In the lead up to Meet the Habibs, the first Australian sitcom Channel Nine has made in the 21st Century, it’s been hard to know what’s worse – the articles stirring up outrage:
Because most people don’t realise I am of Lebanese descent, I have sat around many tables where friends of friends have launched into racist diatribes about Lebanese people based on perpetuated myths (all gangsters/thugs/uneducated etc). I’ve even sat across from an off-duty police officer who declared “I f—ing hate the Lebanese”. I’ve seen a 15-year-old Lebanese Muslim girl cry as she described having the hijab torn off her head on the school bus. I could go on.
I don’t know what’s funny about any of that – do you?
Or the articles telling us not to be outraged:
In today’s social media and blog-spotted publicity landscape, where outrage can be a kind of collective catnip, all it takes is one incensed opinion from a person with a website or a social account and voilà – the ball gathers momentum and a new production is suddenly slapped with the “controversial” bumper sticker.
Both these articles miss the mark for specific reasons. The first, because it spends most of its time talking about things that aren’t part of the show because the writer hasn’t even seen the show (and they want to extend that privilege to everyone); the second, because it somewhat smugly sets out to tell the reader how they should feel about something that they haven’t yet experienced – it’s not a review of a comedy series, it’s someone flattering their readers by telling them they’re too smart to be sucked into the outrage machine… you know, the one that’s the only reason why they’re reading this article in the first place.
(More importantly, that bit about “today’s social media and blog-spotted publicity landscape” is a load of crap; Australian comedy has been an outrage magnet since time began. Our older readers might even remember the outrage over a “Jesus 2 – He’s Back and He’s Pissed” sketch on 1988’s The Gerry Connolly Show; younger folk will have to just make do with The Micallef P(r)ogram(me)‘s Weary Dunlop sketch, or News Ltd’s war on Summer Heights High, or any mainstream mention of The Chaser, or blah blah blah…)
The real problem with all the media’s endless war on “controversial” comedy (and the flip side of the coin, the articles that sagely defend a comedy’s right to exist) is that they purposefully miss the point: comedies are meant to be funny. If you’re talking about a comedy without talking about whether it’s funny, you’re wasting our time.
Strangely, drama series don’t get put through this kind of crap because our media seems to understand that a drama dealing with, say, murder, is probably going to not be telling viewers it’s fine to kill people. Even though a lot of dramas basically do end up saying that violence solves problems because they’re just a bit shit.
In this country any comedy dealing with an even mildly controversial subject has a shitstorm thrown at it sight unseen because according to our media it’s seemingly impossible to deal with literally anything in a comedy without “making fun” of it. Even when blind Freddy can tell from a 90 second promo that the jokes – such as they are – are mostly going to come at the expense of snooty rich white folk.
If that’s the only kind of discourse we have around comedy, it’s no wonder so much of ours is shit.
How does the ABC start the new comedy year? With an episode of Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery featuring that well-known comedian, er, Kerry O’Brien. Safe to say we didn’t really bother with that one, as entertaining as the 7:30 host-turned Keating interrogator can be. We’ll save ourselves for episode 2: Rebel Wilson. Be back at this blog, same time next week for our take on that one.
Let’s instead move on to the return of The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, big time winner in our recent awards, and on track to win a few more next time ‘round. Disappointingly, little seems to have changed about this program – it still feels like (and largely is) a program that would have been most topical about a week ago. The kangaroo suicide bomber story? That broke almost a week before this episode aired. As did the Mitchell Pearce story. How about the Australian of the Year announcement? That broke A WEEK AND A HALF AGO. Only the stories about big time gambler Paul Phua coming to Crown Casino (which broke Monday) and Trump losing to Cruz in the Iowa Primary (which broke Tuesday) count as recent. And the Trump/Cruz story could have been largely planned weeks in advance anyway.
Does any of this matter? Well, if you’re top and tailing a show airing on the 3rd of February with stories about Australia Day, we think it does. The Weekly is a program which describes itself, amongst other things, as a “news comedy show”. And when everything about the show’s stylings is conveying that this is a local version of The Daily Show/The Colbert Report/Last Week Tonight – shows which are pretty good at keeping it topical – then we the audience are bound to be disappointed by week-and-a-half-old news comedy. And this is even before we get down to the quality of the material.
The argument’s been put many times that in Australia we don’t have the budget to make something like The Daily Show because we just can’t afford the writers and producers necessary to make that kind of program. Which begs the question: why try? Why not make something we can afford to make? Why not come with a show that can include material written and made weeks in advance?
Following Charlie Pickering and co. was the new series of Black Comedy, sporting a new cast member, some new characters, and a sense that the show has matured and improved in the year or so since it was last on air. We’ll post a full review after episode 2, but so far we like the way it’s heading.
Finally, don’t you just love watching British people shitting themselves at the mere thought of encountering creepy crawlies? Yes, Adam Hills and The Last Leg team are here in Australia, traveling from Darwin to Sydney via dodgy transport, and hoping to make it to Sydney in time to celebrate Adam’s grandad’s 97th birthday or something.
It’s not the worst thing ever, but despite all their best efforts to set this up to be really hilarious – a crappy camper van, people out of their comfort zone, physical challenges – this didn’t work for us. People chucking hissy fits, even if they’re kinda justified (we don’t fancy a rickety-looking light aircraft flown by a blind pilot either), aren’t funny.
The gold standard for the comedy travelogue was probably Michael Palin’s Around The World in 80 Days. Not only was Palin a good judge of when to crack gags and when to gaze in awe at the scenery, but the series was buoyed along by a genuine sense of tension that he could easily miss his next travel connection and not make it back to London in his allotted 80 days. In contrast, The Last Leg Down Under feels like three guys wasting time in the desert, when it could have been about as funny and interesting if they’d just got a flight straight to Adam’s Grandad’s Party.
Overall, as a way to start the Wednesday Night Comedy Night year, this could have been a lot, lot better.
Ever get the feeling you’re running in place? That was Australian television comedy in 2015. Not just in the usual “the only way forward is to bring back Fast Forward” sense either, even though once again hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in the firm belief that the only comedy “mainstream Australia” will embrace was made before a large chunk of the television audience was born. It’s not that comedy is always the most forward-looking of genres either: people need to know what they’re laughing at before they can laugh at it, and by definition the edgy, “alternative” material is always going to attract a smaller audience. Not that you’d know that from the ABC’s output; the national broadcaster seems to have decided that, with their drama slate fully booked with trad crime dramas, period crime dramas, cutting-edge cyber crime dramas and the occasional slice of middle-class ennui, it’s up to comedy to cover all the minority bases and if that results in a string of shows next to nobody wants to watch then at least no-one will notice they’re not funny. But we digress.
2015 was another year when it was difficult to get excited about Australian comedy. No matter what kind of comedy you like, the best Australia could manage in your area of interest was a half-hearted effort designed more to impress TV critics and funding bodies than to get actual laughs. We all know the reasons why: while a few reliable favourites keep creating quality work – Shaun Micallef and his writers, plus John Clarke & Bryan Dawe pretty much have that side of things all to themselves – the rest of the paying jobs are clutched firmly in the hands of tried-and-tested no-talents, leaving up-and-comers to flail around briefly before quitting or heading overseas.
Worse, the people who currently make up the bulk of what passes for Australian comedy talent are as bland a bunch as you could ask for (but why would you?). Sure, they can do their jobs to a standard of only mild embarrassment. What they can’t do is get anyone even slightly excited about seeing their smirking mugs fronting yet another series of some dull-as-dishwater collection of clips and panel chat. Every other genre of programming on Australian television understands the importance of “event television”: that’s the short but high-quality gear you put on to get the general public interested in the idea of actually watching television. Sport has various grand finals; drama has high-end mini-series featuring the three Australian actors people have heard of; news has political coups; comedy has twenty weeks of Charlie Pickering.
The end result is that while people will still occasionally trot out the old line that “Australians are people who love to laugh” – though have you noticed you don’t hear that anywhere as often as you used to? Guess there’s not much to laugh at with the current state of the nation – Australian television comedy has rarely felt as inessential. Considering how important comedy generally is when it comes to television, you’d think this would be a matter of some import to our cultural commentators. But no: they’re too busy telling us that The Weekly “nailed it” by repeating social media’s talking points back to itself and that Please Like Me is “the best show you’re not watching” after three full seasons of Australian audiences showing no inclination whatsoever to watch Josh Thomas make out with the entire cast of his show. And so here we are again, with the only Australian awards that dares to point out that much of what passes for entertainment on our television screens is shit. Enjoy!
A Note on the Results: This year voters could vote for up to five shows in most categories. The results are therefore the percentage of the total vote.
Yeah, this was watched by so few people that even just mentioning it here is a massive publicity win for the show. So we’re going to stop now.
Now this was just plain rubbish. Who the hell was it even aimed at? Was the joke that people didn’t really need to be told how to walk past each other on the street, or did someone somewhere in the bowels of the production company really think that this was important and helpful information that the public needed to know? And then they’d bring in experts to seriously discuss the topics they’d just been making fun of in a series of half-arsed sketches? What the hell was going on here?
What the voters said…
The freshest sketch comedy of 1989.
The clearly talented cast couldn’t elevate this shithouse material. With the odd exception (Laura Hughes and her obviously self-generated ‘What’s In Ya?’, which was fucking hilarious), the show had no clear point of view beyond the lazily throwing softballs at obvious targets. Watch out, Masterchef, Gina Rinehart, the Real Housewives, etc.
Open Slather is awful but it’s one of those shows where you can see what they were trying to do, like you can almost see the idea for a good sketch evolving into the end result. Hell, I’ll admit I even laughed at a few of them but it may have been my affection for Glenn Robbins getting in the way.
After at least two decades of rubbish Australian sketch comedy, you could almost understand why someone might have thought trying to recreate the magic of Fast Forward was a good idea. Unfortunately, most of the past two decades of rubbish Australian sketch comedy were also trying to recreate the magic of Fast Forward, and it’s pretty safe to say it ain’t never gonna happen. Still, unlike most Australian comedy, this did mean that Open Slather had a standard it was trying to reach, so when it failed to reach it week after week there was, at least, a feeling that maybe they’d try harder next time. But then they sacked 80% of their writers then went on a break and everyone forgot they existed so no-one noticed the last few episodes ran short because they’d run out of money. Because this is Australia, there’s still talk about bringing it back in 2017. Don’t.
Like a lot of high-concept sitcoms, this probably would have worked better as a sketch. Or a maybe as a series of sketches spread out across a sketch series. But if you’re turning a high concept into a viable sitcom you need more. Characterisation that wasn’t wafer-thin would have helped, particularly as that might have made the series feel less like it was some ill-defined characters dealing with a kinda similar situation each week.
Musical theatre veering on the twee tends to put off hardcore comedy audiences and yet somehow not convince many of those who like musical theatre that sitcoms are great too, so in a small market like Australia, it’s a brave comedian who treads both paths. At least, that’s one explanation as to why the fairly successful duo of Sammy J and Randy find their sitcom coming second in this category. Or maybe it’s because Ricketts Lane was a little rough ‘round the edges? Still, at least, there were some worthwhile ideas in it, unlike our very good friends at…
What the voters said…
I read in the paper that Josh Thomas has run out of ideas, so hopefully that means there won’t be a fourth series of Please Like Me. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to have had any ideas in the first place, which didn’t stop series one to three going ahead.
Even Fairfax have been quiet about Please Like Me this year…
If America(n cable) loves Josh Thomas so much, they can bloody well have him.
We’ve had an awful lot to say about Please Like Me over the past couple of years. We’ve complained about its poor characterisation, feeble hipster plotting, and yes, its terrible ratings. Regular readers of this blog know that ratings aren’t that much of interest to us, but in the case of Please Like Me, its are hard to overlook. Few shows that achieve half what the Antiques Roadshow gets are endlessly re-commissioned. And, yeah, we know, it’s American money keeping this alive… Seriously, what is the deal with that? Is this some kind of The Producers-type scam? Should we be calling the IRS?
It was a great feel-good moment when Peter Greste found out his Al Jazeera colleague had been pardoned while he was taping this show, shame the rest of the series wasn’t quite as good. Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. Compared to its previous series, The Chaser’s Media Circus season 2015 was an improvement: they’d cut down on the pointless banter, improved the game show elements to make them tighter and funnier, and kept those highly-researched packages that had worked so well on The Hamster Wheel. We’re slightly surprised to see it poll so well in this category, but people expect a lot from a Chaser project, and this show still isn’t quite up to standard.
We’re still not 100% what The Project is trying to be, or how it’s survived, but we know one thing: it’s not trying to do “topical comedy”. Not in the sense that this blog understands “topical comedy”. What The Project is trying to be is the sort of news program that people who hate news programs will tolerate, which means “chuck in the odd zinger or bit of wacky news footage, but keep it light”. Enter Peter Helliar. We need say no more.
What the voters said…
The Weekly proves the ‘show a clip of a politician messing up a metaphor, then pull a face’ genre is a lot harder than it looks.
Good on Charlie for stepping where few dare to and take a stance against rape.
Answers the question: what if Jon Stewart were Australian, wrote incredibly lazy material, and was shit. Also, it’s the program most likely to get away with its blatant plagiarism because they never bothered trying to rip off The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight‘s substance or quality.
The first major problem with The Weekly (if you want our comprehensive take on all its lesser problems, feel free to check out our previous posts) is that it’s not a particularly good topical comedy. Another problem was, that for most of the year, it was the highest profile topical comedy we had. The ABC and this country’s comedians have a seemingly insatiable desire to make an Aussie answer to The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight but seem to think they can get away with not really kicking butt in terms of satire, or being, um, topical. This is why the best parts of this show are usually the non-topical ones. And given that these non-topical sketches often don’t feature the host of the show much – you know, the one whose name’s in the title – this is somewhat embarrassing for all involved.
You’d think that having a panel with chemistry would be kind of important on a show like The Project, but some evenings it seems like Carrie, Pete and Waleed are deliberately staging those bits where they awkwardly talk all over each other. Even if the rest of the show wasn’t so highly-produced that a quick re-cap of the headlines can’t happen without someone sticking a dance beat underneath this would look weird, but with it, well… it just looks like they hate each other’s guts.
It’s funny the way the votes get cast sometimes. There are many fairly good elements to this show – and Media Circus season 2015 was an improvement on the previous year – but compiling a panel by combining some of the smugger personnel from The Checkout and The Chaser with journalists isn’t the best recipe for laughs. Many panel shows of this type are loosely scripted, and all the better for it, but the banter on this show feels like it’s mostly improvised, or at least delivered so poorly that any prep work was largely a waste of time.
What the voters said…
Where would light-hearted, inane cultural ephemera be in Australia without the BBC?
The ABC has really excelled at padding out timeslots this year.
This is definitely the worst panel/light entertainment/whatever show on Australian television: a bunch of people you haven’t quite heard of giving their views on non-issues in a not terribly interesting manner. We realise that’s a fairly accurate description of quite a lot of shows of this ilk, but Agony seemed to take it up a gear. For years this hasn’t just a cheap timeslot-filler, this has been a cheap timeslot-filler with promotion behind it, giving us equally filler-style media stories about this or that person’s hilarious breakout appearances on the show. John Elliott might have been funny when he was one of the Rubbery Figures on Fast Forward, necking cans of Duck Beer, burping and yelling “Pig’s arse!”, but in real life, he’s just some rich, old businessman who supports the Liberal party – not a group of humans noted for their comic prowess.
Now this was a serious disappointment. Usually, you can tell the problems with an Australian comedy film months in advance – the words “Paul Fenech” usually being a useful guide as to what to expect – but this actually looked like it had promise. And by “promise” we mean “a premise that sounded mildly amusing”. Yet the end result was a weird mess, feeling at times like a sitcom pilot where they expected to iron out the problems by episode three, and with a strange “stop exploiting the kids” message that wouldn’t have been out of place in an episode of A Current Affair.
Guess Channel Ten were right not to give this one a shot on free-to-air television. Sure, Ed Kavalee’s previous feature-length comedy Scumbus was entertaining enough for what it was, but what it was wasn’t exactly a movie anyone would pay to see – and this was even more all over the shop.
What the voters said…
What could be a better investment than an Australian film? How about an Australian film about Carl Barron starring himself? Another excellent tax write-off for all concerned.
I just really wish the poster had said ‘From the director of You Can’t Stop the Murders.
Sometimes I think we should just give up on film.
Imagine, if you will – and you will have to imagine it because nobody actually went to see Manny Lewis – a romantic comedy featuring a lead that looked and sounded exactly like Carl Barron. Now stop and think about the audience for romantic comedies. Think about what they look like. Think about who they are. Now imagine them wanting to spend 90 minutes watching a romantic fantasy about a man who looks and sounds like Carl Barron finding love. You can’t. No-one can.
If you’re voted for this because you’re not a fan of the stock characters/broad gags school of comedy, fair enough, but compared to those programs which placed well in our Worst Sitcom category, Plonk is actually pretty good. It certainly raises a hell of a lot more laughs than some of the podcasts nominated in this category, with their rotating panels of white guys in their 20’s and 30’s, competing with each other to improvise either rape jokes or whimsy.
Just between you and us, we stopped listening to TOFOP years ago, so we’re going to assume it’s still largely the same old stuff, just with increasingly famous and/or American guests because Wil Anderson spends a lot of time overseas now.
What the voters said…
The idea of an Australian comedy talent quest is a good one until you remember that talent is the one thing you don’t need to become a success in comedy.
It was great the way the ABC put all this time and effort into fostering and nurturing online talent then went and gave a series to The Katering Show instead.
At least The Axis of Awesome didn’t make it to the finals.
Watching the five Fresh Blood pilots – heavily trailed as new comedy from newcomers, implication: don’t be too harsh on this, guys – it was interesting to note that all those problems in comedies from non-newcomers that we’re always complaining about – stretched-out gags, repeated sketches and concepts that aren’t worth repeating, random internet-style LOLZ whimsy, ideas that have been done better by others – are present and correct here. And given the Australian TV industry seems perfectly happy to air comedies featuring that kind of thing, we imagine quite a lot of these pilots will get commissioned. Apart from Aunty Donna, which (largely speaking) was a good program, free of most of the above problems, and which therefore has no place on Australian television.
Aw, come on guys, what’s TV Tonight ever done to you? It’s pretty much the only site that actually covers news out of Australian television, which makes it a heck of a lot more useful than a bunch of ranting nutters like us. David Knox did talk up Please Like Me a lot, though.
Here’s a handy time-saving tip: every time you see that Helen Razer has written something about pop culture, read the following instead:
The problem with [insert pop culture item here] isn’t that it fails as an item of pop culture – it’s that all pop culture in a capitalist society is nothing but a distraction from the only real issue, which is entrenched financial inequality. And having now set the bar so high that no item of pop culture can possibly surmount it – for even works of art that directly critique or attack capitalism are merely giving their audience an outlet for feelings that should be put to better use directly attacking the system via armed struggle and revolution – I can sneer away at everything, safe in the knowledge that my rhetoric, while bullshit, is flawless.
What the voters said…
Reading Ben Pobjie is really useful for finding out which shows Ben Pobjie thinks he deserves to work on.
Ben Pobjie is alas, more pitied than despised. If I was a sad fuck like him, I’d be sucking up to everyone who had a connection out of the freelancing roller coaster he’s on too.
I am disappointed at the unfounded allegations that there is a conflict of interest re: working comedian Ben Pobjie criticising comedy programs, as it suggests people are interested in working with him.
Just when we thought it wasn’t possible to top his controversial “hey, it’s just television, don’t get worked up about it” stance – well, it was a controversial stance coming from someone paid to have opinions – Pobjie spent a goodly slice of 2015 either flouncing off Twitter or using Twitter to beg ABC figures for work. Why hasn’t someone quietly taken him aside and pointed out that when you work as a critic, your job is to explain to your readers what shows are worth watching (or not), not to try and use your position to get work on the shows you’re meant to be criticising? Doesn’t anyone at Fairfax realise that having a TV critic openly soliciting for work on television shows kind of gives the impression that their TV critic will give a show a good review if they offer him work? And before you say “oh, that seems a bit far-fetched”, the only time we’ve had any official contact from a television producer was to offer us work on a television show that – we could tell from six months away – was going to be a massive steaming pile of shit. (We said no. The show was shit) That’s how they work: they bring you inside the tent and you can’t tell the public – who trust you to have unbiased opinions – that a show is rubbish because it’s made by your mates and they’re paying you money and suddenly you’re basically a PR outlet only you’re being paid a whole lot worse. And yet Pobjie still runs around on social media actively trying to get work from the people he’s meant to be critiquing. It is, to put it mildly, not a good look.
In the past people like Judith Lucy and John Safran have done a decent enough job of the “comedian investigates an issue in a light-hearted fashion” genre. Who’s to say Luke McGregor isn’t equally up to the task? Sure, most of his television work has consisted of him standing around asking vaguely awkward questions and that’s the kind of approach that would make a show about sex completely unbearable, but it’s going to be full of jokes about people doin’ it! About Luke McGregor doin’ it! How could it fail?
Urban Dictionary.com defines DAFUQ as “1. a shortened term of the colloquialism “what the fuck”.” No wonder expectations are high. And that’s without even mentioning that it’s from “WA’s up-and-coming online stars Mad Kids”.
What the voters said…
Can’t wait for some more puddle-deep insight into 2016’s easiest topics.
Looking forward to The Weekly‘s topical coverage of 2016. Or, similar to the better parts of the 2015 run, Kitty Flanagan talking about random things that were vaguely mentioned in a news-like context.
What indefensible soft target will he ‘nail’ next? People who talk on their phones in the cinema? Nonspecific corporate fat cats? The ghost of Caligula? Give ’em hell, Charlie.
The wasn’t exactly a shock result – “more of the same” is hardly an appealing prospect when what we’ve been served up so far has been so insipid and uninspiring as Charlie Pickering’s big foray into turning the phrase “social media gets it right yet again” into ten hours of television. Of course, it’s not entirely his fault: combining a format that’s only ever entertaining when the host has a strong point of view with the ABC – a network now officially obliged to broadcast no strong points of view – was always going to result in something pointing 180 degrees away from entertaining. And yet somehow it always managed to be just that little bit more shit than you’d expect. Presumably, 2016 will just be Pickering pointing a camera at his Twitter feed and nodding sagely at whatever comes up.
More than several decades into her comedy career, Judith Lucy’s comedy voice is well established, so she was on sure and safe territory with a program exploring womanhood and the differences between the sexes. Never afraid to really “go there” for comedy, she even dressed up as a man, put a black dildo down her pants, and had a go at cracking on to chicks at the local pub. Always funny and always offering a spot-on and/or refreshing take, it’s odd that we don’t see Jude on our screens more often.
Hang on, wasn’t this show a runner-up in Worst Sitcom? Meaning we now have to argue the opposite of whatever we said about it above? Okay… Ricketts Lane was one of the better new comedies of 2015 and a real rarity in Australian sitcom in that it made a pretty good attempt at character-based comedy. When it came to the musical sequences, it did them far better than any other Australian sitcom we can recall, while the makers took full of advantage of the fact they had a puppet to work with to construct some very funny slapstick moments. But with such a conclusive final scene, it’s hard to imagine this show or these characters coming back in quite the same manner…although the way is still open for them to do something new.
What the voters said…
Comfortably the funniest new show.
The Katering Show had a very high quantity of very high-quality jokes. Just give McCartney and McLennan all the budgets and be done with it.
The Katering Show was a goddamn delight, pound for pound funnier than any new series deemed worthy for television.
How many times do you reckon Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney pitched this or a similar concept to executives only to be shown the door?
This truly was the comedy feel-good story of the year: two comedians coming up with an idea, making it themselves, putting it out there, it going viral and the makers getting a TV deal. Even better: it’s a really, really good show and which really, really deserves to be successful.
The Katering Show was a near-perfect juxtaposition of aspirational foodie culture and how us ordinary folk actually cook, buoyed along by that weird, passive-aggressive (lack of) chemistry between the two Kates, and their spot-on takes on the Thermomix, sugar-free living and specialist diets. Feel free to name another Aussie comedy that’s dished up as many ideas in such a short space of time as this series, meanwhile, please excuse us, we’re going to click “Watch It Again”.
When was the last time anyone in Australia published a book of television scripts from a sitcom? Double the Fist? And yet towards the end of 2015, a healthy slab of dead tree arrived in the nation’s three surviving bookstores with all the words from Working Dog’s scripts from Utopia printed on it. Which tells you one thing: this may have been one of the sharper, smarter Australian sitcoms in recent memory, but the big draw here wasn’t the performances.
A straightforward idea well executed by a pair of comedy performers with solid chemistry and a decent grasp of the genre they’re sending up. It seems like the bare requirement for a comedy series; in 2015 in Australia, simply being able to put those pieces together makes you a stand out comedy hit.
What the voters said…
The only comedy that made me piss myself this year was Mad as Hell.
Mad As Hell is once again the funniest thing on Australian TV, as it has been since it started.
The man is a living comedy treasure.
It’s not that the gap between Mad As Hell and all other Australian comedies is massive; the gap between Mad As Hell and all Australian television is reaching the proportions of a yawning chasm. In part that’s because shows like Mad As Hell – built on short snappy segments, firing constant bursts of information at the audience, constantly in motion yet always basically unchanging – are the future of television (well, the television that’s not million-dollar drama series, and good luck making much of that here). Mad As Hell is close to the only show made here – aside from various niche shows like period dramas – that could be described as “world class” with a straight face; only the fact it leans so heavily on local politics has prevented it from a global audience.
The reason why is simple: it’s well written. The secret to making a good comedy? Hire funny writers and let them be funny. Yet time and time again we’re served up shows where the script seems like an afterthought. There’s plenty of reasons why that is, ranging from “there’s nowhere for comedy writers to learn their craft” to “there’s nobody willing to actually pay for good writers” to “the only way to get comedy writing work is to be a writer-performer and, therefore, good writers who can’t perform will never get a shot”. But the end result is the same: almost all Australian comedy is shit, and the stuff that isn’t shit is almost always the stuff that’s well-written. Fuck knows what we’re going to do when Mad As Hell goes off the air.
As the 2016 comedy season gets underway, we gaze deeply into the Australian Tumbleweeds crystal ball…
As part of a long-standing policy clearly designed to avoid the Team Tumbleweeds critical blowtorch, SBS has once again released pretty much all of their Australian comedy content during the non-ratings period – and more importantly, during the period when we’re traditionally slaving away putting together the Tumbleweed Awards (out Australia Day! Tell your friends!). Back when it was just Danger 5, we’d let this slide, but two comedy series in the same week? That’s enough to get even us off the couch… uh, away from tabulating votes.
That said, we don’t have a whole lot to say about The Family Law as yet. It pretty much does what it says on the tin: low-key suburban hijinks with a “growing up Chinese in Australia” angle that – on first look at least – is just enough of a spin to prevent it from falling down the Please Like Me smughole. It’d be nice if it figured out who the lead character was – Ben or his mum – though, and the laughs don’t exactly come thick and fast. Lets just say we’re currently still on the fence.
Meanwhile, The Wizards of Aus is pretty much the kind of show that needs no review, because either you’re going to find the idea of trad fantasy wizards doing CGI magic in suburban Australia funny or you’re not. And by that we mean “look, it’s made by a bunch of guys who are good with effects so they can bring all their randomLOL ideas to life, which means we’re more down the Danger 5 end of the pool than, say, Terry Pratchett.”
Basically, it’s a show that gets some things right – the performances are generally strong, which we shouldn’t be surprised by considering “acting” is one of the two things Australian film & television can do (the other is all the technical stuff and hey look – great special effects!) – and does some funny stuff with the core concept (wizards = boat people is the comedy gift that keeps on giving). But it still manages to get the fundamentals wrong, and we’re not just talking about the decision to give an entire episode of a comedy show over to the horror-movie concept of “Baby Bones”.
Two examples, both from episode four: The episode begins with Jack in the wizard realm having a perfectly reasonable argument with a talking hat about how the hat is sorting students into houses at wizard school. Yeah, it’s basically the sorting hat from Harry Potter. Taking a fantasy construct and applying real-world logic to it is a tried and true comedy method – we’re going to say Mad Magazine invented it, though they almost certainly didn’t – and showing up the logical flaws in a story (is it really such a good idea to put all the evil students in Evil House?) is almost always funny.
The problem here is that it’s 2016 and your show has three minutes of jokes about a concept from the first Harry Potter book. They’re not bad jokes; they’re just not new jokes. People have been making jokes about the Sorting Hat for a decade, and then they stopped because the Harry Potter movies finished. These days it’s a one-liner at best (“sorting hat, stop sorting all the evil students into evil house!”); sometimes even good material has to be retired.
[this kind of ties into another problem: where you could make jokes about generic “wizards” anywhere from the 70s until maybe 2004, since the Lord of the Rings movies hit big Fantasy has become, for wont of a better term, a “live genre”. It’s not just Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons any more (well, it never was if you were reading Fantasy books, but who reads books?) – circa 2016 “fantasy” currently leans more towards the genre deconstruction of Game of Thrones and while there are magic-users there they’re not really cliched wizards. So this show is slightly behind the eightball, making fun as it is of a genre – Fantasy Wizards – that is both slightly out-of-date yet not so old there’s nostalgia value in it. Put more simply, it’s like making a show sending up reality television where a lot of your jokes are about Big Brother.)
Slightly further in we get a campaign ad for Mark Mitchell’s evil anti-wizard politician Senator Quinn. A lot of his appeals to patriotism are spot-on and pretty funny (throwing the Beaconsfield Miners in there got a genuine laugh), and you can’t go wrong with a line like “Stop the Cloaks”. But there’s also a lot of sub-Tim & Eric stuttering visuals in there, plus a bunch of wacky images – would any politician ever air a commercial where they burst out of an egg freshly dropped from an emu’s bum? – which actively undercut the joke it seems they’re trying to make.
Quinn is a race-baiting politician opposed to wizards coming to Melbourne and messing up the place with their crazy magic and flaming skulls and portal powers and whatnot; why would his commercial be full of surreal visuals? “Because the show’s creators thought they’d be funny” is the obvious answer. But he’s the bad guy? The person in opposition to the wizards because of his conservative values? Coming from him, a crazy surreal ad just doesn’t make sense.
“But randomLOLs dude!” Yeah, okay, look: you’ve already got a big wide arena for your randomLOLs, what with having wizards come to Australia. Their magic powers are where the randomLOLs work: if everyone, wizard or not, in your show is doing random shit, then it’s no longer random shit – it’s just shit. And constantly cutting back to Mitchell’s random lines to hide the transitions as Jack goes door-knocking felt more annoying than anything else.
Maybe there are jokes to be made about how the wizards are the sane ones in a crazy Australia. Maybe there are jokes to be made saying that with the wizards running around doing randomLOL magic the rest of the country has gone nutty in response. But then you have to go and make those jokes – Wizards of Aus is all about juxtaposing nutty magic shit with typical Australian shit, and if you’re going to do that then commercials made by typical (evil) Australians need to look like actual shit political commercials – not some edit-heavy zany clip that stopped being surprising or original back in 2009.
This stuff wouldn’t really matter, except that the juxtaposition between 2016 Australia and zany wizards is where this show’s real potential lies. Fantasy is not new ground for comedy: Bored of the Rings came out forty years ago, Terry Pratchett was a massive best-selling author for twenty years, and Open Slather made a bunch of Game of Thrones sketches. Those jokes about magic and wizards are not breaking any new ground here.
And the wacky special effects? Maybe Double the Fist got away with leaning hard on that stuff for comedy (actually no, they didn’t), but these days creating a real-looking Ghost Rider for an Australian comedy gets you ten seconds and then you’d better come up with something else eye-catching or it’s back to the tennis.
Unless they’ve secretly found a gold mine, SBS doesn’t really have the cash for more than a handful (read: one) local comedy series a year. For the last few years that’s been various wacky shows like Danger 5, and The Wizards of Aus follows firmly in that tradition. But The Family Law feels a lot closer to the kind of show SBS should be making (yes, we know SBS has a long tradition of “edgy” comedy reaching back to South Park and Chappelle’s Show, but SBS is the multicultural network, not the edgy comedy network); it’ll be interesting to see which fork* in the road they take.
*not a chopstick joke
Vote Tumbleweeds! Wait, we mean Press Release Time!
(but also, you can still vote in the 2015 Tumbleweed Awards here: surveymonkey.co.uk/r/tumblies2015 )
SBS 2 brings original Australian comedy series The Wizards of Aus
Written/directed by Michael Shanks and guest starring Guy Pearce, Samuel Johnson and more
Airs over three nights from Tuesday January 19, 2016 at 8.30pm
TRAILER NOW AVAILABLE
From the warped comedic mind of writer/director/actor Michael Shanks (curator of popular You Tube channel Timtimfed), comes a brand new three-part Australian commissioned comedy series, The Wizards of Aus produced by LateNite Films.
The series will air on SBS 2 over three nights starting Tuesday January 19, and follows Jack the Wizard (Shanks) as he becomes fed up with the Magical Realm’s obsession with large-scale fantasy warfare and decides to migrate to the sanest place he can think of – Melbourne’s Western suburbs.
After accidentally causing a magical catastrophe, Jack’s existence (and that of his fellow magical immigrants) is revealed to the Australian public.
Fearing a backlash against himself and his kind, Jack swears off using magic in a bid to better assimilate into human life. But fitting in is never going to be easy when people tend to get a bit ‘explode-y’ whenever you sneeze.
With dazzling visual effects and memorable guest appearances from Australian heavyweights including Guy Pearce, Bruce Spence, Mark Mitchell and Samuel Johnson (as the voice of Terry the Shark), The Wizards of Aus is an innovative twist on the fantasy genre that is both side-splittingly funny and a poignant metaphor for Australia’s current socio-political landscape.
To satiate those eager to see all of program in one sitting, the entire series will be available via SBS On Demand immediately following its premiere.
The innovative new Australian comedy The Wizards of Aus will air over three nights from Tuesday January 19 – Thursday 21 January 2016 at 8.30pm on SBS 2. The entire series will also be available early on SBS On Demand straight after the first episode airs.
What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with voting in the 2015 Australian Tumbleweeds Awards (which you can do so here: surveymonkey.co.uk/r/tumblies2015)? Not much. But when we’re not pimping out our own awards we do occasionally like to talk about Australian comedy in general, and this – so far as we can tell – qualifies as Australian comedy.
And with SBS now firmly in the habit of releasing their Australian comedies before rating season starts – presumably they figure someone out there must want a break from the tennis and cricket – we’d be remiss in our self-imposed duties if we didn’t point this particular show out.
Heck, if we’d found a press release for The Family Law (also out this month) we’d probably have run that here too. Vote Tumblies!
What is there to say about The Yearly that we didn’t already say time and time and time again about The Weekly? Bugger all, which is the problem: we tuned in hoping they might have at least tweaked the format – considering they stole it wholesale from The Daily Show – but, well, more fool us. Really, we should have known better: it’s not like The Weekly ever looked like a show anyone was putting any effort into.
Yeah yeah whatever; no doubt everyone on The Weekly – and The Yearly – works really really hard to bring us a television show. A television show that in its most recent form feels like its only reason for existing was that Charlie Pickering wanted to gush over Harrison Ford and he could only get an interview if they had a television show to play it on. You put a Cecil the Lion joke in your opening credits? Sure, it’s a year in review, but with a year’s worth of news to make fun of you decide to go with Cecil the Lion?
While we’re here, here’s a quick guide to whether you’re watching / reading / absorbing shit Australian political satire: they’re going on about Tony Abbott eating an onion. Sure, it’s weird that he bit into an onion, but that’s all it is: weird. “Oh look, our PM did something crazy!” And then you’re done. And when that’s the only joke there is to be made about a bit of footage, well… you’ve got to leave something for breakfast television and Facebook, don’t you.
But that’s The Weekly for you. A weekly schedule is a punishing one, but when all you’re doing is coming up with five minutes worth of political jokes a week, surely you can stop and think “hey, maybe we don’t have to go for the broadest, cheapest, most obvious gag every single time”. Then again, when you have the comedy big gun that is Charlie Pickering’s gurning, maybe you can afford to let the writing slide.
Still, at least now we got the Bali 9 coverage the show refused to deliver when it was on air during the actual Bali 9 saga. And wasn’t that slam at Brendan Cowell worth the wait! Yep, even after half a year The Weekly / Yearly refuses to have anything worthwhile or interesting to say about the world around us. We left out funny because some things go without saying.
And yet, occasionally there were glimpses of actual comedy. Kitty Flanagan’s segment about cooking in the washing machine had nothing to do with anything news-worthy yet was a comedic highlight, which once again underlined the grim fact that The Weekly is a news satire where the news jokes suck.
Usually around here is where we’d go spare over an end-of-year news parody show running an interview with Harrison Ford to promote a new Star Wars movie, because… well, you go back and look at all those elements and try to explain to us how they’re meant to fit together. But fuck it: The Weekly is clearly just a lightweight nothing show that can’t even fill an hour with jokes given a whole year to play with, so why not have a celebrity interview in there for no reason past “he plays Han Solo!”
The thing that really burns our toast about The Weekly isn’t that it’s both lightweight and pissweak: there’s always going to be room for that kind of viewing, especially if it’s done on the cheap, and with only three cast members The Weekly has to be relatively cheap no matter how many backroom hangers-on are signing on. It’s the way the ABC continues to pretend it’s something – anything – more than junk TV.
The Weekly is the kind of thing that should be on at 11pm at night, or 6pm, or any time that isn’t prime time. And it should be on five (ok, maybe four) nights a week, so its shitty tossed-off jokes at least can be topical. Pretending this half-arsed, half-baked show for half-wits is any kind of grand statement on the news or the state of the nation is nothing but an insult, no matter how many times yoof websites post clips of Pickering flailing about under the caption “NAILED IT”.
And there’s another twenty weeks of this smug, self-congratulatory smirk of a show ahead. Merry Christmas everybody!
So, everyone’s fave mumblecore relationship drama has finally come to an end and… wait, what? They’re still trying to sell Please Like Me as a comedy? Oh, fuck off.
The problem with throwing your hands up and admitting defeat with Please Like Me – and by that we mean writing a review that says “hey look, it might not be about much but it’s a decent-enough take at the aimlessness of being in your early twenties and as that kind of low-stakes relationship drama it’s actually pretty well made”, which we almost ended up doing at a couple of points this series – is that even by those standards this show is a fucking tram smash. It’s a realistic look at millennial lifestyles, you say? So why is Josh making a living running a whimsical snack truck in a park?
On its own Josh’s snack truck is hardly a fatal flaw, even if it is the kind of hipster doofus crap that sets our teeth on edge. But it’s not on its own. Either Please Like Me is an actual sitcom, or it’s a twee dramedy that’s more about being a lightweight yet feels-heavy soapie than anything else. Which seems to be the tack many of its fans are on board with, even though it’s the equivalent of saying Friends would have been a much better show if there hadn’t been any jokes in it.
Josh running a snack truck works in a sitcom if it’s used as the basis for a bunch of jokes. Josh running a snack truck works in a lightweight soapie if there’s a subplot about, say, Josh trying to make a living from stupid schemes or Josh being stuck in crap jobs or something. But in Please Like Me the snack cart is… just there, like it’s funny or a telling detail or symbolising something in and of itself. None of which is the case; it’s the set-up to a joke, not the punchline. And that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed across three series of this show – it’s just lazy.
Before the angry mob of, what – a dozen Josh Thomas fans Australia-wide? – comes at us with knives in hand, let’s quickly stress what isn’t lazy about Please Like Me: for one thing, the direction is always top notch. If you’re the kind of television critic who’s impressed by an Australian television show that looks halfway decent… which would be all of them… then it’s no wonder you’ve been loving this.
The performances are all generally decent too. Even Thomas, who in a completely different show could be quite effective playing “Josh”. He’d be a guest star who fucks over one of the leads and is generally a hateful human being, but it’s possible to imagine him being funny if placed in a context that actually worked for his character comedy-wise. You know, like how Thomas’ entire television career comes from the way he was used as a punchline for Shaun Micallef’s jokes in Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation.
And on a cursory glance even the material seems like it should be funny. Talking about “outie” vaginas at Christmas lunch? Josh deciding to broaden his sexual horizons with an online random who just shows up at his house? A home-made video where a dog destroys a cardboard city? A show that actually wanted to make a fist of entertaining its viewers could have done a lot with that kind of thing.
But Please Like Me never seals the deal. It’s so committed to a half-baked idea of what “realism” means in a television show that it never takes that last couple of steps to come up with scenes that do anything more than just lie there. The first episode of this season was Josh trying to get Arnold to sleep with him. Then they slept together. Then Arnold was weird about it. Then they got over it. Just because things are things that happen in real life doesn’t mean you have to make a television show about them.
Look, we get it. There are a lot of people who want to see stories they can relate to on television and Please Like Me is trying to do that. But is the bar really set so low that “showing someone going to have an abortion” is in and of itself enough reason to throw praise at a television series in 2015? Does anyone else remember that when Homer Simpson said “it’s funny because it’s true”, it was a joke about how being funny actually requires more than straightforward observation?
It’s not like Please Like Me actually does anything with its big dramatic plots either. Much like the comedy, the writers – which would be Josh Thomas – seem to think merely coming up with things that are “dramatic” or “funny” is all they have to do to create scenes that are “dramatic” or “funny”. That’s not to say the dialogue isn’t realistic; that is to say that people having a realistic chat in an abortion clinic isn’t decent television unless there’s something more going on. And in Please Like Me, there never is.
Over and over and over again it presents the viewer with scenarios that are “dramatic” or “funny” and then fails to do anything with them. Because the show presents everything on the same stilted, inert level the dialogue always “works” – it feels like the kind of clumsy, awkward thing people actually say. But there’s nothing going on behind it. The drama isn’t dramatic, the comedy isn’t funny. The viewer has to do all the work to engage with the show – instead of making the effort to stylise its elements to create drama or comedy, it provides the raw materials and expects you to imagine the rest – and it’s just not worth it.
While we’re shoveling dirt over Please Like Me because it seems pretty clear to all concerned that it’s not coming back (after the ratings it got this year, how could the ABC even show it with a straight face?), is having your characters occasionally say “we’re growing up” enough to make up for the fact that no, they’re really the same shitty self-absorbed people they were back in series one? Please Like Me is like spending a whole lot of time with really convincing shouty look-at-us-we’re-so-cool people you wouldn’t want to have a table next to at a restaurant.
And worse, it’s a show that expects us to feel all warm and happy towards it because in a bunch of episodes it shows us two people – Josh and Arnold – constantly making out because they’re in love. Seriously? Did nobody tell Thomas that seeing two people constantly making out because they’re in love gives most people the shits? There’s like, maybe thirty seconds max of “aww, they’re in love” and then it’s “get a room” and then it’s “great, now I feel like shit because I don’t have what they’re having, just fuck off”. Wasn’t the comedy in this show meant to come from Josh being kind of awful?
You know what makes us happy? Laughter. Not twee greeting card sentiment about the value of friendship – we have actual friends for that. It used to just be a shitty joke that people watched Friends instead of having them; now it’s the kind of thing that gets people writing stuff like this with a straight face:
Everyone on Please Like Me cares about each other so much that sometimes they don’t know what to do with all of their feelings. They tease each other to death, but their mockery comes from affection, first and foremost. Their shared barbs, insecurities, and senses of humor create co-dependencies, which can either soothe or fracture the group depending on the day. But this intimacy, for better or for worse, is exactly what makes Please Like Me so good.
It’s lucky they care for each other so much, because going by the ratings the rest of Australia could not give a single solitary fuck.
There haven’t been many radio shows like Sunday Night Safran in this country, or indeed anywhere else. National broadcasters tend not to keep shows on air for a decade that sound like they should be on community radio, or a niche-interest podcast.
And while factual programming on Triple J has always spent a fair bit of its time trying to sound cool (tune in to Hack and it’s amazing how un-cool a bunch of people in their 20’s can sound) John Safran and Father Bob showed that it’s possible to make a youth-oriented program about religion and politics that isn’t patronising or dull. Why they’ve worked as a double act since 2005 is that they have a unique voice, or, to be more precise, two unique voices. Often arguing with each other.
Safran’s was that of the whiney, Jewish comedian and contrarian who gave platforms to white supremacists and was obsessed with conspiracy theories and why people believe things. Tagging along for the ride was Father Bob Maguire, well-known in Melbourne for decades as a man who believes passionately in helping the poor. Once on Sunday Night Safran he told Richard Dawkins that he agreed with him, although it ultimately turned out it was more the Catholic establishment he was against.
Why or whether we should believe and what people believe has been at the heart of every religious program ever, but what was clever about Sunday Night Safran was that we didn’t notice that such worthy or intelligent matters were being discussed. And let’s face it, it was kinda hard to recognise this as an intellectual program as Bob and John bickered, or lisped, or didn’t speak in to the mic properly, or interviewed a man who’d turned himself in to a lizard. Oh yeah, and there was that time they did a pre-record with Alexander Downer, and he was kind of boring and patronising, so John inhaled some helium and spoke over the top of the interview as it played. It’s fair to suggest that no other religion or politics show has ever done that. Or ever will again.
We’re going to miss Sunday Night Safran, AKA the best Australian podcast you used to be able to download on a Monday. Few shows talked to so many interesting people about serious issues in a funny way. Oh, and Safran’s riff on the show that Triple J will replace them with, a program about sex and relationships, was pretty spot-on (along with the Downer interview it’s in their last episode, which aired on Sunday). What was that we were saying before about factual programs on Triple J sounding deeply un-cool?
Voting is now open in the Australian Tumbleweeds Awards 2015!
Now in its 10th “amazing” year, the Australian Tumbleweeds hails the failures (and occasional successes) of this nation’s comic talent.
Your online voting form can be found here: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/tumblies2015
You have until midnight at the end of Friday 8th January 2016 to vote. Please only vote once. Full rules and instructions can be found with the voting form – please read the rules carefully!
The winners will be announced on or about Australia Day 2016.
As always, the official hashtag is #tumblies.
Press release time!
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
FIRST-LOOK IMAGE RELEASED FOR NEW AUSTRALIAN BLACK COMEDY ‘DOWN UNDER’, WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY ABE FORSYTHE
3 December, 2015: The first image for filmmaker Abe Forsythe’s second feature film, DOWN UNDER, has just been released.
A black comedy set during the aftermath of the Cronulla riots, DOWN UNDER is the story of two carloads of hotheads from both sides of the fight destined to collide. Sincere, though misguided, intent gives way to farcical ineptitude as this hilarious yet poignant story of ignorance, fear and kebab-cravings unfolds, and what was meant to be a retaliation mission turns into something neither side could have imagined.
Deliberately and provocatively confronting racism head on, director Abe Forsythe, who is also responsible for writing the film’s screenplay, has taken a balanced look at the ridiculous side of a serious subject. “There is nothing more satisfying than getting people to laugh at something they feel like they shouldn’t be laughing at. Comedy is the best way to say something meaningful,” he says.
This first-look image introduces characters from both sides of the story, men with so much in common, divided by an arbitrary hatred. Forsythe says: “Obviously if you’re setting a film during the Cronulla riot, racism is one of the major themes you find yourself exploring. However, racism here is a behavioural by-product of these characters wanting to belong to something, to feel like they are in control.”
As we approach the 10th anniversary of the shameful event which has been cemented in our nation’s history, DOWN UNDER is a timely reminder that will provoke wider discussions on identity and acceptance.
DOWN UNDER will release in cinemas in 2016, distributed by STUDIOCANAL Australia.
DOWN UNDER stars Lincoln Younes (Hiding, Love Child Season 2), Rahel Romahn (Underbelly: The Golden Mile, The Combination), Damon Herriman(The Water Diviner, The Little Death, Justified), Michael Denkha (The Combination, Stealth), Fayssal Bazzi (Crownies, Cedar Boys),Alexander England (Gods Of Egypt, Power Games: The Packer-Murdoch Story),Justin Rosniak (Animal Kingdom), Harriet Dyer (Love Child, Janet King) and introduces Christopher Bunton. It also features Josh McConville, Dylan Young, Christiaan Van Vuuren, Anthony Taufa along with Marshall Napier (The Water Horse, Babe) and David Field (Last Cab To Darwin, The Rover, Chopper).
Presented by Screen Australia, DOWN UNDER is a Wild Eddie Production, in association with El Guapo Films and Emu Creek Pictures, produced in conjunction with STUDIOCANAL. Written and directed by Abe Forsythe, produced by Jodi Matterson and executive produced by Greg McLean.
As fans of Chris Morris’ Four Lions – which tackled equally touchy material – we’re not going to dismiss this out of hand.
Oh wait, it’s written and directed by Abe Forsythe. The man who made Brass Eye, Jam and Nathan Barley up against the director of Ned and series two of Laid? Who also wrote for Double Take, Comedy Inc. and The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting?
We’re sorry we said anything.