Australian Tumbleweeds

Australia's most opinionated blog about comedy.

Putting Your Feet Up On The Desk

“This program contains content that may alarm some viewers”. That was the warning at the start of this week’s episode of The Chaser’s Election Desk. Considering the last time The Chaser did an election show they wrapped it up by showing a doctored photo of Chris Kenny rooting a dog, it wasn’t a warning to take lightly.

And yet, having watched the entire episode, we’re still not sure what the warning was for. At a wild guess? Maybe it was for the bit where Bill Shorten’s bus hit Annabel Crabb. Which only alarmed us when we realised it didn’t actually really happen because quite frankly her soft-soap efforts to “humanise” our wannabe lords and masters is about 80% of what’s wrong with political coverage in this country today. You want to get real laughs? Make fun of her. Because unless you’re living inside the ABC bubble the idea of a vaguely quirky and girlishly-dressed lady turning up at politicians houses and demanding they cook for her is somewhat more amusing than “oh look, a politician flubbed his lines”.

As for the other 20%, a goodly chunk of that has been on display on The Chaser’s Election Desk. Normally we’re all for comedy shows that try to stuff as much in as possible, and each week Election Desk has seemed increasingly stuffed.

Let’s try that again.

Here’s a question: how many people do you really need to throw to clips of politicians mangling quotes and looking silly? We’d say two – maybe three if you had an especially wide range of clips you were throwing to. But eleven? Seems a tad excessive. Especially as maybe half of them only got to announce one bit before never being seen again (until next week). It’s great that they’re giving their writers face time, but they’re just props for a joke that stopped being funny two minutes in to week one.

And while we’re talking about things that stopped working, usually at this stage we’d say something about how pretty much every prank of this series started and ended with security staff man-handling the prankster off-site before their victim even came in range. But while the prank with the faux Wicked Campers van promoting the Liberal Democrats’ leader was a pretty crude joke, it was also a): a good illustration of his hypocrisy and b): got the politician involved to say “fuck off”, so we’re going to chalk that one up as a win.

[it was also from The Checkout‘s double act of Kirsten Drysdale and Zoe Norton Lodge, who’ve stood out as new additions to The Chaser on-air team. More from them, please]

But that also highlighted the big weakness of Election Desk: all the big laughs came from the margins. The media, the minor parties, the small players – when they focused on them The Chaser got laughs. Pretty much all the stuff about Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten struggled. Shorten stumbles over words? Turnbull seems kinda snooty? These are pretty close to the least interesting things you can say about people leading political parties vying to run the country – unless, of course, you come from enough money yourself to cushion yourself from any attacks on public services or damage to the economy these leaders might cause.

Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future we’re stuck with a society where only people from the upper middle class have the resources to waste on developing a comedy career, and so shows like The Chaser are going to be coming from a place where the politicians’ names change but their devotion to keeping the middle-class welfare flowing to those comedians remains the same. Which tends to blunt their satire, which is why they work best when they’re making fun of the stuff that doesn’t really matter.

But that approach still requires them to actually make fun of stuff. High-Speed Rail? This bit felt more like something from The Checkout: moderately interesting information presenting in a moderately snarky fashion. Putting to air a large chunk of an awkward interview with the sole remaining senator from the Palmer United Party as he refused to (or was unable to) name the leader of the Palmer United Party? It was certainly interesting to see, but Media Watch tends to specialise in that when it’s not grieving over the death of journalism.

Coming directly after Mad as Hell was always going to be tough for The Chaser’s Election Desk. But to be fair, while both shows are tackling the election, they’re doing it in very different ways. Mad as Hell often takes the election material as a starting point before going off into the kind of material Micallef and company do best: pop culture references (“they’re not the droids he’s looking for”) and weird tangents (once that political spokeswoman got up and walked off set and the cameras followed, we laughed, knowing exactly where she – and the joke – was going).

Mad as Hell‘s bit about scare campaigns where the Labor spokeswoman kept telling creepy stories to freak the Liberal guy out was one of the funniest bits of election-based comedy we’ve seen to date. But it’s not the kind of election comedy The Chaser do. They don’t take funny ideas and run with them; they find a funny clip or idea, do one joke and move on. In theory it’s a strength – while everyone else is messing about, The Chaser get to grips with the raw substance of an Australian federal election.

If only Australian federal elections weren’t so fucking boring.


The Member for Nothing

The Australian electorate faces a difficult choice this Saturday; difficult because both of the major parties have similar policies and almost all of the small parties and independents are raving nutbags. Which makes Miles Holbeck – The Member, a new election-themed comedy web series from Jungle, available in bi-weekly installments on their Facebook page, seem rather timely.

Former PE teacher Miles Holbeck is standing as an independent candidate for the Senate, except, unlike every independent who’s ever stood, he hasn’t got any beliefs or policies. He’s more the kind of politician who’ll say whatever he thinks the few people prepared to listen to him want to hear.

Making Holbeck an independent candidate with no strong beliefs is an interesting choice, partly because it seems so unlikely – isn’t the thing about independents that they stand because they believe strongly in something, no matter how misguided – and partly because for the character to work, there has to be some way for us to his understand him. And so far, all we’ve discovered is that Miles used to be a PE teacher and that he and his wife split recently. Which doesn’t really explain why he’s running despite holding no political views.

We could probably overlook the fact that Miles is an unrealistic and unexplained character if the show was funny, but here’s the other problem: it isn’t. It’s yet more of what we’ve come to expect from almost two decades of post-The Office, cringe-coms: a misguided character does stuff and looks idiotic. And we’re all meant to laugh.

Miles campaigns in a local park, tries too hard to get along with people and metaphorically falls on his arse. Miles gets a slot on community radio, but when asked by the interviewer to tell the listeners his views, any of his views, he plugs his tailor. Miles’ campaign manager hires various experts (in strategy, NLP, etc.), but Miles either doesn’t understand or ignores their advice. Miles gets booked for an Open Mic night in a bar and bores and mystifies the audience with his attempts to play the guitar and connect with them politically. And on it goes.

Oh yeah, and almost all the people in this series are members of the public who had no idea Miles wasn’t a real candidate. Which again, would have been fine if it was funny, but it isn’t. You just feel a bit sorry for the various people whose time’s been wasted.

With so many candidates in this year’s election having nothing of great interest to say, a comedy about a candidate with no views seems prescient, but it doesn’t work comedically. If you want to create a character who’s funny, you’d be better off creating a character with extreme views – a Bob Katter or Donald Trump-style nutbag, for example. But if your character believes in nothing, there’s nowhere for your comedy to go. And as much as we’re not fans of Office-style cringe comedy, at least David Brent was an actual character, with the sort of delusional self-believe that’s potentially very funny indeed. Miles Holbeck, on the other hand, needs to find some beliefs to hold so that we can laugh at them.

The Power of Christ Compels You

It’s been a long time since John Safran was on our television screens, and on last night’s special The Goddam Election! it kinda showed. Not in his performance as host, which continued to walk the line between charmingly geeky and slightly less charmingly geeky; nor his interview technique, which skillfully managed to win over most of his subjects while still allowing him to make some (occasionally forceful) points. But the show itself, while full of interesting, insightful and occasionally alarming segments, didn’t really seem to build up to anything. We had 40-odd minutes of various fringe groups linking up with other fringe groups and in the end… we had a bunch of fringe groups all linked together.

Not that the links between these groups weren’t interesting in and of themselves. Safran started out – well, he started out working on a book, but more on that later. He started out wondering what a brown preacher was doing at what was basically a White Pride rally, and from there he dug up all manner of weird connections between political groups that you would have thought would have been opposed to each other – for example, Jewish extremists and Neo-Nazis – but are now at least slightly less inclined to hate on each other thanks to their (perceived) shared enemy in Islam.

Wow, Neo-Nazis and hate rallies – sounds hilarious! And yeah, those tuning in for big laughs probably left disappointed (though the running gag about the deepening involvement in all this of Safran’s dad was pretty good). Then again, Safran hasn’t really been about out-and-out jokes for a long time: his focus has much more been on looking at the stranger recesses of religion and politics than busting out the gags.

And at a time when the Herald-Sun‘s front page reads STOP THE MADNESS over a photo of police versus exactly the kinds of rioters Safran was investigating, who are we to say “be more funny”? Oh wait, that’s pretty much all we do. Still, hopefully we’re sharp enough to know the difference between an mildly funny show that tried to be hysterical, and a mildly funny show that wasn’t really all that into being funny in the first place.

Still, even by Safran’s standards this had problems. For a guy who in previous TV series was really able to build up to a big climax – remember the exorcism ending of John Safran vs God? – the ending here was more than a little hurried. Clearly the Coburg rally / riot was meant to be the big finish, and dramatically it really should have paid off: after forty-odd minutes of exposing how all these groups had drawn new and unexpected battle lines across the Australian political landscape, we were shown where this all ends – with violence in the streets. And yet a lot of the footage seemed cut short, even when there were clear shots of things like people being hosed with capsicum spray. Perhaps there were legal issues?

Then we got the moral, which was basically “these guys are all kind of racist and opposed to multiculturalism, but they’ve actually formed a rainbow coalition of hate”. No argument there, as we’d just seen 40 minutes of White Nationalists (Safran was careful not to call them Nazis but yeah, they’re basically Nazis) who were teaming up with fringe Jewish groups to oppose Islam, Fred Nile siding with Islam to put religious values first and so on. But it just felt like it was lacking the big punch it needed to bring it all home: maybe he’s saving that for his forthcoming book.

The whole thing felt a little scrappy, as if Safran suddenly realised when the election was called that all his prior work for his book could be quickly turned into a television show without too much extra research. But perhaps we’re just being picky. Safran himself points out that his big connection with Muslim extremists got himself arrested just before he could do an interview, while no-one from the Liberal Party would even talk to him, fearing some kind of wacky prank. Shows what they know: these days Safran’s work is more about letting people hoist themselves than going through Ray Martin’s rubbish.

But with those kind of obstacles in his way, perhaps it’s no wonder the end result felt patchy and scattered. Guess we’ll just have to wait until someone slicker and more polished comes along to investigate religious and political extremists in this country.

Yeah, we’re not holding our breath.


It All Evens Out In The End

Press release time!

Screen Australia and ABC deliver $1.5m for five new diverse and digital-first scripted series

Screen Australia and ABC are pleased to announce the five successful projects for the Long Story Short initiative. Each project will receive funding to create and produce a short-form, digital-first scripted series for audiences aged 18-35 to screen on ABC iview.

The five successful creative teams were chosen from more than 250 applications. With a mix of comedy and drama series, and the diverse backgrounds of the creative teams, Long Story Short promises to deliver five exciting and unique shows.

From a begrudging return to a dysfunctional family in Adelaide, to navigating the modern dating world while also pleasing your traditional Afghani mother, to a family calisthenics empire torn apart by oddball secrets, the successful projects for Long Story Short are:

  • The Edge of the Bush (VIC) — A comedy from creator/writer and performer Anne Edmonds (Fancy Boy, Have You Been Paying Attention?) who plays multiple, multi-generational members of the same family, estranged from each other after their calisthenics empire was torn apart years before. Executive producer Kevin Whyte; also featuring a who’s who of top emerging comic talent.

  • F*cking Adelaide (SA) — A dramedy following self-confessed failure Eli and his annoyingly optimistic sister Kitty as they return home to their dysfunctional family in Adelaide, a place Eli said he’d only ever visit for Christmas and funerals. From Closer Productions’ director Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays), Bec Summerton (producer) and Matthew Cormack (writer).

  • Mustafa Needs a Wife (NSW) – Newly dumped 26-year-old Mustafa must find himself an Afghani wife in a month… or else his mother finds one for him. A comedy from writer/actor Mansoor Noor (Rake, Cleverman), Yingna Lu (producer), Luke Davison (co-writer) and Steve Anthopolous (director).

  • Other People’s Problems (VIC) – Timid but talented writer Florence and her go-getter sidekick Ann team up to ghost write other people’s letters in exchange for clothes.  A dramedy from Charlotte Seymour (producer), Penelope Chai and Jane Dickenson (writers), director Erin White (Stories I Want to Tell You In Person, At Home with Julia) and executive producer Sue Maslin (The Dressmaker).
  • Maybe Today (VIC) — From Indigenous author, activist and master storyteller Boori Monty Pryor comes a collection of vignettes from his life that have delighted audiences worldwide, inviting us to find humour in sad places.  Joining him are Kelly West (producer/writer/director), Jon Stanley (producer/director) and Princess Pictures’ Emma Fitzsimons (executive producer).

Mike Cowap, Investment Manager from Screen Australia said: “We were blown away by the standard of the applications, there were so many strong creative teams in the mix. We think these five projects really know their audience and will work so well as digital-first content.”

Rebecca Heap, Head of Audience and Digital at ABC said: “We’re thrilled to team with Screen Australia on so many fantastic new scripted projects, building on ABC iview’s reputation for world class digital-first, short form series.”

The five teams will participate in a two-day workshop in July. Led by ABC TV executives and multiplatform writer/script developer Mike Jones, the workshop is an opportunity for the teams to learn about the changing landscape for short form digital content, and explore how that will impact on the development of their shows.

All five series will air on iview over the next year. For information on Long Story Short, please visit Screen Australia.

Despite the extensive use of the word “dramedy”, we’re going to chalk this up as a good thing. What other choice do we have? It’s not like the commercial networks give two shits about comedy and the ABC won’t put anything to air without Luke McGregor these days. And as for the other government broadcaster and one-time bastion of up-and-coming Australian comedy, well

SBS are partnering with VICE to launch linear TV channel VICELAND in Australia. The channel will air on free-to-air television and will take the place of SBS2. It launches in late 2016.

We know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry:

Mediaweek understands that SBS2 flagship news show The Feed, hosted by Marc Fennell and Jeanette Francis, will shift to the newly-branded channel.

Oh wait, you were worried about the SBS2 comedy shows that were actually funny? No idea what’s going to happen to them. Fingers crossed their various US sitcoms turn up on SBS1 at some stage, we kinda enjoy Brooklyn Nine Nine.

As for the Australian comedy content on SBS2, the official statement says:

Programming will focus on a distinct, immersive style of original lifestyle and culture content for young viewers and will feature Australian produced programs.

Which doesn’t exactly shut the door on comedy but does suggest a shift towards, you know, in-your-face reality shows about tattoos or something.

This does tend to back up our earlier theory about the new direction SBS comedy was going to take in 2016 and beyond. As we wrote at the start of the year in a review of The Family Law:

Unless they’ve secretly found a gold mine, SBS doesn’t really have the cash for more than a handful (read: one) local comedy series a year. For the last few years that’s been various wacky shows like Danger 5, and The Wizards of Aus follows firmly in that tradition. But The Family Law feels a lot closer to the kind of show SBS should be making (yes, we know SBS has a long tradition of “edgy” comedy reaching back to South Park and Chappelle’s Show, but SBS is the multicultural network, not the edgy comedy network); it’ll be interesting to see which fork in the road they take.

If they’ve given SBS2 over to someone else (at least during the evenings, as it seems the daytime content will remain the same), it’s likely that – The Feed aside – what local programming there is on SBS2 is going to have to fit the new format. SBS’s local comedy has already taken a swerve towards the more mainstream with The Family Law earlier this year (and there’s a second season on the way); this makes it seem at least slightly more likely that the days of shows like Danger 5 and The Wizards of Aus are numbered.

And at SBS the number probably isn’t 2.

A Nation Divided

Sometimes we ask questions knowing full well the answer. More often, we ask them because we don’t have a clue. This falls firmly into the latter category: in 2016, what happened to Gruen Nation?

You all remember Gruen Nation: perhaps the most odorous and offensive of the Gruen family of smug back-slapping projects, it’s been trotted out these last few elections to provide all-important coverage of the increasingly unimportant world of election commercials. And by “coverage” we mean “praising our would-be leaders for spending millions of dollars on lying to the public”. Hey, if your panelists are all either ad execs, political journalists or ex-politicians, no wonder your show is shithouse… uh, we mean “biased towards maintaining the status quo”.

There’s been no starker reminder of just how useless Gruen – and especially Gruen Nation – is than the current media coverage about the recent Liberal Party commercial featuring what’s become known as the “fake tradie”. Every man and his dog has made a comment or written a story about it in the last few days. By now just about every possible angle has been covered, from “fake tradie shows how out of touch the Liberals are” to “fake tradie perfectly sums up Liberal values”. And now we’ve all moved on.

Unfortunately, if Gruen Nation was on the air it wouldn’t be getting around to dropping a sack of snark on it until tomorrow night. Which is no big surprise, as big election commercials tend to debut on Sunday night and Gruen in all its forms appears on a Wednesday. But being topical – or even all that insightful – isn’t really Gruen‘s job: like just about everything on today’s ABC, it’s about putting personalities on air first and foremost. Which means our dream scenario that Gruen Nation didn’t happen this year because someone upstairs realised it was crap is unlikely to say the least.

It’s not like it wasn’t being waved in front of our noses as a thing that was going to become a thing either:

IT IS one of the ABC’s top rating shows, and it looks like Gruen might be making an earlier return than we expected.

The show, hosted by comedian Wil Anderson and featuring advertising gurus Todd Sampson and Russel Howcroft, was expected to be heading back to our small screens later this year. But it sounds like the earlier election — to be held on July 2 — could see it return sooner.

When Anderson sat down with Confidential in March while in Brisbane for the comedy festival, he hinted that this plan was well in place.

But wait, there’s more!

One of ABC’s most popular shows. ABC had been planning for a return for Gruen later in the year to coincide with the Federal Election. Now a July 2 election is on the cards, there are whispers it has hit the fast forward button. Wil Anderson has comedy touring dates until May 7 on his website. Also don’t rule out a return for Gruen Sweat to tie into the Olympics. “We have an Olympic year and an election year. (So between) Gruen Sweat and Gruen Nation it’s a perfect Gruen year, isn’t it?” Dahill teased earlier this year.

So what happened? Buggered if we know.

Perhaps they figured three election-based comedy (okay, “comedy”) shows would have been too much, especially with Sammy J’s Playground Politics kicking goals over on iView. Maybe they just couldn’t get the band back together in time. Guess people will start talking when they come to do the promos later this year for Gruen Sweat or Gruen Polo or Gruen Self-Promotion Wank-a-Thon 2016.

Obviously we’re not shedding too many tears over this. Sure, we can understand the ABC wanting to have their big ratings guns a-firin’ during the election; we’d just much rather they put to air shows that are a): entertaining, and b): not actively offensive to anyone earning less than $90,000 a year.

Seriously, in a world where Gruen Nation is a top-rating show on the ABC, do we really need the Gruen panel telling us that mainstream Australia is made up of easily-fooled suckers happily working against their own best interests by supporting a bunch of smug, sneering, wealthy parasites that treat them with contempt?

Nice One, Einstein

Anyone watching the ABC’s Wednesday night comedy line-up saw the signs of looming doom. But only David Knox at TV Tonight was brave enough to write them down:

Tom Gleeson will host a new quiz show coming to ABC.

Okay, first let’s count all the ways this might not suck:




… ok, seriously, this is pretty clearly a do-over of the much-loved by boring people Einstein Factor:

“You may know a lot about basketball, but that’s a bit broad. Perhaps you have an intimate knowledge of the Hockeyroos or a particular player like the legendary Nova Peris. You may be totally across World War II, but even better, you know enough about World War II aircraft you could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the country. You may be a real animal nut, but we’d love it more if you were the most educated person in the room when it comes to arthropods. Or you might just know an unusual amount about Australian stamps.

“This is a the quiz show for people who know a little about lots of different things and a lot about one thing in particular.”

And as such, it’s always possible that it’ll somehow click with an audience more interested in general knowledge rather than big prizes. Sure, those people are largely online now showing off their knowledge to anyone stupid enough to read the comments, but it might still work.

As for counting the ways it might suck, well… Tom Gleeson’s comedy persona to date has been 100% about him being a smug smarmy jerk. Is he really the best guy you want telling regular folks they got a question wrong? Also, that comedy persona he’s been working so hard on isn’t really based on him being a smart guy either, which means we’re talking about a show where brainy members of the general public are interacting with a comedian whose act has largely been about either making himself look stupid or mocking other people for being stupid. Yeah, that’s going to work out just fine.

The other problem is that television has moved on from the days when people would happily sit around watching no budget quiz shows simply because they were on television. As we seemingly never tire of pointing out, the bottom end of television viewing – the cheap, time-wasting stuff – has moved online. If people are watching television these days, they want something more entertaining than the YouTube clips a click away online.

So is a no budget quiz show hosted by Tom Gleeson going to bring viewers to the ABC in 2016? Does the ABC have enough money to make a show too cheap and lightweight to survive in a prime time slot? Are these the kind of questions an ABC quiz show should be asking? Stay tuned for the answers!


Sammy J’s adult take on Playground Politics

The problem with The Chaser’s Election Desk is that it has the feel of a show that’ll wear thin by week three. Okay, there are heaps of problems with The Chaser’s Election Desk, but the unsustainability of it is one of the most striking. Maybe they’d have been better off going for a different format? Or just focusing on what’s actually wrong with politics rather than getting cheap laughs out the campaign so far?

Sammy J’s Playground Politics has the right idea and one that seems fresh after last week’s stale effort from The Chaser. It’s a series of short videos being released on iView this week, that take the often childish behavior of our politicians as inspiration, imagining a world where a Play School-style show reads stories to its young audience about Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten.

In the first episode, presenter Sammy J tells the story of Average Voter, upset that all the Prime Ministers he’s voted for have been thrown out of office mid-term. And how Malcolm Turnbull made a Faustian pact in order to become Prime Minister, setting aside his pro-environment, pro-gay marriage and pro-republic stance so as not to annoy elements of his party.

As Sammy J and Satan (Broden Kelly) dance around the brightly-coloured set, singing about Malc, it’s hard not to get up and join in, just as we did as kids in front of the real Play School. “Come on kids, you know the moves, it’s just a jump to the left and 50 steps to the right!” is Satan’s chorus.

To be fair to The Chaser, they are capable of doing one-off sketches like this, that are as good, it’s just that when they do they’re lost amongst the half-arsed pranks and stodgy gags about very long desks. Sammy J, on the other hand, is refreshing because he’s pretty much nailed what he’s set out to do: make a small number of short episodes of quality satirical comedy. And right now, that’s way more exciting than more Chaser.

Don’t Fear the Reaper

Hamish & Andy are back! Okay, they never really went away, especially if you’re one of the three people still listening to commercial radio of your own free will. But it seems like the duo’s popular brand of pranks, stunts and mirth-making will soon be returning to the small screen:

Hamish & Andy have signed a new deal with Nine for an unnamed 2017 series from their production company, Radio Karate.

Details of the new series, understood to not be another Gap Year series, are being kept under wraps for now.

The news follows suggestions the duo might be headed to Seven.

Michael Healy, Director of Television at Nine, said: “Hamish and Andy are unique talent in Australia and we’re privileged to enjoy a longstanding relationship with them. The Radio Karate team have now created a bold and exciting new concept that we’re excited to bring to the Nine audience in 2017.”

The comedy duo are currently on a South Pacific cruise as part of their radio show.

“We are rapt to be continuing our journey with the Nine Network and we’re going to spend the rest of the cruise working tirelessly to invent a new cocktail to celebrate the occasion,” said Blake.

“Currently on a South Pacific cruise as part of their radio show”? Makes a change from the days when Martin / Molloy operated out of a shed on the roof of Triple M.

We don’t usually do this, but here’s a recent photo of the much-loved comedy duo:


Do they look like the fresh young faces of Australian comedy?

We’re not having a go at them – seriously, it’s not like The Logies brings out the best in anyone – but they’re now guys in their mid-30s who’ve been doing their “wacky young dudes piss-farting about” act since 2004. And every time they’ve tried to move into something different (Real Stories, the first couple of talk show-esque episodes of the first run of Gap Year) audiences and executives alike have shoved them firmly back in their box.

On radio this kind of forever young career makes sense. Despite the seemingly set-in-stone requirement that all radio shows must have an attractive blonde to put on the posters, appearing on radio remains a very good way to hide wrinkles. But on television there’s only so much make-up can do (once real-time digital smoothing is available though, all bets are off). And if you don’t plan out your next step very carefully… well, there’s a big gap in the current media profiles of James Valentine and the one-time hosts of Cheez TV.

So while we’re glad to hear that whatever they do on Nine won’t be another Gap Year, we’re also realistic: Gap Year-style antics are what has made them stars, it’s what they’ve been doing on television for over a decade, and there’s very little doubt that the chiefs at Nine would be looking for more Gap Year-style antics no matter what their show is called. Working on commercial radio doesn’t really give them much room to change or grow: hopefully when they return to television they’ll have a few new tricks up their sleeves.


Don’t Quit Your Desk Job

With a comedy team as long-running as The Chaser, it’s important for us to stake out our positions before discussing their latest effort. It’s not simply enough to say “they peaked with The Hamster Wheel” (though that’s true): something like The Checkout may not be a 100% traditional Chaser product, but it’s a better show for what it is than The Chaser’s Media Circus, which is a lot more slap-dash and sloppy. And then there’s the way their election shows, while arguably the thing they’re best known for – they’ve certainly been doing them the longest – are usually some of their weaker efforts and… ah, screw it: The Chaser’s Election Desk was pretty disappointing.

Partly that’s because of the stunts. Look, we know some people find the stunts funny: if you’re one of them, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. For us, while it’s clear they add a bit of action to a show that would otherwise be 90% voice-over over news clips, they remain pretty pointless. “Let’s try to get Malcolm Turnbull to stand next to a cardboard Tony Abbott!” O-kaay… well, that didn’t really work. Nice joke about how the cardboard version is as animated as the real one though.

Oops, maybe keep on skipping down, stunt-lovers. The problem with the stunts even when they work is that these days they don’t really tell us much about the politicians involved. People who love to suspect the ABC of left-wing bias, rejoice! The stunt involving Bill Shorten and a rat seemed far less dangerous to his media image than the one where Malcolm Turnbull was meant to catch a toppling Chas. Sure, having your photo taken with a rat is bad; having a photo of someone falling on you is worse. And the cardboard Tony Abbott one wasn’t great for Turnbull either. So having him refuse to participate doesn’t mean he’s a spoilsport: it means he (and those around him) are media savvy – just as Shorten and Tanya Plibersek were media savvy when they did get involved.

Actually, that bias question is a good one – not because the show itself was biased, but because maybe it should have been. In today’s fragmented media landscape blah blah blah zzzzzz. Oh right: the days when everyone would watch a channel and so the channel had to be “fair and balanced” are pretty much over. There’s enough media diversity out there now that you can watch (or get your news from) a source that pretty much fits your personal preferences, which means that for most viewers a goodly chunk of The Chaser’s Media Desk was making jokes that were never going to work.

Just listen to the audience reactions. These aren’t political junkies looking to laugh at the craziness of it all: these are people with a point of view who expect the jokes to reflect their point of view. Exactly what the point of view is, remains a mystery… well, until a joke about Bill Shorten lands with a clunk while slagging off Tony Abbott gets the big laughs. It’s no wonder the best material was the stuff about the election coverage rather than the politicians; Chas and Andrew Hansen making fun of the media has been The Chaser’s strongest card for a number of years now, and it’s good to have them back doing it here.

But why have another election comedy series from The Chaser anyway? Through sheer good luck Mad as Hell has been on to give the election the respect it deserves – ten minutes or so of material a week on a show happily making jokes about loads of other stuff as well. And waiting in the wings are at least two more election-themed shows, John Safran’s The Goddam Election! and Sammy J’s Playground Politics. They might turn out to be crap, but with much of The Chaser’s election material looking a bit stale after 15 years of elections, well… even something a bit crap might look better.

Election comedy is bungled photo ops, bungled interviews and bungled policy statements: either those laughs are super-obvious (“ha, this politician is making a fool of themselves!”) or you’re in the very murky waters that are “having to explain the set-up for your joke”. And there was a lot of that in this. When you’re opening your show with jokes about how the media coverage has been calling this the most boring election ever, you know you’re not working a comedy goldmine.

Plus, okay, c’mon: “Can we bring up the seat of Lyons” followed by a picture of a lion? And then another picture? This is a joke for a shoddy-looking show full of comedy bungling: it isn’t a joke that’s going to work when your show is built around the fact you’ve been able to build and staff a massive desk. Also, it’s just not a very good joke.

Which brings us to yet another one of our hobby-horses as far as The Chaser goes: where are the characters? No, we don’t expect them to start bunging on funny voices and wearing nutty costumes (though come to think of it…). But for years now they’ve done perfectly serviceable yet somewhat flavourless jobs when it comes to hosting: they say scripted jokes, they do pranks, and they’re all – with the exceptions of Chas and Hansen – basically interchangeable. There’s no such thing as a “Julian Morrow” line on The Chaser: everything they say can pretty much be said by anyone else on the team.

That’s always been, if not a problem, then at least a failing with The Chaser; personality is one of the things that makes a joke funnier. But they could at least counter it in the past by being “The Chaser”: five (occasionally six) guys who were an on-air comedy team. They may have all had the one voice, but it was their voice. The personality they lacked in their individual on-air performances came through in the show as a whole.

But increasingly now The Chaser have brought in a bunch of fresh faces, all of which present on-air with the same lack of personality as the core team. Instead of a show built around a tight core (yes, we know they’ve always had behind-the-scenes writers and there’s eight people listed under “additional writing and research” here: still, it’s the people on-air are the ones who are meant to give life to the lines that are written) that were “The Chaser”, now we have the five – well, four – core members plus another seven people giving the same identically snarky line-readings to the same jokes.

The performances lack individuality; the show itself feels like a product where they could plug anyone in to read the gags. We’re not saying they’re bad performers; we’re saying they’re not actually giving a performance. Worse, every time someone new starts talking, there’s a second or two of confusion: “wait, this guy’s a host as well?”. It really drains the show of energy for no real gain… unless they’re trying to make a joke (“So many experts! All sounding the same!”), in which case it’s not really worth the effort.

The result is a show where it seems anyone could be a member of The Chaser on-air, because whatever their behind-the-scenes contributions, being a member of The Chaser on-air only seems to involve the ability to read an autocue. Own a suit? You could be a member of The Chaser!

Which is the joke behind the big desk. Did anyone really find that big desk funny? They sure won’t after weeks of it being there and not getting any funnier!

All The Hughes That’s Fit To Print

It’s fair to say our expectations weren’t exactly high for Hughes the Boss?, Dave Hughes’ half hour comedy special that aired on Channel Nine last night. But somehow we managed to fool ourselves into thinking that it had to be something more than chunks of Hughes’ stand-up about his family intercut with home movies featuring his family.

It wasn’t.

Given enough time and social success, pretty much every stand-up comedian eventually starts doing material about how their family is a nightmare, their kids are shits and their partner hates them for condemning them to this living hell. It’s not funny and it’s not really meant to be funny: it’s what well-established comics do when they’ve been around long enough to have a rusted-on fanbase who are going through the same kind of shit. “He’s saying what we’re all thinking!” The audience isn’t there to laugh at funny observations: they’re there to laugh in relief that their own horrible thoughts about their shitty kids are being said out loud by someone else.

But what about the rest of us? How are we supposed to act when watching a television show where a stand-up comedian does a bit on how his dog is so dumb it doesn’t know how to use a doggy door, followed by home video footage of that comedian trying to get the clearly uncomprehending dog to use the doggy door? What to do when seeing Hughes flip a coin while his two older (but still under five, God help him) children watch, then tell the girl that the boy won and stare dumbfounded as she bursts into tears? Then after the commercial break he repeats the experiment, tells the boy the girl won and the boy bursts into tears?

For parents, this kind of thing is “yeah, kids are shits… but you gotta love ’em.” For everyone else, it’s “yeah, kids are shits.” For Hughes, a loveable Aussie knockabout larrikin who’s been in the public eye for so long it seems churlish to wonder exactly what it is he does that makes him so essential to the fabric of society considering his current material seems to be basically “my kids are self-centered sooks and I’d love to abandon them in the outback”, this kind of material is found money. But why do a TV special?

The stand-up material wasn’t great, but as previously mentioned, it’s got an audience who hopefully have already forgotten what happened when those Japanese parents abandoned their kid in the wild. Plus Hughsie has a daily commercial radio gig plus a weekly slot on the AFL Footy Show: he still does plenty of stand-up comedy but it’s hard to see him as a stand-up comedian, if you get the distinction. So he doesn’t need to do a show like this to advertise his act, and he doesn’t need a show like this to advertise himself.

What he does seem to need this show for is to prove to people that he’s for real. He tells a joke about his kids, then we get a clip showing that he wasn’t making it up. Hughsie is telling it like it is: small children are messy and selfish. Who knew?

A more cynical viewer might think this kind of show exists solely to defend the Hughsie empire from the one area where it’s vulnerable. Hughsie is quick with the one-liners and on The Footy Show he’s perfectly serviceable – no-one doubts for a second that he’s interested in the footy, or that he can be funny about the footy. But the kind of jokes he’s cracking about his family are the kind of jokes anyone can make. Kids are annoying? A million public transport users say NO SHIT. So he’s got to provide some proof. He’s got to actually point at some real kids and say “look, this is what I’m talking about right here.”

Or, you know, he could come up with some different material.