2014
07.29

It started, as it always does, with a press release:

“I was absolutely devastated when Naz and Aamer decided to split. It was as if the fulcrum of Australian comedy had come asunder. They were just bloody funny.”

Helen Razer, comedy reviewer

 

“We did one last tour… and Aamer decided to add a joke he hadn’t done in any other shows…”

Nazeem Hussain

 

“Viral doesn’t even describe it, there was nary a corner of the internet not touched by this very hilarious moment.”

Helen Razer, comedy reviewer

Confused? So were we: who even calls Helen Razer a comedy reviewer these days? Surely we’re not the only people who remember this comment from ‘The Reviewer Reviewer’, a blog that covered Melbourne International Comedy Festival reviews a few years back:

“She [Helen Razer] also reviewed my [45 minute] show without seeing the first 10-15 mins. That’s a quarter of the show, maths fans. This approach doesn’t take into account what it does to a performer’s flow \ confidence when a distinctive-looking (and somewhat notorious) reviewer walks in late and sits right up the front-centre. I’d never assume that might be indicative of the normal show/script. I [naively] expected more from a lady I’d often admired \ enjoyed. Well, that’s solidarity for you. In response, I shall be buying one of her books, ripping out and discarding the first 150 pages, and reviewing what remains. Seems about right”

Wait, what? Oh, you’re confused as to what the press release was about. Sorry, our bad:

Australian Story: Divide and Conquer (Nazeem Hussain and Aamer Rahman)

Monday July 28, 8pm on ABC

We’re not exactly fans of Australian Story – there’s only so much cancer you can be expected to handle in half an hour – but hey, this episode’s got Tom Gleeson, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters we couldn’t really tell if this was a repeat or not: it seemed to be either going over old ground or the 2011 episode on them didn’t really cover much of anything. And then suddenly BAM! Helen Razer is talking and we’re up to the present day. Guess it was mostly a repeat after all. A transcript of which you can read here.

As for the new news that justifies this update, it’s basically that “Fear of a Brown Planet” split up. Luckily Rahman’s final comedy bit went viral and gave him the confidence to keep going with comedy. In other news, Hussain’s TV career is really taking off, Rahman’s married now… and then Helen Razer said some more stuff and we really started to seriously wonder why she’s the one bringing us up to speed with these guys’ careers.

Sure, we know how these shows work: with barely half an hour to play with, you need talking heads to fill in the gaps. But didn’t the first 20-odd minutes do enough to establish their bona fides? This far into their careers, why did we need someone to tell us their break-up was a big deal, their going viral was a big deal, that Hussain is really a mainstream entertainer, and so on?

At least in the old material the talking heads made sense: their manager Bec Sutherland (who was once and may still be Tim Minchin’s manager), fellow comics, their family. And sure, in other episodes dealing with bigger issues you probably need outside experts for context. But here? We don’t need a comedy critic to tell us they’re funny on a television show about them: just stick on some clips and let us make up our own minds.

As with most things in life, the more we think about this the angrier we get: with only around 6 minutes of new material on the duo, why waste a single solitary second on someone telling us stuff we already know? They’re funny? Got it. Rahman’s clip went viral? Hussain already talked about it. Their break-up shocked the nation? Maybe find someone who isn’t a notorious self-promoter who spends most of her days butting into other people’s online conversations to inform them that they’re doing life wrong to bring us up to speed on that stuff.

In better news, Hussain’s SBS2 series Legally Brown is back next month. Razer doesn’t seem to be one of the guests.

2014
07.28

From Endemol, the makers of Big Brother, and Checkpoint Media, the makers of Fancy Boy (which was part of Fresh Blood), comes the webseries Dayne’s World, a documentary about South Africa-Australian stand-up Dayne Rathbone.

Rathbone won Raw Comedy in 2011 and has since been making a name for himself on the circuit doing a hybrid of character comedy and stand-up. This six part series, the first two episodes of which are now on YouTube, is fronted by another stand-up, Mike Nayna, who follows Rathbone around as he develops his play about Nelson Mandela and directs a short film based on one of his stand-up routines.

For us Dayne’s World was a difficult watch. It treads the delicate, Derek-esque line of making a comedy about someone with some kind of disability or mental health issue – and that’s hard to pull off, even Fawlty Towers didn’t quite achieve it.

At least, we’re assuming that Dayne’s mentally ill – how else to explain a scene from Dayne’s short film in which Dayne’s Dad snogs an actress while his provocatively-dressed Mum lies poutily in bed next to Dayne’s brother? Who’d think that was a good thing to film?

The alternative is that Dayne’s just a hugely misguided “artist”, who’s managed to achieve a certain level of success, and this series will slowly see his life unravel as it’s revealed that he’s just not very good.

With four episodes to go it’s hard to tell where this is heading, and with the slow pace and the low joke rate we’re not necessarily inspired to find out, but as it’s racked up an impressive number of views since it launched there’s clearly some interest out there.

2014
07.25

Normally we see television shows the same way you do: by illegally downloading them from torrents a few weeks after they first aired because we totally forgot they were on. Sometimes, when it’s a particularly dodgy local effort we know no-one else is going to record, we’ll watch them as they happen. But today’s post is about something that almost never happens: we saw a television show that hasn’t even aired yet.

Why someone would send us a link to a place that re-directed us to another place and then required a password to get to yet another place that contained the first episode of the second series of Please Like Me, we don’t know. Oh wait, yes we do: because the “industry insider” who sent us the link thought it was hilarious how little we enjoyed the first series and wanted to know what we’d think of the second. So unknown benefactor, here goes:

1): We didn’t like it the first time so we can hardly expect anyone to pay attention to our complaining now. Yes, the first series of Please Like Me was a wildly uneven mix of old folk acting confused and Thomas hanging out with his buddies acting confused and also kissing hot boys. It was also largely based around the idea that juxtaposing mawkish sentiment and blanket rudeness (*cough The Office cough*) would somehow create comedy. But as the show was successful enough – by “successful” we mean “sold overseas” – to get a second series, we can’t really blame writer / creator / star Josh Thomas for serving up more of the same.

2): We’re not big fans of Thomas anyway. So you’d think having a character tell Thomas’ character within the first minute of the first episode of series two that “maybe the reason people don’t respond to you well in nightclubs is because of your sad-as-shit face” would at least get a laugh out of us. But then Thomas – who takes this comment pretty well, presumably because he wrote it because it’s his television show – starts all but dancing a jig and turning the leprechaun voice up to eleven and we’re already looking at the clock. But to stress: writing a sitcom that’s tonally The Office if The Office was 80% about David Brent and 60% of that was David Brent trying to get laid has worked for him in the past, so why would he change now?

3): It’s pretty gay. A drag acts sings the title song, there’s guys in spangly shorts, two dudes are making out on the dancefloor, Thomas wears a “I [heart] Swedish Boys” t-shirt and we’re barely four minutes in. We note this because the “other” ABC comedy that was pretty gay – Outland – received a fairly negative response. Not to mention the rumours that the first series of Please Like Me was bumped from ABC1 to ABC2 when Thomas came out as gay and re-wrote the script to make his character openly gay. Overseas money, you guys! Forcing the ABC to be more tolerant.

4): Thomas’ love life is once again a major focus of the show. Well, what else did you expect? He’s moping about a boy he can’t have, he’s sitting across from this boy in his loungeroom with a cushion on his lap because LOLBONERS. Have we mentioned that it really, really helps to like Thomas if you’re going to watch this show?

5): The first scene that doesn’t actually feature Thomas has someone talking about him. “Whenever Poochie’s not on screen, all the other characters should be asking, ‘where’s Poochie?’” Sorry, not sure why this came to mind.

This actually feels like a Thomas stand-up monologue that he’s given his (on-screen) mother to say because he wanted to get it on-air but his character is currently too depressed about his tragic love life to deliver it. Doesn’t make it any less annoying though. Yes, we remember his mum was an annoying character and drug-addled ranter in series one; that doesn’t mean an extended blathering monologue from her that feels a heck of a lot like something Thomas would say is either funny or entertaining. But yet again, this crap worked for him the first time around.

6): Josh picks up and holds a baby! Don’t burn all your “A” material just yet, there’s nine and a half more episodes to go yet. Plus that third series that’s already been announced. What else can Thomas pick up? Oh wait, he’s already tried to pick up a guy and failed. Maybe “picking up” is going to be the theme of this season – each week Thomas picks up various objects while also trying to pick up various romantic interests. Yeah, our attention’s wandering a bit.

7): Ok, this might be different this series: is it us or is Thomas actually a bit of a prick? He has a scene early on with his dad which is basically Thomas just baiting him, insulting him, or laughing at him when he tries to be serious. Sure, his dad was a bit of a nob in the first series, but considering how his dad seems to be making an effort this time around having Thomas act like a prick makes him seem like, well, a prick. Which we’ve been told is part of the point of the show, but if that’s the case he’s doing it wrong.

8): And so it goes. It’s safe to say not a whole lot happens this episode (at least until the “crazieeeee” mum turns up at the end to blow everything up). It’s the usual run of strings-free (or is it?) sex, baby sitting, baby shitting, and sing-alongs, because while this is billed as a “comedy” it’s really one of those “hang-out” dramedies where audiences are expected to be so much in love with the characters they’ll be content to just, you know, hang out with them. They’re friends for people who don’t have any friends.

Well fuck that. We might not have any friends but that’s why we have books and alcohol and the box set of Frontline. This kind of insipid lightweight crap is a waste of time for everyone not collecting a pay check from it. Being amazingly generous even for us, we’ll admit that if you’re desperate for any kind of portrayal of twenty-something life this does contain that. But then it also contains a bunch of stuff about his parents. Who aren’t that funny either.

Look, it’s just more of the same. There aren’t any big changes that we could spot – Caitlin Stacey isn’t back yet, but that’s hardly a shock considering how little her character had to do in series one – so if you enjoyed it last time you’ll probably keep on making horrible mistakes with your life. Wow, aren’t we terrible! Still, if acting kind of bitchy is working out for Thomas…

2014
07.23

Here we go again, for one last time… As a commenter on one of our previous blogs about Fresh Blood summed it up, it’s been “a mixed bag”, but there is some hope for the future of Australia comedy. And we stress the word “some” because given the quantity of known or semi-known comedy personnel involved, we’re starting to wonder if this is the only option out there for comedians to stay in work.

-

In A Woman’s World takes as its premise the idea that it’d be hilarious if women had historically been the dominant sex, largely because the world probably wouldn’t be a better place. With sketches about female cops harassing a guy for cheating on his girlfriend and how picking up would work with women making the moves they’re right about the “probably wouldn’t be a better place” bit but not so much about the “it’d be hilarious” bit. In one of their videos we see what porn would be like if it really did cater for women. Cut to a guy struggling to “keep it up”, except that “it” isn’t his penis but his pretence that kittens are lovely. Because that’s what women really want: kittens. And while it’s refreshing to see a sketch about gender relations in which clichéd women are parodied, we’d probably have laughed more if large numbers of women actually did prefer kittens to sex.

Speaking of clichés (and objecting to the cliché we’re about to object to is now a cliché itself) don’t you hate it when someone describes something as “like [THING] on acid”? Well, that’s how Puppets vs People was described in one promo we read: “Like The Muppets on acid”. In these sketches puppets live alongside humans quite normally, except the puppets we meet aren’t normal at all. How this is “on acid” as opposed to being a fairly standard concept of comedy, we’re not sure. Doing a typical prison scene only one of the prisoners is a puppet is one joke; in a five minute sketch you need a lot more than that.

Is Sam’s How To meant to be a parody of YouTube “How to…” videos? Or comedy sketches in the style of a “How to…” videos? Or are they examples of really well-made “How to…” videos? Okay, really well-made “How to…” videos with a sense of irony. As a parody it doesn’t work – the production values and the style of Sam’s presentation are way too professional – and as comedy sketches they’re kinda not funny enough, even if the advice is fairly shonky. But if you view them as well-made “How to…” videos with a sense of irony they’re quite a good watch. The piano one even has some suspense as you watch to find out how all the pieces are going to come together to sound like something semi-professional.

Also plundering the world of self-help videos for gags is The Write Stuff, a series of sketches featuring screenwriting gurus Noel and Carl Pennyman. Fake-tanned, balding and decked-out in 90’s tracksuits, sneakers and gold chains, these two have some misguided advice for wannabe writers. If you’re a writer or a wannabe writer you’ll be amused by gags about how screenwriters are at the top of the hierarchy on a movie set, and about the millions you can make from writing, but otherwise the irony may quickly wear thin. Like the world of Hollywood blockbusters this is satirising, this is glossy but lacking in real substance. And the quasi Tim & Eric “bad TV” approach really needs to be a lot worse if you want anyone to care these days.

The Experimental Research Institute at the University of Australia is the setting for We Live to Science Another Day, which begins with three science geeks panicking about how a wealthy benefactor has been sucked in to their worm hole. Helpfully, their Professor arrives to tell them that everything’s fine…except they end up choking him on a champagne cork. And that’s just the beginning of the complicated plotting, slapstick and over-the-top acting. For the audience it’s too much to absorb and mentally exhausting to keep up with, and while we don’t generally argue for either dumbing or slowing down in comedy, in these sketches that might be beneficial.

Another of the established names who were given the chance to make videos for Fresh Blood is Veronica Milsom, star of The Record, which consists of three sketches about record-breaking couples. Milsom is a good performer and these are well-made portraits of the three fictional couples but laughs are thin on the ground and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that after appearances in Mad As Hell, Hungry Beast, Live From Planet Earth and other shows, Veronica Milsom really didn’t need another opportunity to get herself out there.

Hipster culture is the topic of the Ultimate Fanj sketches, in which Charlie and Elias try to fit in with a group of cool, inner city types led by Tall Paul and Talla Paula. There’s an air of Fight Club about their exclusive hipster scene, which is based in a rundown inner city warehouse. Again, this is glossy and in a lot of ways well made, but light on gags – if it was slightly smarter we’d suggest the “style over substance” approach was meant to reflect the shallow hipsters Charlie and Elias face, but it really does just feel like lightweight mocking of cool dude pretensions (“handball was invented in Brooklyn in 2011″).

Completely improvised and filmed in one take, the Written It Down sketches are the brainchild of Matt Saraceni and Dave Zwolenski (from SBS’s A Dave In the Life). The first sketch, about a coach telling off a player for their on-court protests, escalates cleverly in to a farcical and amusing tale (others have a bit more flailing going on – the karate sketch for one takes a little too long to get going). Having said that, we can’t help wondering if even this sketch might have been funnier on stage in front of a live audience. On location, for video, it somehow loses some of its sparkle.

So… what did we learn from all that? Well, clearly sketch comedy is a lot healthier that you (and we) might have thought looking at the recent television offerings. Even if a lot of these Fresh Blood entrants already have television appearances under their belts. Which, as we pointed out, suggests that the actual comedy scene in general is pretty grim if a talent quest is the best way to get out there for experienced comedians who already have a following. Or maybe it was just an easy ten grand for them? Answers on the back of a postcard.

While a lot of these sketches are average at best, the sheer variety on offer is a useful reminder that with short sketches there’s no real reason why you shouldn’t try something a little different. Back when sketch comedy series were regulars on mainstream television, they usually went out of their way to mix things up; the recent (and by recent we mean “since around 2000″) trend for themed shows (ie, The Wedge) and series based on one performer’s “twisted take on modern society” (Kinne) often means a lot of sketches that feel a little too similar to each other.

If we had to make a recommendation – and we don’t and also who cares what we think – that would probably be it. Of course the ABC should offer more work to the funny teams, but as most of the funny teams are already established yet haven’t been given shows yet we’re not entirely sure our tastes and the ABCs overlap. But trying to make sure that any sketch comedy series in the future isn’t just the same kind of thing over and over? How hard could that be?

2014
07.16

For a while now the team behind ABC2’s The Roast have been producing an end of week podcast called The PodRoast, which brings together a group of the show’s writers, performers and production crew to talk about the shows they’ve made over the past five days. Mostly this is a rambling chat but occasionally there are some interesting insights.

The episode from 25 June started with an interview with The Roast’s Executive Producer Charles Firth, in which he discussed why he left The Chaser, how The Roast came about, and what his comedy ambitions are – if you have even a slight interest in these topics it’s worth a listen.

“I think the holy grail of Australian television is what you guys are doing” Firth begins, explaining how since the 90’s he’s had an ambition to create an Australian Saturday Night Live, where new comedy and production talent is brought in, given on-the-job training and experience, and is then able to go off and do other things. He then goes on to describe a “pivotal moment in the history of The Chaser”, which happened just after the first series of The Chaser’s War on Everything, where the group had an away day led by a facilitator who got them to discuss their future, specifically “What is The Chaser – a company or a team?”.

At this away day Firth argued that The Chaser should adopt the Saturday Night Live model. “I had this ambition about what The Chaser could be” he says, describing how he’d spent most of his 20’s (he was 29 at the time of the away day) working with the rest of The Chaser group on what he felt was a “shared vision”. But it turned out the rest of The Chaser were more interested in being a comedy team whose aim was to keep working together (presumably along the lines of Working Dog). “It was an unambitious choice” Firth says with some sadness.

Aside from making a successful local version of Saturday Night Live, Firth says the other “holy grail” in Australian comedy is making a successful daily news satire, something he also feels has been achieved with The Roast. “It’s the best show” he says, praising his team for the quality of their writing and production, and enthusing about how television is “a writer’s medium”.

Returning to why he left The Chaser he says he thought of the rest of the group as “arrogant dickheads who were unbearable to work with, and then I realised I was the arrogant dickhead who was unbearable to work with”, adding that “I chose to leave” and that it was the right decision for him.

There are number of things that strike us about this episode of The PodRoast. On the one hand it seems to be an honest and thoughtful reflection from Firth on his time with The Chaser and his ambitions, as well as an insight in to the origins and goals of The Roast. We’ve often wondered how and why The Roast has managed to keep going (in all its various incarnations) and clearly that’s partly down to Firth’s ambition to keep it on air.

How long it will last (and whether Firth will end us as Australia’s answer to the legendary Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels) is debatable. We think Firth’s wrong when he says it’s “the best show”, and we’ve been saying that for a long time. The quality of the writing and execution of the show is usually somewhere between average and woeful, and we say that as people who frequently watch it desperately hoping it will find its feet. Australian comedy would be enhanced by a local, successful Saturday Night Live and/or Daily Show, but this isn’t it.

Finally, it’s interesting that Firth is convinced that the company (rather than the team) approach to comedy is a winner. We’ve been very critical of The Chaser’s War On Everything and other post-Firth Chaser projects over the years, but it’s unquestionably funnier than The Roast. And in comedy, it’s the funny that matters.

2014
07.14

Remember how we were slightly puzzled about an article by David Dale in the Fairfax press a week or so ago that was talking up the amazing comedy prowess of the current ABC Head of Comedy? You know, this kind of crap:

In the first half of the year, the ABC scored handsomely with local drama, pulliing audiences above a million for The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Jack Irish: Dead Point, Carlotta and Old School. In the second half, it’s hoping for equal success with a slew of local comedies – the result of intensive efforts by its Head of Comedy, Rick Kalowski, appointed a year ago to end the laughter drought.

Kalowski, a former lawyer who wrote for Comedy Inc, Big Bite, Double Take and At Home With Julia, commissioned and encouraged a surge of comic creativity. Over the next four months he’ll deliver second seasons of Upper Middle Bogan, Please Like Me (cofinanced by the Pivot network of America, where Josh Thomas is more popular than he is here) and It’s A Date (with Lachy Hulme, Shaun Micallef, Deborah Mailman, Kat Stewart, and a returning Lisa McCune, who was the standout in season one).

Do we need to point out that of the three shows listed here as part of his “surge of comic creativity”, a grand total of three of them were commissioned by his predecessor?

Also, scurrilous gossip time: a rumour currently doing the rounds of at least one capital city’s comedy scene is that the aforementioned new Head of Comedy flew the producing team behind one of those three shows to Sydney to inform them that he was not only not a fan of their series, but that he is so big a not-fan of them and their work that under no circumstance will there be a third season of their series – and this before the second has even gone to air. Maybe he needs the cash to fund a second series of Wednesday Night Fever? You know, his most recent hands-on comedy effort? Strange the aforementioned article oddly failed to mention it as one of his shining achievements.

Oh right, it was shit.

Anyway, this glowing praise for a man still largely untested in his current position and who’s most recent work was both a failure and complete rubbish puzzled us until we read this column from David Dale:

As I was making concluding noises, this conversation broke out:

Bradley: “I wanted to tell you, David, that I like The Tribal Mind, your acerbic comments on Australians’ TV watching habits. There’s so much fluff in the media today. It’s good to have people who kind of cut through that bullshit, that actually write stuff that isn’t fodder for posters or publicity. There’s not many of you left.”

That’s right: Dale wrote a column in which he quoted an interview subject telling him what a great job he was doing.

It seems safe to assume the bit about not writing fodder for publicity doesn’t apply to promoting himself – clearly he’s not a man to let his readers make up their own minds about the quality of his work. Or, come to think of it, the work of the current Head of Comedy at the ABC.

But at least now we have an answer: clearly Mr Dale is a man at least slightly susceptible to flattery – why else would he include such naked praise of himself in his own column? And if we know anything first-hand about the current Head of Comedy at the ABC, it’s that he doesn’t mind doling out a bit of flattery towards comedy critics when he wants to get them onside. And who can blame him? On the available evidence it seems that there are very few television critics out there who’s heads aren’t easily turned by some kind words and smooth praise from such an important figure on the local comedy scene.

Ahem.

Anyway, the reason why all this stuff is important is because when you feel like it’s your job to talk up and be supportive of the Head of Comedy at the ABC, you’re not doing your real job, which today involves this:

Australian comedian Josh Thomas asked a simple question with his comedy series Please Like Me. He has his answer: they do.

The ABC and the US cable channel Pivot have commissioned a third series.

So far, so straightforward news reporting. Sure, “Please Like Me” isn’t actually a question, but we’ll let that slide. Where it gets a little iffy is this:

The ABC’s head of comedy Rick Kalowski said the deal to proceed with a third series before the second had aired was almost unprecedented.

“And yet fitting for a show which has become our most watched original ABC2 comedy series, and put Australian TV comedy on the world stage as never before,” Kalowski said.

“ABC TV couldn’t be prouder to continue our association with Pivot in the US, or of the new season two, which is a cracker from start to finish.”

Because this is a news report, the closest they can get to the actual story is this single solitary line:

The US cable channel Pivot came on board for the show’s second season and helped propel it to success in the US.

So let’s break it down: despite the utter bullshit that is the line “put Australia TV comedy on the world stage as never before”, which must have come as something of a massive fucking shock to Chris Lilley but we guess his star is firmly on the wane under the new regime, what this story is actually telling us is that Josh Thomas is making a show for US television that the ABC has rights to broadcast. And fuck-all else rights-wise we’re guessing, as Please Like Me series one is pretty much the only ABC series of recent times to be released on DVD on a label outside of the ABC’s own.

If Pivot hadn’t come on board, we might have still had a second series of Please Like Me – we did eventually get one of fellow ABC2 comedy Twentysomething. But let’s not forget for a single solitary moment that Please Like Me was and is the only ABC comedy show to be bumped from ABC1 to ABC2. Not exactly a stirring vote of confidence in the material there.

It also had a long history of behind-the-scenes faffing about: Thomas was playing a straight guy in the pitch that the ABC originally accepted, the show was initially announced as part of ABC1′s 2012 line-up before eventually airing in early 2013 on ABC2, and Thomas himself didn’t mind taking a swing at the ABC over their treatment of his show:

“They told me it (the switch to ABC2) was a compliment. I don’t believe them,” Thomas says. “I don’t know if what they were really saying was, ‘Josh the show is a bit s—’ or, ‘Josh the show has too much suicide and gay sex in it’.

“People have suggested to me that (too gay) is why they did it (put it on ABC2). I would be shocked if that’s why but I also wouldn’t be.”

It’s not like the first series was a ratings blockbuster either:

The premiere of Please Like Me was 176,000 across 2 episodes and might have been higher had it been coded as 2 shows.

Hands up who’d forgotten that ABC2 initially broadcast the episodes back-to-back in what is universally recognised the world over as the “let’s burn these episodes off and pretend this never happened” approach to programming?

So you’ll forgive us if we think the fact Thomas has received a big chunk of overseas change to keep making Please Like Me has a shitload more to do with it continuing on the ABC than anything anyone actually at the ABC has said or done. One thing’s for certain: it wasn’t Thomas that got a free flight to Sydney so he could be personally told his ABC career is finished…

2014
07.13

TV loves a formula, so the news about a new ABC panel show in this story from Sydney’s Daily Telegraph isn’t that surprising…

Across on Aunty, former Triple J breakfast presenter Tom Ballard has scored his first TV hosting gig, fronting a new ABC panel show Reality Check (to air later this year), which will take a blowtorch to the belly of reality television.

The co-production with Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder will see Ballard joined by three ­industry experts, from producers to ex-contestants and ­judges, each week “who will share their war stories and ­reveal what really happens ­behind the camera”.

Meanwhile, the official press release features the usual limp self-promotion. Does anyone really think the reason why Stephen Spielberg is “a genius” is because he makes people cry?

“Reality is TV’s 800 pound gorilla,” says ABC Head of Entertainment Jon Casimir. “It’s the most successful cultural force of the last decade. It’s the ABC’s job to examine the world we live in. We hope Reality Check will give ‘Reality TV’ its due, acknowledging its drawing power and asking why it works and what that says about us.”

“Reality is dramatic, funny, poignant, and in many ways, reflects our community more accurately than any other genre. This series examines how it works and asks the question: if Stephen Spielberg is a genius for making audiences cry, why shouldn’t reality producers be lauded for doing the same thing?” says Nick Murray, Managing Director CJZ.

As Australian Tumbleweeds reader Daniel G points out, it sounds a little Gruen doesn’t it? Which makes us wonder a few things…

  1. Who’ll be the Russell Howcroft/John Hewson “break-out star” of Reality Check? Hotdogs? That bum dance woman who was in Big Brother more than a decade ago?
  2. What amazing Gruen-style, not-at-all-news-to-anyone-with-a-brain revelations about reality TV will the panellists reveal? “It’s mostly scripted and put together in the editing room.” “We deliberately cast contestants who are so fame hungry that they’ll have sex with other people on the show without encouragement from us?” “We keep the temperature in the Big Brother house high so the housemates will strip off.”
  3. Will they award a trophy to the weirdest reality TV program at the end of every episode? (No, wait, we know the answer to that, which leads us to…)
  4. How many examples of weird overseas reality shows will have been previously discussed by Charlie Brooker in either his Guardian column or Screenwipe, or on the UK or Australian version of You Have Been Watching? We’re going to guess the answer is “a fair number” but at least it’ll be hard for them to crowbar in that footage of E.V.B. Sampson.

So yeah, don’t expect this to be anything more than the Gruen concept applied to a different topic. Something which is fittingly cynical when discussing reality TV.

2014
07.11

After all the comments this blog got asking where our review of Fresh Blood was, we assumed we’d be so overwhelmed with feedback after the part 1 that this blog would crash. Um, no. Turns out no one gives a shit about original niche content on the web after all. Who knew?

Anyway, here’s part 2…

Donnatelegrams is a sort of anti-singing telegram service in which Donna and her accompanist turn up to special occasions to deliver the bad news. In one sketch it’s a bit like the scene from Extras where David Bowie sings “Little fat man who sold his soul” to Andy, except it’s a wedding and Donna’s telling the groom his bride isn’t coming. Surprisingly, these sketches have continuity: the second sees her branching out into disco as her fame grows, the third has her grabbed by bikies as part of a torture scheme. It’s too one-note (ha!) to really satisfy – the musical numbers would have to be a lot better for that – but at least Donna herself is an actual comedy character here.

Whatever happened to our favourite fairy tale characters? Fabled has the answer, and if we say “Hansel and Gretel” you can possibly guess the rest… This sketch really doesn’t need to be five minutes long, and when you’re doing a sketch about Jack and the Beanstalk, do you really need to spend the first minute getting us up to speed on “Jack and the Beanstalk”? If we didn’t know it before, we’re not going to laugh now.

It’s just stand-alone sketches in Fancy Boy, where Luke McGregor drops himself in offbeat situations – the first sketch has him pretending to be a “chalk” addict for a television interviewer in the hope of scoring $20,000 (cue him eating chalk on camera and having to confess his “addiction” to his disgusted co-workers). Unfortunately, these sketches tend to be a little too drawn out and rambling; for example, in the third he has trouble reasoning with the contract killer he’s hired with slightly hilarious consequences. This is one of those sketches which might work as a scene in a sitcom between a well-established character and a skilled guest star, but as a sketch in isolation it’s at least two minutes too long.

Dislike sport, sports programmes and the blokey-bloke men who bang about sport all day? Had a gutful of our relentlessly white media with it’s refusal to shift outside of a narrow range of stereotypes? Enjoy someone bunging on a “Hughsie” voice? Then you’ll love the relentless mockery from Mediacrity. The punchline to that second sketch needs some work, though.

We know $10,000 isn’t a great deal of money to spend on making three sketches and paying the cast and crew, but you’d think The Comestibles could have put together something with higher production values than waving household objects with eyes stuck on them in front of drawn backgrounds. They certainly didn’t spend much on the script!

The team from I’m With Stupid consists of a group of Sydney-based actors who’ve chosen to make a parody of a Christian band’s music video. This is an otherwise well-made sketch which is let down by it being unclear what the central conceit actually is. Are the band selling out and going sexy or not? Even after watching the separate “making of” sketch (built largely around the twin comedy classics of “Christians are clueless about sex” and “religious people trying to be cool are lame”), we don’t really know. More importantly, we kinda don’t care because this group seems far more interested in putting on a glossy show than making people laugh – that Gay Hunter sketch might have meant well, but there’s only so many times someone can say “Rayshell” before the joke is dead.

You know how this is supposed to be a new talent initiative, where people you’ve never heard of get a chance to have their work seen by thousands of people? Well, what the hell are Axis of Awesome doing here? They’re already an internet hit, who’ve released DVDs, performed overseas and appeared, amongst other things, on the BBC’s biennial Comic Relief broadcast. Can it really be that hard for them to find the money to get some more videos made?

Having said that, it’s nice to see the kinda established Touched By An Angle Grinder get a shot here. They’ve done some good stuff online and made shows for Melbourne’s Channel 31 where they’ve displayed the ability to cram a bunch of jokes into a short space (see the “learning to walk” sketch, a recursive look at physical rehabilitation, prank shows and puppetry), so it’s nice to see them given the opportunity to introduce a wider audience to the weird world of Pops.

The third part of our review of Fresh Blood is coming soon.

2014
07.09

When various right-wing dickheads start ranting about “entrenched left-wing bias” at the ABC, we tune out because they’re dickheads. That doesn’t mean there’s no bias at the ABC, mind you – it’s a proven fact their news is actually more right-wing than the commercial networks – but the bias we’re interested in today isn’t so much about obvious political values as it is about cultural ones. In short: it’s a long time since we’ve had a sketch show on a commercial network in Australia and watching Kinne is (amongst other things) a reminder that the ABC’s idea of comedy isn’t the only one out there.

The sketches in episode one of Kinne – named after Troy Kinne (pronounced kinnee), the show’s writer, producer and star – are generally pretty straightforward. There’s a voice-activated car stereo that, when a near miss sees Kinne shout “fucking wanker”, plays Kanye West. The opening sketch sees Kinne making a bunch of rapid-fire “regretful bets” along the lines of “If I ever cry at an episode of Offspring, I’ll get a dick tattooed on my forehead” (cut to him with a dick on his forehead). The Actual Bachelor takes clips from the Bachelor and then replays them according to how Kinne thinks they’d really play out. Things Said By Couples Assembling IKEA Items is both self-explanatory and sweary.

Clearly he’s not aiming to compete with a Shaun Micallef sketch that starts out as a political interview and ends up a Blade Runner parody. Nor is he covering the same turf as Josh Thomas talking about gay sex in a sing-song voice for two minutes. But it’s not really fair to say he’s aiming low here either. It might seem like obvious lowbrow comedy turf being covered by a guy who looks like a rugby player, but compared to a lot of the ABC’s recent sketch output he’s a master of nuance.

The Actual Bachelor sketches do a pretty decent job of covering both the highs and the lows of what we’ve seen so far. The first is based on a scene that involves The Bachelor getting a girl to close her eyes before he rubs a rose over her face; in Kinne’s version, when he asks her to close her eyes then guess what he’s holding in front of her… yeah, you can probably guess. Not that funny. The second one has the Actual Bachelor cooking for all the women in the house; while in the real version it all goes smoothly, in the Actual version… not so much.

But while the joke looks like it’s going to be “oh look, all the women want different things for breakfast and they’re really fussy” – and yes, that is the joke – Kinne also works himself up into a blokey “stay away from the barbie” style rage. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, but it does at least add another layer to the sketch and get a few more laughs out of it, and these days – remember all those Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting sketches that established a premise then just stood around for two minutes? – that’s not half bad.

Kinne himself comes off as a pretty blokey guy (he’s said Paul Hogan is a big inspiration) and this is a bit more obviously “male” than a lot of recent sketch comedy. But unless the very idea of male sketch comedy is a turn off to you he generally manages to get in enough swipes at the guys that it doesn’t feel too offputting. A bit titled “Things you never hear in a male share house” is pretty much a predictable series of gags about cleaning, doing washing, paying rent and so forth, but just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean there’s not some truth to it. Because guys are slobs and they suck.

There’s two ways to be really funny: either come up with a few great gags, or come up with a whole lot of average gags. Seriously everyone, how hard is this to figure out? Not to harp on about this, but the amount of Australian sketches we see that coast for 90 seconds on one average joke is ridiculous. Anyway, Kinne has figured this out and has decided to go down the second route, with three separate sketches here basically being rapid-fire lists of quick gags on a subject. None of the lines are classics, but there’s enough of them to make these bits work.

Still, Kinne isn’t immune to dragging a sketch out. A street prank segment where people go to bus stops or street corners and say “vaguebook” social media status updates (you know, stuff designed to get attention like “just when I thought today couldn’t get any worse”) to see if anyone responds isn’t a bad idea, but it could have lost a few examples. The “Impromptu Lifeguard” has a couple of good bits – repeatedly falling off a pier worked for us – but it still stuck around too long.

Recently a terrible article in the Fairfax press said – inbetween somehow forgetting to mention that the current Head of ABC Comedy “appointed a year ago to end the laughter drought” (huh?) was also the “brains” behind the laughter-killing shitheap Wednesday Night Fever - this:

Kinne is 21st century speedy. His aim, he says, is to have sketches which can deliver “15 gags in 30 seconds”. For an example of how he does that, click on “Never said during the Olympics”.

Yeah, outside the list sketches he’s not there yet. But he’s still doing better than a lot of other people out there. Including that new Head of ABC Comedy, who repeatedly mentioned in the run-up to Wednesday Night Fever his desire to put to air a more mainstream kind of comedy than we’d been previously getting in Australia. You know, like the stuff Kinne is doing. Only unlike the unlamented Wednesday Night Fever, he’s kind of funny and not mostly shit.

It’s easy to point at a half-dozen other online comedians and say “those guys deserve a show more than this guy does”, but most of the decent Australian online comedians are going for the ABC demographic; quirky, thinky, pop culture references, you know the story and we’ve already got Shaun Micallef. Kinne is solid, basic fare that seems novel in the current comedy environment, and while its approach to getting laughs is “it’s funny ’cause it’s true” (for male, anglo, suburban values of “true”) for a commercial network that actually needs people to tune in Kinne is far from the worst way to go.

 

2014
07.04

Fresh Blood is finally here. You remember Fresh Blood

ABC TV and Screen Australia will commission 25 projects for Fresh Blood, an initiative to find the next generation of comedy performers and producers.

The successful 25 projects each receive a budget of $10,000 to produce three, 2-5 minute short form comedy sketches to premiere on ABC iview this year.

All the sketches from each of the 25 teams are now on iview, with a selection also available on the ABC iview YouTube channel. So, what do we think? Well… Don’t get us wrong, we’re in favour of new talent initiatives, but some of these people have some work to do if they want to take it beyond online videos. Here’s the first batch of our sketch-by-sketch mini-reviews:

We quite liked Aunty Donna when we reviewed them a year ago, and their funeral sketch is definitely one of the better ones in Fresh Blood. It’s a nice, well-made parody of internet LOLZ and therefore perfect for iview and YouTube. There’s a couple of times across their run of sketches where what seems like a fun line or moment (the sting after “I got my hair cut in this shirt”, the surly teen prankster saying “I smashed all me Pogs”) ends up being run into the ground, but they’re good lines nonetheless.

The Australia Think Tank is four people sitting in an office in Canberra being one of those pointless departments the government will probably ban if it ever discovers them…which might be a good idea. In one sketch the Think Tank debate which amphibian creature should be declared Australia’s national frog. Their other sketches are about as funny, based largely on a slowed-down form of riffing around a central idea (ie, what to get Andre Rieu?). Isn’t this the kind of thing you’re supposed to do before you film the sketch? Still, not every single joke sucks; if the fifteen minutes were edited down to 90 seconds, it’d be a pretty good 90 seconds.

Still think bogans are hilarious? Really? The crime investigation parody AZIO – The Bogan Spy Agency might convince you otherwise. The problem with the conceit of these sketches – that bogan crimes need a bogan investigator – is that the bogan investigator in question couldn’t investigate his way out of a flannelette shirt factory…except that’s not the joke. The “joke” is that he’s a bogan who calls everyone “Bra…” and is quite confrontational. Right…

The series of BedHead sketches starts with a modern spin on the classic will they/won’t they plot, in which a girl stays over at a guy’s place and sleeps in the other half of his bed. As they both try to fall asleep we hear both their thoughts Peep Show-style. Except that unlike Peep Show the awkward moments generated by this situation aren’t that funny, whether you can hear inside the characters’ heads or not. This one gets five episodes (instead of the usual three) to explore the vagaries of modern relationships, only much of the time it feels like the writers are yet to actually have a relationship. A sex scene that features a woman saying to a man “is it in?” is not something to be proud of in 2014.

Another team who’ve probably been watching too much British comedy, but this time of the “dark” variety, is Corn Cobs. In one sketch they get a bit League of Gentleman (or Psychoville) when a lost boy turns up at the food truck and has to be gotten rid of. Generally speaking, there’s no circumstance in which dumping small boys on suburban buses comes across as anything other than not hilarious. And that proves to be the case here. Other sketches show a similar enthusiasm for “odd” rather than “funny”, which is great unless you’re not stoned, in which case “pointless” is probably what comes to mind.

#Couples is a series of sketches about over-the-top comedy character couples who are probably going to break up soon. And there were we thinking This Is Littleton was our lot for this type of comedy in 2014. Having a sketch where one person in a relationship acts completely crazy for the entire sketch before calming down and saying “get some rest, you’ve got your mother’s funeral in the morning” might seem hilarious if you have literally never seen another sketch in your life, but when you’re lumped together with 20-odd other sketch groups, you need to aim a little higher.

Crazy Bastards is an 80’s version of Mad Men set in Sydney. But resemblance to the much-admired American series ends there, as this is an out-and-out broad comedy. In one episode we discover the “real” origin of the famous grim reaper bowling AIDS awareness ad, another has the team trying to sell “fizzy water” Solo to men. Across all three episodes we see the characters wearing awful of-the-era clothes and drinking heavily. Despite these promising comedy ingredients it isn’t particularly funny, though the idea of “secret origins” of 80s icons is the kind of idea that could pay off given a bit more polish.

If you think it’s taken a long time for someone in (relatively mainstream) Australian comedy to do a Kickstarter parody then Crowd Failure, a series of short sketches about ludicrous inventions, makes up for it. For this kind of thing they’re impressively diverse – they really do feel like they’re coming from a variety of different sources thanks to the variety of film styles (and casting), and they aren’t just variations on a handful of narrow themes. In theory they could pump these out forever, and as this was one of the better Fresh Blood offerings that’s fine with us.

A few general observations after our first batch of reviews:

1): Even three minutes is a LONG TIME. You need a lot of funny material to fill three entire minutes, and way too many of these sketches have one decent idea and a lot of padding. Often less is more too: there are a lot of funny lines here that would be great as a one-sentence laugh. As 40 seconds of sketch comedy, not so great.

2): That rake joke from The Simpsons really ruined comedy forever, didn’t it? Yes, occasionally if you do something for long enough it goes from funny to unfunny to really funny; most of the time though it just becomes massively boring.

3): Pretty much everything here was better than The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting. Even the bad sketches here felt like they were made by people who were actually interested in sketch comedy, not in adding another line to their resumes while waiting for a callback from House Husbands. If the ABC learns nothing from this beyond realising that when you’re hiring people to make sketch comedy it’s a good idea to hire the people who want to make sketch comedy, it’ll still be a success in our book.

 

Up next: we tackle the next eight Fresh Blood entrants. Will they be better, worse, or meh?