Creative Management Pty Ltd and Mythmaker Media Pty Ltd (NSW)
Genre: 
Comedy
Producers: Karen Colston, Robbie Miles
Executive Producers: 
Mark Morrissey, Jean Mostyn, Claudia O’Doherty
Director: Nick Coyle
Writer: Nick Coyle
Platform: ABC iview
Synopsis Sarah’s Channel is a quirky, relatable Youtube channel created and run by Sarah, who isn’t going to let the fact that she’s been re-animated in a post-apocalyptic future stop her from doing what she’s famous for: Beauty Vlogging. Sure, everyone she knew is dead, the subterranean mutants who worship her are annoying, and a monster is trying to kill her, but Sarah’s got some fantastic makeup tips and it’ll take more than that to prevent her from uploading them.
Production credit: Sarah’s Channel is a Yellow Creative and Mythmaker production for the ABC. Principal production investment from Screen Australia, in association with Create NSW.

SINGLE LADIES

6 x 8 mins
Story Republic Pty Ltd (WA)
Genre: Comedy
Producer: Joshua Gilbert
Executive Producer: Ros Walker
Directors:  Gemma Hall, Mimi Helm, Jacqueline Pelczar
Writer: Aaron Moss
Platform: TBC
Synopsis
Single Ladies follows the misadventures of unlikely trio Catherine, Nina and Hashim as they try to save their sex positive radio show from the conservative owners of the station.
Production credit: Single Ladies is a Story Republic production. Production investment from Screen Australia and Screenwest.

TIME & PLACE

7 x 9 mins
Gemini Arts and Media Pty Ltd (QLD)
Genre:Drama
Producer:Tam Sainsbury, Dylan Schenkeveld

Director:Tam Sainsbury
Writer:Tam Sainsbury
Platform:TBC
Synopsis:
After living abroad for years, magazine writer Rebecca Woodruff returns for a holiday to her hometown of Golden Beach with her husband and daughter. Her family; divorced mum and dad, her mum’s new lesbian partner, her married sister and wildly single lawyer brother; are all thrilled to have her home. As Rebecca navigates her family’s chaos, her marriage begins to crumble and her deeply hidden secret begins to surface and she realises that maybe this is the time and the place where she now needs to be…..permanently.
Production Credit: Time & Place is a Gemini Arts and Media production. Principal production investment from Screen Australia, in association with Sunshine Coast Council and Arts Queensland.

The future of Australian comedy is here! You know, just like it has been with every other online pilot project of the last few years.

The shows might be perfectly fine: the real question nobody ever seems to get around to asking is “after you make your short, what comes next?” The days of US markets being willing to throw cash to make season two of The Katering Show a reality seem to be behind us, and local markets aren’t exactly rushing to greenlight half hour shows from unknowns. Maybe mentioning Superwog a whole lot will convince people that yeah, you really can make it big if you just keep trying.

But probably not.