Australian Tumbleweeds

Australia's most opinionated blog about comedy.

Family Comedy doesn’t mean the same thing as Comedy Family

Press release time!

Filming underway on ABC’s New Family Comedy series Sando

Monday, November 20, 2017 — ABC and Screen Australia in association with Create NSW are pleased to announce that filming is underway in Sydney on the new six-part family comedy/drama series Sando, from the team at Jungle.

Starring the much-loved Genevieve Morris (No Activity) as Sando (aka Victoria ‘Sando’ Sandringham) in her first TV series lead role, the ensemble cast includes Firass Dirani (House Husbands), Phil Lloyd (The Moodys)  Rob Carlton (Paper Giants), Krew Boylan (Schapelle), Adele Vuko (of online comedy sensations Skitbox), Uli Latukefu and newcomer Dylan Hesp.

‘Sando’ (Genevieve Morris) is Australia’s queen of the discount furniture package deal.  She’s built her empire on being a down-to-earth larrikin and is something of a national treasure – to all but her family. They banished her a decade ago when her one-night stand (and resulting pregnancy) by her daughter’s fiancé (Firass Dirani) was shockingly revealed at his wedding to her daughter (Krew Boylan).  Now, after a health scare, her career on a precipice and her professional nemesis (Rob Carlton) primed to push her into the abyss, Sando is determined to rekindle the family relationship. She needs them, and in spite of their initial apprehension…and unbridled hatred…soon they’ll discover they might actually need her too.

Created and written by Phil Lloyd (The Moodys, Here Come the Habibs) and co-created by Charlie Garber, the series will be directed by Erin White (It’s a Date, Little Lunch) and the Van Vuuren Bros. (Bondi Hipsters, Soul Mates), and produced by Chloe Rickard (No Activity, Here Come the Habibs).

Sando will film in Sydney over the next six weeks and air on ABC next year.

Look, we know it’s the job of a press release to sell something that perhaps is a bit on the whiffy side, but calling Genevieve Morris “much-loved”? No slight on Ms Morris but in late 2017 with John Clarke gone we’d struggle to call anyone in Australian comedy “much-loved” aside from maybe Magda Szubanski and she’s barely done comedy since Kath & Kim.

Genevieve Morris, on the other hand, has a comedy career that largely involves five years on Comedy Inc, one of the worst sketch shows this country has ever produced. Then there’s her work on Wednesday Night Fever, a show about which the less said the better, and Live From Planet Earth, which was, to use an industry term, “shit”. Plus a lengthy run on City Homicide, which was probably as big a laugh-getter as any of the other shows mentioned here.

But clearly she’s been doing something right, because appearing in a run of shows like that would have killed a lesser comedian’s career stone dead. And hopefully whatever it is that she’s been doing can draw an audience to a show that looks like someone at the ABC realised that they had nothing to fill the “wacky lower-class family” slot now that Upper Middle Bogan and The Moodys were over and figured a show loosely based on a dim recollection of Ken Bruce would work as well as any.

Oh wait, the press release calls it a “comedy/drama” which these days isn’t even code for “unfunny comedy”. If you’re trying to sell a show to the nation and that’s the best pitch you’ve got, we’re all in a lot of trouble.


Vale Gruen, or What Is Dead May Never Die

Aside from how to hate life in all its forms, what did we learn from the latest season of Gruen? Because if you ask around, that’s generally seen as Gruen‘s big appeal: it’s a show that educates people about how the media, and advertising in particular, works. As education is obviously a good thing, Gruen is therefore a good show. Enjoy!

Well fuck that. It’s hard to pick one rock-bottom moment from this years endless parade of smug fuckwittery, but we’re going to go with the time millionaire Gerry Harvey was described as a loveable Aussie battler. Because he’s not. He’s an extremely wealthy man who has spent the last decade fighting against literally anything that could save Australian consumers money. But because he comes across as a cranky old coot in his commercials, he’s winning when it comes to media branding. Which, according to Gruen, is a shitload more important than reality. Remind us: what do we call an educational program based on lies?

So one more time for the folks up the back: Gruen isn’t a show that lifts the lid on advertising. Gruen is advertising: it’s a 35 minute weekly commercial for the wonders and glories of the business of advertising. You know how commercials for a product can tell you facts about that product and still be an advertisement for that product? That’s what Gruen does: it presents the facts in a slanted way to give the impression of a fair and balanced take while really pushing a biased message that’s in no way in the best interests of the consumer.

Once you realise that [less of the “wake up sheeple”, ok – ed] it becomes clear why Gruen is one of the dullest shows on television. Sure, if you take it at face value it’s a passable panel show where a bunch of millionaires sit around explaining why poor people are suckers, but upon realising that every single segment is advertising the concept of advertising it becomes as stale and predictable as any other commercial. No matter where a segment starts on Gruen, it always ends up at the same point: marketing is the solution to all problems. Which might seem fair enough – it is a show about marketing and advertising, after all – but it’s the reverse of how just about every other panel show works.

Everywhere else you go, the point of the show is the subject. Sports shows are about sports, political shows are about politics, and so on. When they discuss issues, they start with a story coming from their area of interest – “this is a sports story” or “this is a political story” – and then work out from there to find a solution. They’re basically telling a story: we know where they’re starting from and it’s the journey towards a somewhat unknown destination that provides the interest. Will the panel fight? Will someone have a crazy suggestion? Let’s find out!

But on Gruen it’s the reverse. Each episode the topics change – one week it’s AI home assistants and consumer boycotts, the next it’s Taylor Swift has a new album out – but the answer is always the same: marketing. Are AI home assistants a malware pipeline that promise to make home appliances as fun to deal with as a 1996 VCR? Why are consumer boycotts pretty much the only tool left to reign in corporate excesses? Has Taylor Swift progressed musically beyond the EDM-influenced pop that’s increasingly yesterday’s news on the charts? FUCK YEAH MARKETING.

And this is as boring as fuck because marketing is as boring as fuck. The topic is the interesting thing: the solution is just a bunch of buzzwords designed to render everything down to the same level of “how can we extract as much money out of the client as possible”. It’s like someone created a show that each week tackled the biggest issues facing our society and said the solution to every single problem was exactly the same: more tax cuts for the rich. Oh wait.

Unsurprisingly, this is now how a large chunk of our media works. Whether you’re Andrew Bolt or Helen Razer, one increasingly popular path to media success is to position yourself as someone with all the answers. You’re the only one who sees how our society really works so you’re the only one with the key to figuring it all out, and it doesn’t really matter what the answer you’re selling is (Communism! Tony Abbott! Marketing!) just so long as it’s even slightly convincing as an answer to the confusion of modern life.

Of course, the people behind Gruen know that this is a media strategy that’s extremely successful when it comes to promoting a product: they work in marketing. We just wish someone there worked in entertainment.





The Letdown has let us down

That’ll teach us to be optimistic. When we watched the first episode of The Letdown we saw some potential in the series. Now, four episodes in, we’re just waiting for it to end. If we were the mother of a small child and we were thinking about The Letdown, our face would look like this. But more on Alison Bell’s face later in this blog…

The Letdown

The Letdown wasn’t like most Australian sitcoms, which start out okay and then continue to be okay but are mainly kinda meh. The Letdown started fairly strongly, setting itself up as a show which struck a good balance between making the audience laugh with funny characters and situations, and being the kind of show that gets knowing laughs on the basis that the audience can relate to what’s happening to the characters. But now? It’s just the kind of show that can get knowing laughs on the basis that the audience can relate to what’s happening to the characters. And, frankly, we’re not even sure it can do that.

The last several episodes of The Letdown have been exactly what you’d expect of an inner-city dramedy about people in their 30s, except with Alison Bell’s face reacting in pain every time something bad happens to her character instead of there being some actual comedy.

The Letdown

And considering The Letdown debuted as part of the Comedy Showroom series, where six sitcom pilots were made and aired to see whether they’d make good series or not, and The Letdown was one of only two chosen, making a show were 90% of the intended laughs are “woman makes face” is pretty crap.

Just a reminder: this wasn’t Drama Showroom or even Dramedy Showroom, this was Comedy Showroom:

Comedy Showroom: six new comedy pilots made by some of Australia’s most exciting comedians, comedy writers, producers and directors

So, now that The Letdown is a series, isn’t it obliged to, you know, be a comedy?

To say we’re disappointed in the direction The Letdown has taken is an understatement. Now all that’s left of the show’s ambition to be funny is that wacky (and increasingly grating) incidental music, and Alison Bell’s reaction face.

The Letdown

We know many Australian comedies have put themselves out there and been less funny than The Letdown, but they also didn’t win what was, effectively, the highest-profile comedy competition in years.

And what does it say about comedy commissioning at the ABC that a show that gave up being a comedy after episode 1, is the show they’re pushing the hardest?

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, You’re Always a Day Away

It’s that most wonderful time of the year – a time where the TV networks look to the future and say “more of the same, thanks”. So big props to SBS for actually making a change that makes sense for 2018: they’re filing The Family Law under drama:

The drama slate includes the previously announced Safe Harbour and the third and final season of The Family Law, both from Matchbox Pictures; Dead Lucky from Subtext Pictures; and Grace Beside Me, NITV’s first scripted drama from Magpie Pictures.

But don’t worry, they’re not giving up on comedy just yet:

Homecoming Queens the first scripted commission for SBS On Demand, is a semi-autobiographical ‘sad-com’ from Michelle Law and Chloë Reeson. Law and Liv Hewson play best friends who have to reinvent their lives after suffering chronic illnesses. The online series from Generator Pictures will screen as a 60 minute special and as 7 x 8 minute episodes.

Maybe we spoke too soon.

But you won’t have to wait until 2018 for the real news in Australian comedy, because take a look at this:

New Australian comedy series

The Slot

Premieres on The Comedy Channel this December

The Slot, a brand new Australian skit series from the makers of cutting-edge comedies We Can Be heroes, John Safran’s Race Relations, Open Slather and Summer Heights High, will premiere exclusively on The Comedy Channel on Thursday December 14 at 8.30pm.

Each week, The Slot will unearth established and emerging creators from the online world and showcase their original and classic viral sketches, which have made them famous around the globe.

The stars of the new ground breaking series, who between them have amassed billions of online views with their captivating, weird and at times absurd style of comedy, include the infamous Bondi Hipsters, the super popular Superwog, the online sensations favoured by talk show host Ellen – Sketchshe, and fan favourites Aunty Donna, Racka Racka, Troy Kinne, Natalie Tran, Skit box and many more.

Series host Christiaan Van Vuuren (Bondi Hipsters) said: “As someone who had their life turned upside down by the ability to post content online and find an audience, it’s super exciting to see similar avenues opening up in the world of TV. The Slot is an awesome step forward in terms of legitimising the careers of creators, and providing an avenue for our community to reach an audience they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”

Co-host Adele Vuko (Skit box) said: “A lot of the creators on this show have millions of fans around the world and people who queue up to see them live. Yet many of us make little to no money and can barely make rent. This show is a great opportunity for us because now we can eat something better than Maggi noodles which are delicious, but kind of get boring after the 400th night.”

After its primetime Thursday premiere on The Comedy Channel, the Slot will encore on FOX8 on Saturdays at 10.30pm, and will be available to watch from Foxtel’s on demand library, or streamed on demand on Foxtel Now.

The Slot, a 10×30 minute original Foxtel series, is produced by Princess Pictures.

So… it’s like one of those “specials” where a commercial network grabs a bunch of cat videos off YouTube, only here the videos being grabbed are “classic” viral comedy sketches? It’s not exactly a good sign when your press release is made up entirely of promotional quotes from comedians saying “great, we’re finally getting paid for this stuff”.

Look, far be it for us to suggest that a clip show on an Australian pay TV network isn’t as legit as YouTube, but it’s “providing an avenue for our community to reach an audience they otherwise wouldn’t be able to”? So instead of millions of people worldwide, they can now reach thousands of Foxtel subscribers?

That’s not to say that a guide to the funniest stuff on YouTube is a bad idea: there’s so much of it that an expert’s steady hand on the track listing could only be a good thing. But this looks exactly like a collection of stuff that anyone who’s even slightly interested has already seen (finally Superwog makes it to Foxtel after half a decade or more) that’s been slapped together to create some cheap “original” content.

C’mon, four of the acts being “unearthed” have already had their own shows (or at least pilots) on the ABC or Seven; when you’re “favoured by talk show host Ellen”, it’s safe to say Foxtel isn’t a step up.


Putting the X back into 10

We don’t usually pay much attention to the commercial networks when they announce their line-ups for the coming year because it’s been a long time since any of them were intentionally in the comedy business. But Ten just released some details of their 2018 slate, and… eh, let’s just dive right in:

MasterChef (including Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson as guests)
The Bachelor
The Bachelorette
I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!
(first clue: “Two Aussie icons in the middle of Australia’s biggest feud)
Survivor: Champions v Contenders (high-profile sportspeople and entertainers versus “ordinary” Aussies)
KFC Big Bash League
Rebel Women’s Big Bash League
Have You Been Paying Attention?
Bondi Rescue
The Project
Family Feud
The Living Room
Shark Tank
Todd Sampson’s Body Hack 2.0
Studio 10

Of course Cram! is returning: despite being shithouse, they probably filmed 80 episodes over a weekend.

The Wrong Girl
Bondi Vet

AKA “every show on Ten that costs money to make”. But it’s the new shows that are of real interest to us:

Blind Date: Australia had a version of Blind Date in the late 1960s, and that format was later adapted to Perfect Match – a hit on Ten in the ’80s. Now, the network will launch a fresh season of Blind Date, based on the UK game show of the same name. Hosted by Julia Morris, each episode features a single person quizzing three potential partners. “It’s an old school studio entertainment show.”

Are there four words better at draining all the romance out of a room than “hosted by Julia Morris”? Just don’t tell anyone at Ten about Tinder.

How to Stay Married: Lisa McCune and Peter Helliar star in this drama about a couple, stuck in a rut after 12 years of marriage. Just as he is made redundant, she returns to work for the first time since their children were born.

Far be it for us to give advice to the Australian entertainment industry, but this whole “Peter Helliar, modern master of love” thing he’s been peddling with I Love You Too and It’s a Date and now this? No-one out in the real world is buying it. We barely bought Helliar as Straunchie: trying to pretend (with an extended version of that firmly average episode of It’s a Date he starred in) that he’s got any more insight into matters of the heart than your average tin of dog food is funnier than anything he’s said in the last fifteen years.

Hughesy, We Have a Problem: The former Project and Before the Game co-host is back on Ten. Each week, guest comedians and entertainers try to solve “everyday problems”, from infidelity to fights over the remote.

Presumably every solution involves getting angry.

Russell Coight’s All Aussie Adventures: Scheduled to air this year, but filming took longer than expected. Made by Working Dog Productions, it stars Glenn Robbins as the accident-prone outdoorsman.

This might actually be funny. Which means the cosmic balance must be maintained, and so we also have:

Street Smart: A half-hour scripted comedy, about a gang of inept criminals, starring Tahir Bilgic and Rob Shehadie. “It has a proper multicultural cast, and it’s written by Tahir and Rob – you can hear their voices [in the writing]. People will be inclined to compare it to Here Come the Habibs!, but it feels very different.”

In that it’s being screened on Channel Ten.

Look, at least they’re trying new things. And by new things we mean that everything “new” mentioned here is either a revival, hosted by someone with a twenty year career, a reworking of something from another network, or a revival hosted by someone with a twenty year career. Did we mention we usually ignore the commercial networks when they announce their line-ups for the coming year?

One Crazy Summer… plus two more

Ben Elton’s something of a strange figure in Australian comedy, in that despite living here off-and-on for the last twenty years he’s never actually become part of Australian comedy. He’s set books here, he’s made one rapidly cancelled television program here, but otherwise he’s generally avoided the panel shows, comedy game shows, radio chats, newspaper columns, stand-up performances and so on that make up the Australian “comedy scene”. It’s hard not to have the opinion that for Elton, Australia is where he lives, not where he works. Which is probably why Three Summers, his Aussie-as big screen debut as an Aussie film-maker, seems a little bit… odd.

To be fair, some of that strangeness comes from the fact that it’s an unashamedly mainstream Australian comedy in 2017; it’s been a very long time since we saw an Australian comedy that wasn’t about characters we were meant to be laughing at, not with – and when we did get a local comedy that was all about having a rollicking good time it was almost always shithouse. So while we might have a bunch of negative things to say, the closest thing to Three Summers we’ve seen lately was Spin Out so if we were grading like against like it’d be five stars no worries. Put another way, Three Summers contains actual jokes, some of which are actually funny; that’s not something we can afford to laugh at.

Oh right, the story: every year in rural West Australia a folk festival is held. People come from all around to camp out and listen to various kinds of folk music. Some of these people are thinly sketched one-joke characters, others – most notably an Irish pub singer and the theremin playing soloist whose slow burn romance is the heart of the film – are thinly sketched one-joke characters who get more screen time. Over the course of three summers people learn (that racism is bad), they grow (into people who don’t like intolerance), and occasionally they turn up to a concert where a band of Afghani refguees give an opening spiel that’s basically “we come to you from a violent place with no music, a brutal land where freedom is a foreign concept. We call it hell, but it’s not our homeland – it’s an Australian detention centre!” Take that, Thatcher… uh, Turnbull.

Mainstream Australian comedy films aren’t usually associated with political activism, though The Castle famously references Mabo and Crackerjack was designed to demonstrate that Australia didn’t have to be a country where the old were pitted against the young. By the way, how Aussie is this film? It only stars Magda Szubanski, Michael Caton, Deborah Mailman, Peter Rowsthorn, Jacqueline McKenzie and John Waters. It’s almost as if Elton had something to prove.

Anyway, this is extremely right-on in a very leftie way. Sure, on some level most Australians know that the way we treat asylum seekers is barbaric, the rift between white and Aboriginal Australia is pretty deep, and old people are racist as all hell, but usually our movies are too busy going on about how hot incest is to have time to bluntly spell out our social ills again and again and again. Elton is an old, old hand at comedy so he knows to mix the preaching in with a bunch of jokes – some of which are actually not bad – but this is still a film with a lot to get off its chest. It’s almost kinda sorta justified story-wise thanks to being set at a folk festival packed with greenies, but it’s still hammer-subtle at the best of times.

Aside from that… actually, it’s really hard to look aside from that, because everything else here is extremely forgettable. The romance is stock standard, the characters are all cliches, their development is utterly predictable, the three summers gimmick is a bit uneven (the first summer takes up more than half the film) and while the film’s best jokes are at the expense of right-on attitudes those same attitudes lead to some fairly blunt moments that are well meaning but not exactly understated.

And by that we mean, this is a film where Michael Caton plays an old racist who ends up doing an traditional Aboriginal dance to express his solidarity with the Stolen Generation. And yet this is still probably the funniest Australian film of the year. Because it’s the only Australian comedy film of the year! Sorry, that one where the teen boy and his dad both compete to bone the same quirky stranger doesn’t count.


Cram it with Walnuts, Ugly!

“Welcome to Cram!, the only quiz show in the entire world where the players get the answers before they’re asked the question” – well, apart from every other quiz show ever made, because if quiz shows only asked people questions they didn’t already have the answers to then the contestants would never get any answers right. And with that basic misunderstanding of the very nature of quiz shows, Cram! was off and running.

Unfortunately no-one bothered to check which direction it was running in and so it promptly went directly off a cliff. At least the basic idea was both straightforward and not completely hopeless: two teams, three people per team, they each get shown a short video and then have to try and remember as much from it as possible. “It sounds easy, right,” says Helliar, “well, in theory, it should be”. Way to build suspense there, Pete.

Here’s how bad Cram! was: it’s a quiz show with an exclamation mark in the title. Not a question mark, which would actually make sense because the very basis of quiz shows is asking endless questions, but an exclamation mark because yeah! Excitement! Thrills! Peter Helliar! Wait, that can’t be right…

The only reason we’re cutting this awful, awful show even the slightest bit of slack is because despite being clearly rubbish on pretty much every level they did manage to get one bit right: they figured out a way to get the people at home involved. We hate comedy quiz shows here for all manner of reasons, but one of the big ones is that we’re lazy sods who want our shows to entertain us with as little effort as possible on our part. Quiz show fans, on the other hand, like to take part in their viewing. Yeah, because work is so much fun lets do even more of it in our limited time off, right?

Have You Been Paying Attention? works because it’s fast, funny, and is based on current affairs so quiz show fans can test themselves against the contestants; in theory by showing both contestants and home viewers the same videoes in Cram, the people at home can also play along when it comes to answering questions about the video. Trouble is, if the rest of the show is a boring trudge through a self-congratulatory swamp, nobody in their right mind will want to watch long enough to find out they can play along. Welcome to the debut episode of Cram!.

Here’s a question Cram! didn’t get around to asking: has Peter Helliar ever hosted a successful show? Sure, he’s been involved in various forgettable sports-related shows – Before the Game, The Bounce, The Trophy Room – and there’s been that extremely long stretch where he appeared behind and slightly to the left of Rove (Rove, the Rove-produced The Project) – but aside from being a good mate to Rove and liking sport, what exactly are his qualifications for hosting a prime-time game show? The ability to say “Cram!” three dozen times without throwing up on himself?

And why do these comedy quiz shows still think it’s a good idea to have “banter” before the questions? Again, we point at HYBPA? – there they power through the pre-quiz banter as quickly as possible (at this stage it’s little more than “nobody dead? Let’s begin”) and then occasionally ask the contestants stuff in between questions if there’s anything interesting to ask. Here’s there’s a good minute or so of people answering the gripping question “anyone here ever flown on a plane?” Sure, Woodley got to make a 90 year old contortionist joke (“I wanted to be a contortionist but I could never get into it”), but when that kind of material is the funniest thing on offer why are you making a quiz show?

All the usual, played out elements were on offer: rounds that mean nothing, “cryptic images” as a way to select topics, endless host prattle, people laughing at nothing, endless cutaways to other people laughing at “jokes”, pointless “intense” lighting, idle musing on exactly when Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation will be airing in 2018… okay, the last one was probably just us.

Suffice to say that even with an endless and completely inexplicable bit about a horse that said “baa” instead of “neigh”, there was nothing on offer in Cram! that made it stand out in any way from any other totally forgettable comedy game show of the last decade or two. Even All-Star Family Feud is more memorable, and that’s just Family Feud with people we don’t recognise.

Launching a new game show with barely a month left in the ratings isn’t exactly a vote of confidence in any aspect of the show. Even for something that presumably cost around $4.95 to make this was dire: the contestants went in as people audiences weren’t excited about and left pretty much the same way, the host is a proven dud who delivered roughly the same performance that’s sunk every other show he’s ever hosted (again, where is the solo success Peter Hellier can point to as justification for ever getting work again?) and the format was slow, dull and almost completely without charm.

Cheer up Woodley, it’ll all be over soon.

Kennedy Molloy – Anything could happen

It’s always a safe bet that a show introducing itself with “this could go anywhere” isn’t going to deliver, and so it is – so far – with Kennedy Molloy.

Having said that, Kennedy Molloy has a lot of good things going for it. Jane Kennedy and Mick Molloy have been doing radio, comedy and radio comedy for three decades, and have always been part of successful, well-liked programs. The D-Generation, Martin/Molloy and The Hot Breakfast were ratings smashes, and so anticipated has Kennedy Molloy been that the show’s podcast is already in the iTunes top 10 – how many radio shows do that after first week?

Problem is, Kennedy Molloy is also like a lot of other radio shows out there: two people having a gab about what’s in the papers, what’s on the telly and what happened to them last night. And while we get that a lot of people seem to like that kind of thing, in radio terms it’s about as cookie cutter as you can get. Are fans of Jane Kennedy and Mick Molloy, who grew up with The D-Generation, Martin/Molloy and The Late Show – shows which really pushed the boundaries of what you’d expect of breakfast radio, drivetime radio or late night live comedy – really going to be satisfied with that?

Currently, the vibe of Kennedy Molloy is “Hughsie and Kate but far less annoying”. And if that’s as far as the show goes when it comes to standing out in the marketplace, then they might as well not even bother.

But that’s probably not going to happen.

Triple M Melbourne’s Hot Breakfast, the show Mick Molloy left to do Kennedy Molloy, was always enlivened, nay, made listenable, by Mick’s personal take on the well-worn tropes of commercial radio, so a better Kennedy Molloy is likely.

It’s also probably not fair to judge a show which is only a week or so old. And is quite deliberately warming itself up in Melbourne only before going national next year.

One thing is certain, though: Kennedy and Molloy are going to need to personalise their show. Play to their strengths as comedians and radio personalities and do the kind of radio that the likes of Hughsie and Kate, and the various other guy/girl radio combos around the nation, wouldn’t do.

Can they do it? Sure they can. Will they do it? We’ll have to wait and see.

Rebrand of the Hand

Friday afternoon is usually the time when governments and large organisations announce bad news in the hope that the media and the general public – already halfway out the door for the weekend – will fail to give it their full attention. So having this story leak out of the ABC late last week doesn’t exactly bode well:

ABC are getting serious about comedy with the announcement today of a new suite of content and a channel re-brand for ABC2.

With a slew of content across the main channel, the new re-branded ABC2, podcasts, radio and online, ABC is launching their new venture with ABC Comedy.

“ABC2 needed an identity and direction so it meant something,” ABC’s Director of Television David Anderson told HuffPost Australia.

“We were looking at what we’re well known for — news and current affairs, Australian drama, children’s programming and telling Australian stories — but we’re also known for great Australian comedy. So we thought, why don’t we make ABC2 into ABC Comedy?”

Starting December 4 the channel will convert at 7:30pm each night from ABC Kids to ABC Comedy, with an increase in content, as well as a new digital strategy across the board.

Is this a good thing for Australian comedy? Here’s a clue: when television networks invest big in an area they want to dominate in – say, with a high profile drama series or big sporting event – do they put it on a minor digital channel? If you’re thinking of saying “but the idea is that viewers will follow the shows they want to watch”, don’t: if that was an actual thing that happened, we’d have already seen it happen a thousand times. No-one thought Channel Ten was trying to boost the ratings of Neighbours when they put it onto a digital channel, and nobody seriously thinks the ABC is trying to boost Australian comedy here. Heck, even the Herald Sun found a guy who thinks it’s “an odd move”.

And in case you think we’re being a bit harsh:

New series of returning favourites will also be appearing on the main channel with more of ‘Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell’, ‘Gruen’ and ‘The Weekly with Charlie Pickering’.

So the comedy shows that rate well will remain on the main channel: everything else might end up carted off to the wrong side of the tracks. Sounds like the Wednesday night comedy line-up could end up as a Wednesday night comedy timeslot – let’s say 8.30pm – with God only knows what filling out the rest of the night.

That’s not to say this ghettoisation of the ABC’s comedy output is doomed to be a total disaster for Australian comedy. It’s perfectly possible that, freed of the constraints of having to please the rusted-on ABC audience, the new channel could commission a range of shows that we’d otherwise miss out on, leading to ground-breaking new material that audiences might actually want to seek out on a channel they otherwise would never watch. Or not:

One of the flagship programs ABC Comedy will launch with is ‘Tonightly with Tom Ballard’ which will air weeknights at 9, and streamed in full on ABC iView and YouTube.

The show, filmed at ABC Ultimo, will feature live interviews, sketches, reviews and the daily headlines as Tom Ballard and his team Greta Lee-Jackson, Greg Larsen and Bridie Connell tackle everything from news, culture and entertainment “armed with nothing but jokes”.

So it’s The Feed, only not as high-profile.

We don’t even have to read between the lines to see that this new channel will be a dumping ground for a vast range of second run material from overseas*, the occasional new local sitcom that will vanish without trace**, and a bunch of iView material broadcast to fill in the gaps*** (and don’t forget there’ll be “Stand-up comedy — lots of it, including Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala, opening night supershow and The Great Debate.). That’s because it’s pretty much exactly what ABC2 was originally doing seven years ago, only then the ABC wasn’t possibly**** scraping all the comedy off their main channel to make it happen.

And just how well did that work out for ABC2? Can a revival of Back Seat Drivers be far off?



*the official ABC press release says “there [sic] a plethora of premium international titles to launch the ABC COMEDY channel including: Game Face, Catastrophe S3, Episodes S4&5, Murder in Successville, Inside Amy Schumer S3&4 and every weeknight a chance to enjoy Never Mind the Buzzcocks, The Office, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. 2018 titles include Fleabag S1, Plebs S3, Asian Provocateur, and Idiot Sitter S1, with more to come.”

**the official ABC press release doesn’t actually mention ANY new local content for the new ABC Comedy channel aside from Ballard’s tonight show – everything new is… well, read for yourself: “The laughs will continue on the ABC’s main channel, with a raft of returning favourites in 2018 including Gruen, Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, Black Comedy and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2018 in addition to new series from some of Australia’s best. Squinters stars Tim Minchin plus a stellar ensemble cast including Jacki Weaver. It follows five car-loads of Sydney commuters squinting into the sun and riffing on their days. Sando is a new family comedy that follows the trials of lovable larrikin Victoria ‘Sando’ Sandringham. Don Angel (Wayne Hope) returns in Back in Very Small Business. And Corey White’s Road Map to Paradise tackles the big issues of the day and aims to solve them—with a laugh or two—in 15 minutes!”

***Uh, what does these shows have to do with the new channel? They all sound like iView only series: “Lovers of snackable short form comedy will enjoy six all new Australian ABC COMEDY series available on iview from December 4. These include Nakkiah Lui’s new series Kiki and Kitty; #CelesteChallengeAccepted from comedian and Instagram star Celeste Barber; The Chinaboy Show from YouTube sensation John Luc (aka MyChonny); Neel Kolhatkar’s Virgin Bush; the charming Other People’s Problems; new Indigenous comedy Aussie Rangers; plus the next series of When TV Was Awesome as well as 60 new bite-sized films from the new batch of Fresh Blood teams.”

****So basically the ABC is making a channel no-one watches even more niche almost entirely as a rebranding exercise – they’re not even going to make the stupid but committed move of pushing all their local scripted comedy content (which currently sounds extremely dire, by the way) over there. Once again the ABC reveals their fondness for promoting things using the word “comedy” without actually putting in the effort to make any.



Getting Back With Your Ex

For a man so consistently hilarious, it’s a little surprising that Shaun Micallef has never quite cracked the secret of sitcom success. Welcher & Welcher has its defenders – ironically, they don’t include Micallef himself – but it’s generally seen as more miss than hit, while the first season of The Ex-PM never really scaled the humour heights that Mad as Hell has made its home. For a performer who’s tried (and generally been pretty good at) just about every form of comedy there is (aside from stand-up)… what gives?

The answer lies in the first episode of the second season of The Ex-PM, which is handy as this is meant to be a review of that show. While the first season was largely about the titular former PM Andrew Dugdale (Micallef) puttering around at a loose end while his family and various sycophants fluttered around him like moths to an extremely small flame, this time around there’s been an injection of narrative: Dugdale has been asked to stand in a by-election for a safe seat, which is so safe no possible amount of bungling could tip it the other way. Ahem. Laughs ensue, along with various hints that something more sinister is going on, as the whole gang ups stumps for the rural electorate (which looks a lot in parts like the industrial areas out the back of Micallef’s home suburb of Williamstown).

Probably the most startling moment was the appearance of the recently deceased John Clarke – actually in the flesh and not only appearing over video, as he did in the first series. Reportedly he passed away only a few days after he finished filming his scenes in April: he’s as funny as ever, but it’s still going to take a little bit of adjusting before we can really get around to laughing at him here. But his scenes also reveal why Micallef’s sitcoms haven’t really taken off (with the possible exception of Welcher & Welcher, because… well, read on).

One of the many, many reasons why John Clarke’s death was a massive loss to Australian comedy is that he was easily the best comedic performer around who you could always rely on not to steal the show. Well, he always stole the show – c’mon, it’s John Clarke – but his performances were always low-key, assured, and unshowy. He was a brilliant performer who was also a safe pair of hands, which is why he often showed up across from performers who rarely let other big guns in the room: he could hold his own without overshadowing the star.

On another, initially unrelated point, Micallef really does seem to be a big fan of screwball comedy. His favoured pace for delivering dialogue is “rapid-fire” (the dialogue itself can usually be filed under “snappy”) and if the jokes aren’t coming fast enough that just means there’s room to squeeze a few more into the gaps. Which is all well and good: lord knows Australian comedy needs more practitioners whose knowledge of the genre goes beyond a few episodes of The Office.

The thing is though, screwball comedy doesn’t necessarily throw everything at the wall at once. Many of the best-loved examples basically involve two people firing lines at each other. And while Micallef tried this with some success in Mr & Mrs Murder, nobody watched it and he hasn’t worked with Kat Stewart since, which is a massive shame. Going all out works perfectly well on Mad as Hell because it’s a screwball comedy with the audience as Micallef’s partner. He can spin jokes and pull faces to his hearts content because we don’t have to do anything but keep watching to keep up: when he does it in a sitcom he really needs to be facing off against an equal.

The Ex-PM has a great cast, but none of them really work as consistent foils for Micallef. Nicholas Bell has a more low-key kind of energy; when he goes big it often feels like an act. Francis Greenslade is basically Robin to Micallef’s Batman; they might go about things differently but they always feel like they’re working towards the same end. But John Clarke is a performer who can stand up to Micallef – he’s just as naturally funny but in a very different way, and there’s a useful comedic tension in their (all too brief) back-and-forths.

(the same thing happened in Welcher & Welcher, where Robyn Butler made for a perfect counterpoint to Micallef’s buffoonery. For a long time Micallef was pretty much the only male Australian television comic who seemed comfortable working opposite women as equals: we wish he’d do more of it)

Unfortunately Clarke is just one member of a large cast on The Ex-PM, and while the constant flurry of activity is no doubt meant to be part of the appeal, it wouldn’t hurt to slow things down a little. Then again, the reveal of having the political tour bus be just a regular public transport bus – complete with someone pushing the button to get off at the next stop – was as good a joke as any we’ve seen locally this year. Maybe we should be satisfied with what we’ve got.