Australian Tumbleweeds

Australia's most opinionated blog about comedy.

Another Appisode

If you’re feeling depressed about Saturday’s election results, Felicity Ward’s BBC radio show Appisodes might make you laugh. About depression, and three other conditions she suffers from: anxiety, IBS and insomnia.

Felicity Ward wearing headphones which are connected to her smartphone

Ward, it seems, has been downloading a lot of smartphone apps to help her cope with these conditions, with mixed results. Can she find the answers here?

Across four 15-minute episodes, Ward looks at the full spectrum of self-help app types, from apps fronted by C-list celebrities to apps that seem more like the maker’s own cry for help. Who would have guessed that the vast majority of self-help apps are made by charlatans with no qualifications in psychiatry? Or contain largely bullshit advise?

New Zealand stand-up Rose Matafeo is the voice of an app for anxiety sufferers and gives an hilarious performance as a highly-strung mum on the edge. The IBS app, voiced by a plummy British type, takes a different approach: telling the user off in a passive-aggressive way for literally everything, while an app for insomnia is voiced for an American who picked-up some third-hand life tips in South East Asia and is peddling it for all he’s worth. Our favourite, though, was the “swimming for depression” app featuring Olympic bronze medallist Carl Chopoff. Motivational he is not.

But if you’re a little bored by stand-ups about their depression, anxiety or personal traumas, and are thinking “oh no, not more of that”, then don’t worry. Appisodes isn’t yet another naval-gazing exploration of mental illness, it’s more about parodying some of the terrible ways you can try to cope with it. And the parodies are pretty good, with some great performances from the voices of the various apps.

As for Ward, some of the jokes in her linking material are a bit groan-worthy, but it’s overall a pretty funny show.

And because we haven’t said this on this blog for a while: how hard would it be for ABC Radio to make this kind of thing occasionally? Why do Australian stand-ups have to live on the other side of the world if they want to try scripted radio comedy? Like Hannah Gadsby or Sarah Kendall have. Why can’t we do this kind of thing here?

The promise of election comedy

As the 2019 Federal election campaign draws to a close, here’s a rundown of the some of the election comedy specials you may have missed.

Newsfighters

Newsfighters podcast

Ex-Tonightly editor Dylan Behan has been making the Newsfighters podcast for a few months, with some of his work turning up on Dan Ilic’s A Rational Fear recently. Newsfighters is similar in format to American topical comedies such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, where a bunch of clips are used to punctuate comedic commentary on stories in the news.

Behan’s election coverage has been pretty sharp, and while it’s coming from a left-leaning/progressive perspective it isn’t biased towards Labor or the Greens. And if anything, it’s more critical of those parties than it is of the right-wing ones. Greens candidate and darling of the left refugee advocate Julian Burnside copped a serve for his misogynist manner and involvement with a dodgy-sounding members club, while Bill Shorten was the subject of a special parody biography video, playing on the fact that he’s rather uninspiring.

Newsfighters is pretty good as a podcast but is less successful in its video version on YouTube. The picture quality of the news clips is pretty poor and at more than 10 minutes, it’s way too long for YouTube.

Countdown to Glory

We reviewed Sammy J’s Countdown to Glory last week, which follows Government Coach as he works with the Liberals in the lead-up to their campaign launch. Monday’s episode on the campaign launch itself turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. Yes, there was footage of Government Coach at the actual Liberal party campaign launch…but he was mainly just hanging around. In fact, it made us sort of wistful for the days when The Chaser would gatecrash that kind of event and pull some wacky stunt – at least that was dangerous and had a sort of point to it.

One of this week’s episodes of Countdown to Glory has looked at an Auskick-style programme for young leaders, where children are taught to kiss babies and spout banal clichés such as “The Prime Minister has my full support” to reporters. Another was a parody of the Brownlow Medal ceremony. Both were decent enough pieces of satire but like we said last week, the problem with this series is that it’s purporting to be really topical but doesn’t manage to be topical very often.

The final episode airs tonight.

Democracy Sausage

Craig Reucassel and Chris Taylor in Democracy Sausage

Speaking of The Chaser, as we recently were, Chris Taylor and Craig Reucassel have their own show called Democracy Sausage, a half-hour podcast available on the ABC Listen app, that’s now been turned into a cheap and cheerful video production for ABC Comedy and iView. As videos of 27-minute-long chats about politics in ABC radio studios go, it’s fine, but like Newsfighters, it’s probably better in audio only.

Questions Without Notice

Sir Murray Rivers holding a glass of red wine

Bryan Dawe has released some election special podcasts featuring his Sir Murray Rivers character, who’s recently been heard in a weekly ABC Radio segment. But in a slight twist, the Questions Without Notice podcast sees Sir Murray interviewed by Bryan, rather than rambling drunkenly into a microphone set up by a waiter at the Melbourne Club. Well, Sir Murray’s still at the Melbourne Club, and still drunk, except Bryan Dawe’s interjecting every so often with questions.

In the most recent of these podcasts, it’s revealed that Sir Murray, like other Liberal party figures despised by the public such as Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton, “wasn’t able to attend” the recent Liberal party launch. It was his dog’s birthday, apparently.

One of the things we like about the Sir Murray character is that unlike some parodies of right-wingers, he’s not the sort of character that actual right-wingers can embrace and make their own. He’s everything right-wingers secretly know is wrong about themselves – he’s elitist, he’s sexist, he’s a drunk, he’s a fool and he has far too much money – the perfect personification of the Liberal party, basically – and a very clever creation.

The Weekly

In a move that sort of surprised us, The Weekly hasn’t been churning out wall-to-wall election coverage every week during the campaign. They did, however, have a follow-up to last week’s Labor leaders robot sketch in this week’s episode: a sketch showing how a bunch of marketing people dreamt up the ScoMo persona.

It was a shit sketch, obviously, although not quite as shit as this week’s Hard Chat, when even Tom Gleeson couldn’t bring himself to ask Stephen Curry about why Mr Black is so bad.

So, if there was an election to decide the best comedy made during this election campaign, we’d chose quite a lot of things over The Weekly. Including this footage of 100 or so Richie Benaud impersonators urging the late Bob Hawke to skull a beer.

HYBPA? is Back in Black

How long has it been since a commercial network in this country had two comedy series on the go at the same time? You’d think we’d know but clearly we’re too lazy to look it up: chances are it was Channel Ten that time too. And with Kinne Tonight starting back up in a week or so, they’re going to have three a week for a few weeks, which we’re pretty sure hasn’t happened this century.

Of course, being commercial television neither of these shows – oh yeah, we’re talking about Have You Been Paying Attention? and Mr Black – are really what you’d call “ground-breaking”, but in a properly functioning television environment that’s how it’s supposed to work: you learn your skills doing off-the-wall niche stuff for the government networks, then when you’ve proved your worth you go off to demonstrate that worth at a network that’s very much concerned about “worth”.

So Have You Been Paying Attention? returns for the rest of the year (seriously, it won’t finish up until November) doing what it does best: putting to air a collection of sponsored segments with a bunch of laughs wrapped around them. And when you’re as good at getting laughs as HYBPA? is, complaining about exactly how they pay the bills feels a little churlish.

All your old favourites are back, even Sam Pang’s jokes about how old host Tom Gleisner is – though Gleisner’s occasional one-liners show he’s pretty sharp whatever his age. The pace remains snappy (it’s always a slight surprise when they answer a question with the real answer right off and just move on), the cast are on the ball – even unmade bed Mick Molloy fired off a bunch of quick comebacks – and the whole thing is fun to watch in a way most Australian shows can only envy.

It’s a ratings powerhouse too, which is a pleasant surprise in this day and age; presumably if most of the regulars weren’t already busy elsewhere Ten would be trying to put (say) Sam and Ed Kavalee into a spin-off. It’s still perhaps not the ideal setting for every comedy talent in the country, but when even Tony Martin (who rarely shines to full effect on panel shows) can get laughs from his low scores HYBPA? is definitely doing something right. Even the guest quizmasters often don’t stink.

Meanwhile, week two of Mr Black left us wondering how they’re going to make it to week three.

It’s not that the concept is utterly exhausted already, though introducing Mrs Black in week two suggests somebody somewhere realised things needed a tweak (she was good, by the way; shame she couldn’t stay). But the actual character of Mr Black just doesn’t make sense. One scene between Mr Black and a mate had them trying to figure out their generations values, and Mr Black settled on “get off my lawn”. The man is 48; how does he even own a lawn?

It’s not that Mr Black really needs to be a comedy boofhead in his early 60s for the show to get laughs (Stephen Curry is a great actor and is easily the most watchable thing here). It’s just that having him as anything else requires a lot of explanation to make the culture clash stuff work and this show already has its hands full busily explaining everything else.

Did you know that Mr Black’s assets are frozen while his divorce is going through? And that Mr Black’s daughter is living in her grandfather’s (mother’s father’s) house? Why is this show bothering with this stuff when all it really needs is a): a young couple have just bought their first home only b): the woman’s elderly but feisty dad had a fall and needs looking after while he heals and c): zaniness ensues when the two males don’t get along.

Too often this feels like the script is working backwards to justify some extraneous element or another that someone decided was essential, and then when it does go for big comedy the moments are more unsettling than hilarious. Having Mr Black literally set fire to a swing chair is a bit much for a wacky comedy; in this show’s low-key dramedy style it’s outright unsettling.

Everyone involved here is a seasoned professional so it’s hardly as if the entire show is a dead loss. Mr Black faking brain damage after losing a boxing match was the kind of silliness this show needs more of – a lot more of – and Mrs Black was exactly the kind of comedy foil needed to balance out the conflict and make it more harmless and fun. But so much of this show either seems like it’s taking the long way around to a joke or it’s too nasty to be funny.

As sitcom premises go, this one definitely wasn’t broken; it’s a mystery why Mr Black is spending so much time trying to fix it.

Neither Shock Nor Twist

Press release time!

NETFLIX ORDERS HANNAH GADSBY’S NEW STAND-UP SPECIAL DOUGLAS

  • At the FYSEE event in Los Angeles, comedian Hannah Gadsby announced that her new hour-long stand-up special Douglas, named after her beloved dog, will launch globally on Netflix in 2020.
  • “I’m so excited to announce today that Douglas will be released on Netflix in 2020. I’m really enjoying touring with the live performance, but there will be places in the world that I won’t be able to visit, so it’s wonderful that Netflix will bring the show to every corner of the globe.” said Gadsby.
  • Gadsby is touring Douglas in the U.S. and around the world now.
  • Her breakout sensation Nanette launched on Netflix in 2018.

Hannah Gadsby bio

Tasmania’s own Hannah Gadsby has come to the world’s attention through her multi-award winning stand up show Nanette which played to sold out houses across Australia, London, Edinburgh, New York and Los Angeles before launching on Netflix in June as the first Australian Netflix Original Comedy Special and stopping the comedy world in its tracks.

The overnight success of Hannah Gadsby was more than ten years in the making, with her award winning stand up shows a sell-out fixture in festivals across Australia and the UK since 2009. She played a character called Hannah on the TV series Please Like Me and has hosted three art documentaries, inspired by comedy art lectures she created to accompany collections at major galleries. Hannah has a book in the works with Ballantine in North America and Allen and Unwin in Australia and the UK. Translation rights have been sold in multiple territories. Hannah is currently touring her new stand up show, Douglas, through the US after a sold out premiere in Australia.

Who didn’t see that coming a mile off? Now we just have to avoid spoilers until 2020. Fingers crossed the twist this time isn’t “comedy isn’t funny”.

Vale The (AFL) Footy Show (10 years too late)

Ok, The (AFL) Footy Show has got the axe, and not a minute too soon. So why should we care?

Well, some of the seemingly endless articles looking back over the history of Nine’s The Footy Show – and who doesn’t remember the best running gag in Logies history where the much less popular NRL Footy Show beat it for the Logie for Most Popular Sports Program ten times in 13 years since 2005 – have pointed out that it was in many ways a retread of televised pie-nights like League Teams and World of Sport, and that it’s this tradition (revived by Seven’s all-conquering The Front Bar) that has led to the Footy Show‘s demise.

This kind of makes sense, suggesting as it does that Australia (well, the AFL parts of it at least) will always like a show where loveable knockabout larrikins sit around talking sport-related shit, and that The Footy Show failed because it lost sight of that. The thing is, this isn’t strictly true.

Yes, when The Footy Show began, a large chunk of it was basically re-heated World of Sport banter where footy players past and (unusually for the time) present talked about the game like it was meant to be a bit of a laugh. But there were two elements present that previous sports shows had lacked: Sam Newman rapidly went from elder sport statesman to fully fledged media prankster, and Trevor Marmalade was funny.

These days Trevor Marmalade doesn’t get mentioned all that much in Footy Show history, but in the first decade or so of the show he was the one getting the big laughs. A seasoned comedy professional best known to the public for popping up on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, he was often mentioned behind the scenes as a kind of comedy technician, someone who helped shows and performers fine tune their act.

Whether you gave a shit about AFL or not, whenever host Eddie McGuire would throw to “Trev” over behind Trev’s Bar, you know you were going to get a rock-solid joke. Marmalade took the show’s comedy up a notch, lifting the long stretches of fairly average banter into something worth watching if you were after a laugh – and on Australian television in the late 90s, there was enough local comedy going around that viewers could afford to be choosy.

In contrast, Sam Newman got laughs and attention by becoming a larger-than-life figure, which is a nice way of saying he did pretty much whatever it took to make sure the spotlight stayed on him. This mostly involved being a professional dickhead both in the studio and out of the street, encouraging his audience to laugh at his chosen victims in pretty much the same way as a bully does. Okay, exactly the same way as a bully does.

For a while there, the tension between the two forms of comedy – well, comedy and “comedy” – worked. Not only did the mix provide something for most viewers, but Marmalade’s jokes took the harsh edge off Newman’s antics and Newman’s stunts made Marmalade’s fairly traditional jokes seem a bit more edgy. Throw in some increasingly polished footy banter from a bunch of players with personality and Channel Nine had an across the board winner.

Pop quiz: in any large organisation, when an arrogant loud-mouth glory-hog bumps up against a quietly competent professional, who do you think management is going to side with?

FOOTY Show funnyman Trevor Marmalade has been axed by Channel 9.

Marmalade leaves after 15 years with the high-rating show.

The shock departure comes as Nine moves to freshen up AFL version of The Footy Show after another turbulent year.

Just-retired Hawthorn champ Shane Crawford and buffoon Billy Brownless will play bigger roles next year and new segments will be introduced.

Marmalade’s “behind the bar” role will go.

It is believed Marmalade was no longer considered important to the show.

Meanwhile, in that same Year of Our Lord 2008:

Resident clown Sam Newman was never far from the headlines. He was condemned for a controversial sketch in which he manhandled a mannequin dressed to resemble football journalist Caroline Wilson.

Newman had surgery for prostate cancer and a shoulder injury, then spent three months on crutches after dropping a gym weight on his ankle and shattering the bone.

He also apologised after causing a storm over perceived crude remarks about Tasmanian MP Paula Wriedt. Newman signed a new long-term, multi-million dollar deal with Nine in October.

And by any reasonable standard it was all downhill from there. The rot had obviously set in well before that – increasingly The Footy Show had become The Sam Newman Show, and Sam’s act on The Footy Show was largely split between roaming the streets calling people dickheads and reading out letters where he could call the writers dickheads – but this was as clear a sign as any that the show had chosen its path and while the pie night banter might still get a look-in, actual comedy was “no longer considered important to the show”.

Which was a little odd, considering the closest thing they had to a rival – Ten’s Before the Game – was pulling viewers because of comedy. Peter Helliar’s footy character Straunchie was a hit; Dave Hughes was a regular (years later he’d later turn up on The Footy Show once they realised they needed someone there who could actually tell a joke). When Helliar left, Mick Molloy – who’d previously been hosting sports show Any Given Sunday on Nine alongside doing some actual legit sports commentary – stepped in, then when Before the Game was axed he went to Seven for Saturday Night Football and finally The Front Bar.

But The Footy Show wasn’t interested in actual comedy – when Dave Hughes jumped ship after little over a year to go back to Ten for Hughsey We Have a Problem, he wasn’t replaced. They’d already doubled down and bet the house on their “personality” based-programming: if you enjoyed Sam Newman, Billy Brownless was basically Sam Jr., and behind him the rest of the cast were waiting to have a go at talking loud and saying nothing. This year’s attempt to reboot the format without Newman was dead out of the gate; everyone who didn’t like his stunts was already long gone.

Literally every other mainstream (AFL) footy show since the launch of The (AFL) Footy Show has gone with comedians somewhere in the mix. It’s not hard to do: plenty of comedians want to crack jokes about the footy. It’s only The Footy Show that made a conscious decision that they didn’t have room for professional comedians. It – and by that we mean Sam Newman, as by 2008 the entire show was basically built around him – was too big for that. And now it’s been axed.

Good riddance.

Countdown to democracy sausage

With just one week to go until our triennial democracy sausage party, Sammy J’s Government Coach is appearing in weeknightly instalments of Countdown to Glory, a mockumentary about the Liberal party’s 2019 federal election campaign.

Sammy J has been using his Government Coach character as a concept through which to satirise the week’s politics for a while now, imaging that our federal politicians are actually part of a poorly-performing football team and that it’s the Coach’s job to get them to win the next match. In much the same way, Clarke & Dawe used to do sketches where Bryan Dawe was a teacher telling off John Clarke’s wayward child, er, politician for not letting another child, er, politician “have a go on the bike”.

As conceits go, these aren’t bad ones; we’re all familiar with sports coaches’ press conferences, and we’ve all been told off by teachers. And framing a current political issue as a sporting match or a spat between schoolkids is usually a pretty apt metaphor. It’s also quite a neat way of sneaking in a lot of references to dull political wranglings whilst keeping the audience laughing with recognisable parodies of sporting clichés and teacher/student dynamics.

Thing is though, to work as political satire, there needs to be some analysis of the politics, no matter how disguised, and Sammy J doesn’t really manage much of that in Countdown to Glory beyond a few hackneyed visual gags referencing the one or two things most people know about the one or two Coalition politicians most people have heard of. For example, Barnaby Joyce walks around the “Blue Ties” team changing rooms in the nude apart from an Akubra hat and Tony Abbott is known as “onion” and walks around in lifesaving gear. If Kim Beasley was still in politics, there would be fat jokes. It’s that level of humour.

To be fair, there are also some very topical references as well, as the show is clearly shot on the day of broadcast. This means that Sammy J can include up-to-the-minute mentions of Egg Girl, franking credits, candidates disgracing themselves online and the Royal baby’s name. But beyond that, it’s a show that was written well before time and mainly looks at generalities of the campaign (i.e. the Club President will sack people if they don’t perform), what the fans think (there’s a scene where some hardcore Blue Ties fans hark back wistfully to the great Premiership of 1996) and occasional cuts to clips from The Pollie Show, another Sammy J staple conceit and one he won’t able to do any longer, it seems.

For those of you with very long memories, Countdown to Glory is a bit like 90s newsroom sitcom Drop The Dead Donkey, solid enough but mainly notable for whatever topical references it managed to shove into the plot the writers had written weeks, probably months, in advance.

Have said that, with week one of Countdown to Glory focusing on the lead up to tomorrow’s Liberal campaign launch, and this week’s batch of episodes presumably being about that, it could get excitingly topical. Assuming Sammy J has the skill to quickly turn whatever happens tomorrow night into sports comedy gold.

Am I (Mr) Black Enough For You

Looks like we owe the team behind Mr Black an apology. Ever since we first heard about this sitcom we’ve been making wisecracks about how much it’s obviously a Kingswood Country knock-off, with a bit of Meet the Parents and All in the Family mixed in. It was simplistic and superficial of us – we were leaping to judgement based on nothing but a brief synopsis, when what we really should have done was reserved our opinion until were were able to watch at least the first episode and give the show a fair go.

Because what this show is really ripping off is Adam Zwar’s earlier series Wilfred.

Okay, “ripping off” is harsh (can you even rip off yourself?), but seriously: Wilfred was a show about a gormless wimp whose girlfriend was non-romantically devoted to a third wheel in their relationship who was constantly trying to break them up behind her (generally oblivious) back. Meanwhile, Mr Black is… you see where this is going.

There are a few tweaks here and thank God for that because Wilfred was creepy enough back in 2007; boyfriend Fin (Nick Russell) might wear a t-shirt that reads The Future is Female, but he has a bit more spine than the Wilfred version of his character (he even moves out in the first episode) and Angela (Sophie Wright) has a bit more of a clue as to what Wilfred her father is like. Even though she does move her dad into their home on a permanent basis without telling Fin, which… yeah, not good.

But to balance that out, Mr Black is a total piece of shit.

Look, Stephen Curry is a great actor and he’s actually really good here, but the character he’s playing is not a loveable blowhard like Ted Bullpit or a well-meaning but racist and sexist dinosaur like Ted Bullpit or even someone you could stand to be in the same room with for maybe five minutes like Ted Bullpit. He’s a bully and a thug, a creepy sleaze and a dead-eyed sociopath, and considering the only moment of warmth between him and his daughter involves him playing a delightfully controlling game of “answer my random general knowledge question that came out of nowhere” we’re fairly sure the show wants us to see him that way.

Which leads to the question; who thought a version of Meet the Parents where Mr Fokker had no redeeming features whatsoever was a good idea?

When we were expecting this to be a Kingswood Country revival – and honestly, there’s still plenty of time for it to go that way – we thought “smart move Mr Black creator, writer and producer Adam Zwar”. Zwar has always been a canny judge of what the television networks want, and his CV is packed with series that, while often not to our taste, are shows that we can totally understand being made by Australian television networks.

We thought this was going to be a Kingswood Country revival because comedy today has swung back towards the light and silly. It’s big characters and wacky antics that get laughs; even something like Get Krack!n made serious points by going totally off the wall. Having an average guy dealing with a cartoon monster of a father-in-law? That fits that vibe quite nicely.

Instead, Mr Black (episode one at least) is a throwback to the golden age of Cringe Comedy, a show that takes a comedy premise, pushes it firmly into the uncomfortable area, and then just stares back at you. It doesn’t even look like a comedy, which is to say it looks polished and professional in the way of most Australian dramas but if we wanted artfully shot scenes set in chilly inner city residences we’d go to the St Kilda Film Festival.

Oh sure, there are jokes: look, Fin is telling his woes to his best friend over the phone, only it’s not his best friend, it’s a cold caller wanting to know if he’s happy with his phone plan! Previously on Mr Black: Mr Black almost drowns while trying to film women’s butts. Which is a little strange because Mr Black isn’t 60 (the press release says he’s 48 and don’t get us started on how that doesn’t work) and so not really someone who needs to create his own blurry out of focus swimsuit porn when he has… a phone?

The whole thing is weirdly misjudged: the very first scene is Mr Black stopping his mobility scooter in the middle of traffic then beating the shit out of Fin’s car when he honks his horn. Sure, you don’t fuck with Mr Black – but if the premise of the show is that Mr Black despises Fin for not being man enough for his daughter, then wouldn’t Fin standing up for himself be the kind of thing he might, you know, respect?

The power dynamic established here feels all wrong for a comedy. You get laughs out of this set-up by having Mr Black be largely ineffectual yet unaware that time has passed his kind by – if he’s a real threat to the relationship then he’s a threat, not a source of comedy. And if he’s just a nasty controlling shit, then what we’re watching isn’t a comedy tug-of-war but a creepy psychodrama about a bullied man clinging desperately to a woman who either doesn’t realise or doesn’t care that her partner is being psychologically abused by her best friend. You know, like Wilfred.

Yes, it’s the first episode and yes, they’re establishing the dynamic and yes, by the end of the episode it looks like Angela has wised up to her father and is now on Fin’s side. But why establish Mr Black as a total bastard in episode one if you’re going to have to walk that back in episode two? In Wilfred Wilfred could be a dick because at the end of the day he was still a dog and the whole show was a fantasy; the way this stands at the moment, this is just grim.

But as usual, we’re overthinking things. They’ll have to team up once or twice against a mutual bad guy, they’ll fight over the right way to help Angela when she’s in trouble, Mr Black will try to make Fin a man by going to the footy, Fin will try to educate Mr Black by doing something wanky… that’s at least five out of the next seven episodes sorted. And then the final episode will see Mr Black about to finally go into a home then at the last minute Fin says he can stay and gets hit in the balls for his trouble.

Kinda like the audience really.

It’s a Fine Line Between Pleasure and Pain

What exactly is a comedy? We’ve gone on and on here over the years about the way Australian television is happy to treat comedy as some kind of special ingredient to liven up an otherwise boring project, but it’s an approach that’s become so ingrained that there’s a boatload of shows currently on the air where we’re not exactly sure what to think.

Look, Lego Masters is hosted by a comedian (well, Hamish Blake) who spends most of the show cracking wise, but is it a comedy? Nope. The Australian version of Pointless – yes, it’s still on the air – is hosted by Mark Humphries, a man currently doing comedy sketches on the ABC’s top current affairs program, but is it a comedy? Nope.

So what about the return of Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation? It’s hosted by a comedian and features a bunch of wacky bits – but we’ve already established that’s not really enough to make a show a comedy. It’s tempting to just say “it’s really funny”, because, you know, for the most part it is. But if being funny was all it took to be a comedy then AFL footy show The Front Bar would be getting two thumbs up from us each week.

Actually, that’s not a bad comparison to make: while both shows have a (relatively) serious hook to hang their comedy on, what makes them comedies (as far as our viewing schedules are concerned) is that they both make it very clear indeed that being funny is their top priority. They’ll happily derail a segment to get a laugh, which isn’t something you can say about Lego Masters.

It’s also what separates them from a show like Hughesy, We Have A Problem, which is ostensibly more of an outright comedy but in practice has a host (and a format) that keeps dragging things back to the fairly mundane premise. It’s been around long enough to have loosened up in theory, but each week it feels like a show where the people running it think the comedy gold lies in the various problems being presented and not the guests being wacky.

(to be fair, the guests aren’t always that wacky either)

Of course, Australian television is littered with panel shows that had the opposite problem: they let the guests run wild and the show ended up a sloppy mess. So it’s no real surprise that at the moment the pendulum has swung the other way and even the “off the wall” shows like Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation are relatively firmly locked down as far as what happens and when.

The trick is, as it has always been, to put people in charge who can do both. TAYG continues to work even when it’s clearly a more sedate show than it was during its final years on Ten because Shaun Micallef is able to keep the show moving forward while throwing in as many gags and physical bits as it can handle.

The short answer as to why Hughesy, We Have A Problem (which finished up over the weekend) doesn’t work as well is because as a host, Dave Hughes lacks the confidence to let things go off track. Not that the show would really let him: when you have a (relatively) high concept like “solving people’s problems” (or “making shit out of Lego”), that’s what at least some of your audience have tuned in for, and if you don’t deliver they’re going to be pissed off.

The Front Bar, on the other hand, is based around the idea of a couple of mates talking shit about footy, which is about as low concept as you can get. It’s a comedy because the people in front of the camera are funny, and they’re given enough rope to be funny without having the format hold them back.

But what about TAYG? It has a very funny host who gets to do what it takes to get laughs: it’s also a game show with regular segments and a winning team at the end of the night. Okay, the winners are fairly arbitrary at best, and the segments are really just an excuse for a bunch of pop culture jokes. Also, the team captains are pretty funny in their own right, the guests are usually well chosen, the whole thing moves along at a decent pace and nobody is taking any of it all that seriously despite the decontamination outfits in the final segment.

So either the difference is an extremely subtle one relying on a wide range of variables that are hard to define at the best of times… or Hughesy needs to throw more bananas.

Eh, let’s go with the bananas.

Heavy on the Lows

Press release time!


Multi-Award winning comedy The Letdown returns to ABC this May to mine the highs and lows of parenthood

 

Internationally acclaimed, AACTA award winning comedy series The Letdown returns to mine the hilarious highs and lows faced by new parents, starting on ABC and ABC iview from Wednesday 29 May at 9pm, with the complete series available to binge on iview following the initial broadcast.

Following a first season hailed by The Sydney Morning Herald as “the funniest, most truthful thing on TV right now” and that drew raves from Vanity Fair and The New York Times, The Letdown season two picks up where we left off with Audrey (co-creator/writer Alison Bell in her twice AACTA Award nominated role) and the local parent’s group she thought she didn’t need. Their babies are now turning one and as they learn to walk, so too do their parents (metaphorically). At first, it’s all baby-steps, but ultimately, everyone will find their feet, with a new normal that brings more change, more chaos and more comedy.

Reprising their roles as new parents are Sacha Horler (Sando), Lucy Durack (Sisters), Celeste Barber (of #challengeaccepted Instagram fame), Duncan Fellows (Secret City), Leah Vandenberg (The Wrong Girl), Leon Ford and Xana Tang. Also returning are Sarah Peirse, Claire Lovering, John Leary, Gareth Davies, Fiona Choi and guest stars Brendan Cowell (Game of Thrones), Patrick Brammall (No Activity) and TV Week Logies Hall of Fame honouree Noni Hazlehurst. They are joined this season by Bert LaBonte (Book of Mormon), Felix Williamson and internationally acclaimed standup Felicity Ward (Ronny Chieng: International Student).

Season two of The Letdown hails from creators/writers/producers Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell and is produced by Julian Morrow (The Chaser, The Checkout) and Linda Micsko (Maximum Choppage) for Giant Dwarf. Directing this series are Trent O’Donnell (The Good Place (NBC), No Activity (CBS All Access), New Girl (Fox), Amanda Brotchie (Picnic at Hanging Rock, A Place to Call Home), as well as Scheller and Bell, making their directorial debuts.

Season one of The Letdown will be available to binge on ABC iview from 29 May. Netflix will distribute the second season globally outside of Australia, continuing its partnership from Season 1, which is also available on Netflix in Australia.

Two points:

a): Hopefully it’ll be better than the middling first season.

b): Is this an ABC series that’s been picked up by Netflix, or a Netflix series that the ABC gets to show out here on an ad hoc basis? It looks like s1 is going to be available on both Netflix and iView in Australia at the same time, which seems weird (iView is free, Netflix is not), while s2 is going to be iView exclusive even though Netflix has it everywhere else?

Geez, imagine how confused we’d be if this was a series we were actually excited about.

The Housemate: Short term let

Deep within the depths of ABC iView, we stumbled across The Housemate, a short comedy series written by and starring Gemma Bird Matheson and Alex Keddie. The Housemate imagines a world in which a room in a decent and affordable inner-city rental property is so scarce that the only hope some people have of ever getting one is to be a contestant on a The Bachelor-style reality show called The Housemate.

The Housemate

It’s funny because we are literally months away from this actually happening.

But sadly, despite its topicality and resonance, The Housemate isn’t that hilarious. It’s more the kind of multi-part sketch you’d expect to see in one of those ensemble sketch shows that contain a lot of TV parodies. You know, the type of sketch shows that networks insist on making pilots of every so often, like last year’s Skit Happens, which featured “a parody of Love Island but with desperate, single women competing for the interest of a cute fluffy cat”.

To be fair to The Housemate, it does wring about as many jokes out of a The Bachelor-style program about finding a flatmate as it possibly can. Including a sequence where the voiceover man describes how it’s been “a rocky road” for friends Gemma and Alex to find a new housemate, while Gemma and Alex are sitting on a sofa looking sad and eating some Rocky Road.

There’s also a mildly amusing inner-city twist on The Bachelor’s rose ceremony, where the surviving contestants receive a latte, with vegan contestants getting an almond milk latte but being asked to pay 80c extra. But otherwise, as far as the laughs go, the show lives or dies on whether the prospective housemates are actually funny or not.

In a wise move, the two vegan contestants who start out on the show are dispensed with in early episodes (turns out there are only about three funny jokes about vegans and they’ve all been done to death by comedians in the past half-decade), leaving the far funnier creeps and oddballs remaining in the show.

Of these, the stand-outs are:

Molly B (Laura Wheelwright, Wolf Creek, Get Krack!n), an intense shop assistant at Sportsgirl who seems to know everything about Gemma and Alex because she’s been stalking them on social media.

Tiana (Tiana Hogben, Get Krack!n), who seems incapable of expressing emotions but somehow makes it through to the final round.

Marg (Heidi Arena, Little Lunch, Audrey’s Kitchen), a 47-year-old mother of two who recently split up with her husband.

In the end, though, even with these solid comedy characters played by very able comic performers, The Housemate fails to fire because for the conceit to work the action has to take place within the confines of a reality show, thus limiting the comic possibilities.

Of course, had they taken the opposite approach, as Get Krack!n and This Time with Alan Partridge have done, where the writers took liberties with conceit to get laughs, it might not have worked either. Parodies of TV shows, despite their proliferation in comedy across the decades, are often very hard to get right. The makers have to both be true to the show they’re parodying and exaggerate the show enough to get laughs. But be too true to the show and it’s not funny, and be too over-the-top and it’s no longer true.

The Housemate’s ultimate problem? It veers too much towards the truth and thus is fairly thin on laughs.