2014
04.16

Mad As Hell will probably be back next year – maybe even this year – so this is (hopefully) not a goodbye, merely an adieu. “But we want it on every week, all year ‘round!” you cry. And it’s at this point that if this blog was an episode of Mad As Hell, Shaun would introduce some bizarre character to riff on this topic for a minute or so and we’d all be cackling with laughter. Sigh.

One of the things that we find most impressive about Mad As Hell is that there is a formula to the show – oddly named, strange characters discuss topical issues with a hectoring semi-madman who breaks in to do some silly eye movements a couple of times an episode – but it’s okay because it’s a formula that works. And as the formulaic elements of Mad As Hell are used sparingly enough and inventively enough that you don’t really notice there’s a formula.

In pretty much any other topical sketch show made in Australia in the past however-many-decades being formulaic was one of its major flaws. Wednesday Night Fever, Live From Planet Earth…why are we even bothering to name them? All we need – and want – to remember are a) they had a very simplistic formula which they hammered in to the ground, i.e. they created a number of recurring characters and thought “recurring” equalled “must include in every episode”, and b) because they did a) audiences turned off and they were axed. Don’t get us wrong, we love Ian Orbspider, we love The Kraken, and we love Vomitoria Catchment, but we don’t mind not seeing them every week, or even every series, because we know that when they do appear they will be funny.

Another part of the Mad As Hell “formula” is, of course, the satire. While many of this country’s newspapers and news websites fail to make the government accountable, Mad As Hell usually manages to throw stones in the right direction. And in a country still plagued by wowsers full of OUTRAGE, satire – often seen as an audience repellent – seems to work just fine for anyone who happens to tune in. Maybe those audiences who normally wouldn’t enjoy satire are being satiated with the wacky costumes? Or, more likely, maybe it’s just that Mad As Hell has a knack of nailing the right targets in the right way. Behind every sketch, whether a scripted piece or a YouTube-esque moment of LOLZ footage, there’s usually a sage political point of some kind. And like the formula, it’s not always obvious but it is there.

Mad As Hell is more than a show that’s funny, for students of comedy it’s also instructive: you don’t have to set out to shock (The Chaser) or try to appeal to the lowest common denominator (Wednesday Night Fever) to get audiences to pay attention. You can even do basically the same thing every week. What you need is a unique vision, a flexible formula, and the ability to write a bunch of piss-funny gags. Oh right, so that’s why there aren’t more Mad As Hells. Sorry to have troubled you.

2014
04.15

A: So it seems ABC boss Mark Scott has apologised for The Chaser’s “comedy sketch” in which columnist for The Australian Chris Kenny was portrayed as having sex with a dog.

B: And just 49 minutes after The Australian once again found someone to demand they bend the knee. Heaven forbid we had a national broadcast who… well, heaven forbid we had a national broadcaster seems to be the editorial line over at their chief competitor these days.

A: You’re defending The Chaser then?

B: Of course. It’s obvious that the ABC shouldn’t have apologised to Kenny. It was clearly a joke, if one in poor taste, and if you’re going to start apologising for jokes where’s it going to end? You’ll give up making jokes in the first place – which, if Gerard Henderson’s “comedy” material is any guide, is what the Right want from their comedians.

A: But arguing for the “right to offend” with comedy sounds awfully close to what Andrew Bolt is currently angling for – the whole “people have a right to be bigots” thing.

B: Amazing, isn’t it, that these right wing types are out there claiming that limiting their right to incite racial hate is an attack on freedom of speech, while The Chaser’s right to show a clearly fake picture of Kenny having sex with a dog – in the context of a joke about how the image was obviously going too far – is one they’re more than happy to trample on. Why, it’s almost as if they had no firm principles at all beyond “we want to do what we want to do and you lot can shut up and take it”.

A: But that “context” you talk about is a sack of crap. Clearly the point of the joke was to show the image, not to make a point that the ABC are going to go too far when… see, I’ve seen the sketch a number of times and I can’t even remember the context. They wanted to show the picture, and they built a “joke” around it.

B: So what? It was on a comedy show, it clearly wasn’t real – it was a joke that only people looking to score points off the ABC could possibly take seriously. And judging by the ABC’s caving in, they’ve succeeded.

A: But the ABC wouldn’t have had to have caved in if it wasn’t such a shit joke. We’ve seen this urge towards pointless shocks time and time again with The Chaser – ever since the Osama Bin Laden / APEC bit which grabbed loads of headlines but as a joke had no point whatsoever. The “Make a Realistic Wish Foundation” sketch was the same thing: they come up with the outrage first then try to put together a rationale to justify going on with it. It’s sloppy, and it creates material that’s all but impossible to defend if it’s challenged.

B: I don’t think that’s quite how The Chaser works. I’m sure they’ve said somewhere that they expected trouble in that season of The Chaser’s War on Everything, they just didn’t expect that sketch to set things off.

A: Which proves my point: when it comes to handling shocking or offensive material, they’re just not skilled enough to pull it off. Which is probably their aim: a more subtle and funny sketch making the same point about Kenny wouldn’t have got them anywhere near as much publicity.

B: So is the problem just that this is a bad time for The Chaser – and the ABC in general – to be stirring up the Right, or do you think there’s never a good time?

A: There’s never a good time when you don’t know what you’re doing. I’d say that Mad As Hell has scored harder hits on the Right than The Chaser have ever managed -

B: You would say that, what with our well-known love of all things Micallef.

A: – but that hardly anyone noticed because those hits have been smart and funny rather than crude and blunt. With News Corp controlling what, 72% of Australia’s newspapers, unless you piss off the right wing enough to get them howling for your blood no-one’s even going to know you’re on the air. Subtle comedy and nuanced takedowns aren’t going to get you a full page spread in the Daily Telegraph:

I wouldn’t even compare what The Chaser does to Micallef’s show – they’re more on par with Wil Anderson calling Senator Richard Alston a “right-wing pig rooter” on The Glasshouse.

B: Ouch.

A: And considering Morrow spent this morning cracking jokes about the disappearance of MH370… well, it’s business as usual there.

B: But this brings us back to the right to offend. MH370 jokes might be tasteless – though really, we’re well past the whole “too soon” stage by now – but they’re still clearly jokes. Comedy with any kind of edge to it can’t survive in an environment where anyone can stand up and say they’re offended and shut the whole thing down.

A: The trouble is that the people making the free speech argument in Australia at the moment are largely people who want the right to be openly racist towards powerless minorities. Do you really want to side with racists to defend The Chaser’s right to make shitty non-jokes?

B: But Bolt is being offensive about things people can’t help, like the colour of their skin and their social standing. Politicians can choose not to be right-wing dickheads.

A: True. Tho I feel many right-wing dickheads would argue their horrible hateful values are as much a part of them as their skin colour.

B: They would be wrong about that.

A: True. Skin colour is on the outside of your body and often hidden underneath your clothes. Having no compassion or empathy for others and hating strangers based solely on ignorance – that lives in your heart!

B: I think we’ll leave it there.

2014
04.14

ABC2’s Comedy Up Late is the kind of Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) stand-up showcase we want to see on TV: a couple of cameras pointed at a stage in a comedy room, with some comedians coming out and doing well-honed, five-minute sets for a live audience. This isn’t like when Channel 10 comes in and films the MICF Gala, where 95% of the acts have one eye on the cameras and are doing their most mainstream routines so they won’t get edited out of the broadcast. Comedy Up Late, like Stand Up @ Bella Union, manages to preserve the feel of a comedy room, in all its smokey, dirty, boozy glory – and with (seemingly) minimal editing of the acts.

If you live in a rural area or somewhere like Perth or Darwin or Adelaide or Hobart, where there isn’t much of a live comedy scene, this kind of show is one of the few ways you can experience a wide range of live comedy acts. For that reason alone it’s worth making. Problem is, whoever programmed the line-up for Comedy Up Late seems to have a slightly more MICF Gala sensibility than a Stand Up @ Bella Union sensibility – meaning that the kind of comedy you get on Comedy Up Late tends more towards the “first world problems” end of the LOLZ spectrum.

For us, Stand Up @ Bella Union is a more interesting program – we hadn’t seen a number of the acts before, the majority weren’t white middle-class males under 30, and most of them were pretty good. Comedy Up Late certainly had plenty of good comedians, including a number who are female and/or non-white, and a few who have also appeared on Stand Up @ Bella Union. It’s just that, overall, the material was pretty mainstream. And at the risk of sounding like inverted snobs or hipsters, that’s not all that appealing to us.

Comedy, as an artform, tends to work best when an underdog is getting the laughs – when they’re standing up to authority or in opposition to someone in a position of privilege. White middle-class males under 30, relatively speaking, are in a position of privilege; amongst other things they’ve got youth on their side, multiple opportunities open to them and lots of choices they can make about the direction of their lives. Their comedy may well reflect the experiences and viewpoints of a significant section of the Australian population, but it’s also the kinds of experiences and viewpoints we already see quite a lot of on TV.

A comedy festival, by it’s nature, is somewhere you should and can see a number of different genres and sensibilities. And compared to Stand Up @ Bella Union, Comedy Up Late didn’t do a good enough job of bringing these to television.

2014
04.13

The Sunday Age‘s entertainment section – “M: Melbourne Inside Out” – has a section titled “8 Days: Your One-Stop Guide To The Week Ahead”. The second listing in today’s edition is this:

Comedy Writer, comedian and poet Ben Pobjie is talking rage at this year’s Comedy Festival. His show, Trigger Warning, takes to task the sheer amount of anger and offence that exists in our modern world, and tries to figure out why people enjoy outrage so much. Trigger Warning is running six nights a week [we've left out the booking details because this isn't an ad for his show]“

Hmm. Why is there so much anger in the world? Here’s a suggestion: maybe people become angry when they read a prominent listing like this in The Age that somehow fails to mention anywhere that Ben Pobjie is an Age employee? Maybe they’re outraged at a supposed “guide to the week ahead” that – in the middle of a flood of comedians performing in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival – puts a three-star, “lukewarm” outing by someone who works for the paper as the second item on their long list of things they’re promoting?

This isn’t a swipe at Pobjie or his show. Fairfax’s business model, relying as it does more on freelancers and part-timers than News Corp, all but guarantees that many of its writers will have other gigs, some of which will be the kind of thing that the Fairfax papers usually promote. The problem is that no-one seems to be telling the people who work at Fairfax that promoting your mates, while a nice thing in theory, is crap journalism in practice.

If you think The Age shouldn’t have to reveal that Pobjie works for them in a listing like this, you’re wrong. If you think it’s fair enough for them to promote his act even though it’s during a period when a comedy festival brings literally dozens of more interesting comedy performers to town, you’re wrong. It makes the paper look bad if you’re a reader who knows the connection, and it’s treating the readers who don’t like suckers.

And to think, The Age hasn’t run a puff piece on Marieke Hardy in months…

2014
04.10

* Have You Been Paying Attention? is coming back after Easter as an hour-long late-night show:

CHANNEL 10 has shifted Have You Been Paying Attention? from its prime Sunday evening timeslot.

Ten says the comedy panel show hasn’t been axed. Instead it is set to be relaunched in an expanded one-hour version after Easter.

The new Have You Been Paying Attention will screen at 9.30pm but Ten won’t confirm what night it will air.

Have You Been Paying Attention? has been a ratings disappointment ever since it launched at 6pm Sundays on November 3 last year.

Recent episodes have hovered around 300,000 viewers across Australia’s five capital cities.

*Myf Warhurst is going to be a host on Triple J’s new digital network, where presumably her overwhelming niceness will finally be put to good use:

Finding music to shock listeners is going to be much more difficult and Loader says that all-important first song – which will be played by new presenter (and ex-Triple Jer) Myf Warhurst at midday on April 30 – is being hotly debated at Triple J as you read this. She says all suggestions are welcomed.

“We are not resurrecting [the old] Double J on air we are re-appropriating the name and that spirit… we think it will still be surprising for listeners.”

One way the new Double J will be at least progressive is that, as Loader says, it will have a strong female influence – handy timing after Triple J was attacked for perceptions of male bias in its playlist when only nine female artists made the station’s top 100 of the past 20 years last July.

The new Double J’s music director will be Dorothy Markek, Warhurst is the weekday day-time presenter, Dan Buhagiar is a senior music producer, Loader is the content director and “over half of the presenters will be women”.

*There’s a Kickstarter aiming to revive good old-fashioned radio (well, audio) comedy:

Night Terrace is a new, full-cast, eight-part science fiction audio-comedy series following the adventures of Anastasia Black, played by Neighbours’ Jackie Woodburne, and created by some of the people behind Splendid Chaps, ABC1′s Outland and ABC2′s The Bazura Project.

*The Roast is slowly crushing our will to live… sorry, there’s no link as we haven’t written our reviews yet. But for a team that the ABC is clearly positioning as “the next Chaser“, wouldn’t it be good if they were occasionally half as funny as The Chaser? The bar’s not that high, folks.

Also, anybody who says anything like “what can you expect with the pressure they’re under doing a nightly show” gets slapped.

2014
04.09

Just in case you didn’t catch it, Jo Case from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre published an interview with one of us yesterday. Sadly it hasn’t got any comments yet, so why not make a change from venting your spleen here and give the Wheeler Centre website’s moderator something to do? Or just be lazy and post something here.

Either way, we’d be interested to know what you think. Do you care that we don’t give our names? Is our approach to reviewing totally wrong?

And while we’re here, thanks to Jo Case and all at the Wheeler Centre for giving us the best publicity we’ve had since that time Julia Morris mentioned us on The Project. We had five likes on Facebook for this, it’s like we’re a proper blog!

2014
04.07

It seems Charlie Pickering has wrapped up his five years on The Project:

“My biggest thanks of all goes to you for watching. I consider it an absolute privilege to be on air. That you would invite me into your home night after night means the world to me. It’s been an honour being in your television and I look forward to doing it again, before too long.”

That makes one of us*.

 

 

*ok, that’s a bit harsh. It seems clear he clearly wants to do higher-brow, edgier, political stuff in the future, and we’re certainly interested in seeing him tackle that. But after five years of slightly smug televised drive-radio banter, we’re not sorry to see him leave The Project. And with Hughsie out the door and Ten going down the crapper ratings-wise, he may have bailed just in time…

 

**Edit: someone just pointed out this story:

On-set blow-ups are a part of life when it comes to putting a live news and entertainment show to air five nights a week, according to The Project’s executive producer Craig Campbell.

But he denies that one such blow up was the catalyst for one of the Channel Ten show’s stars, Charlie Pickering, to quit.

”We have blow-ups all the time. I have them with everyone,” Campbell told PS this week, hosing down rumours of a showdown he and Pickering had last month while the show was being shot in Sydney.

”It’s part of being a member of a creative team that produces live television five nights of the week … We are under immense pressure. It comes with the territory. We are all very passionate people.”

Rumours have circulated throughout Channel Ten that Pickering himself had a rather ”combative” approach to dealing with the producers and staff on The Project.

We can confirm at least one aspect of this story: those rumours have circulated beyond the walls of Channel Ten. And if you’re going to counter a rumour, you really need to try harder than Campbell is, because this…

”There are always creative differences. It’s just a part of this business. I’m sure there will be plenty more creative differences in the future.

”But there was absolutely no problem with Charlie. He has done an amazing job over the past five years … He graciously agreed to stick around a bit longer than he had originally planned.”

… is basically confirming that the blow-up (which may or may not have led to Pickering’s departure) did happen. Though our best guess is that Campbell is right: these “blow-ups” happened all the time between Pickering and… whoever… and this one was only noted because it happened outside of the confines of Ten’s studios at The Como Centre. Where presumably these “blow-ups” were just part of the job.

2014
04.05

Sure, we said we weren’t going to cover the Melbourne International Comedy Festival – but we never said we weren’t going to cover the coverage of the… well, you get the idea. Anyway, seems like the Herald Sun – official sponsors of MICF despite not giving a flying fuck about live comedy the rest of the year – have done it again. And by “done it again” we mean, as you have no doubt already figured out, given someone a horrendously crap review based on non-performance elements of their show. Also, astoundingly sexist, but you knew that.

Hilariously, this review was so kak-handed and offensive that even though the Herald-Sun has already removed it from its website, the very first line – which is all that we could find on google* – is bad enough in and of itself:

YOU wouldn’t look twice at Alice Fraser if she walked past you on Collins St in her black business dress that unfortunately only half covers a…

That’s a review of a comedy show? Slightly more details come from Fraser herself:

… and while no doubt if we had access to the original review we’d be able to quote even more rubbish (though we believe the overall review was positive), we think you get the picture.

So many questions, none of them new. Who are they getting to review comedy at the Herald-Sun? Where are the editors in all this? Why would anyone think that talking about a comic’s appearance was in any possible way relevant to a comedy show (unless they were wearing a wacky outfit that was part of the act, which, it’s amazingly safe to say, is not the case here)? Haven’t we been here before?

As we’ve said in the past, the Herald-Sun and live comedy are an odd fit. Worse, the Herald-Sun‘s general lack of live arts coverage means that when MICF rolls around, they don’t have the experienced reviewers to handle it. MICF is a very tough reviewing gig at the best of times – comedians are very touchy about reviews, and there’s not the history of consistent live reviews to give readers any of the context (is four stars a good review or just average? Does a certain reviewer consistently give out bad ratings to good shows?) that’s needed if reviews are really going to be of much use.

But having this happen yet again points to a systemic problem with the MICF / Herald Sun dynamic. As in, the Herald Sun doesn’t really give much of a shit about comedy and their promotion of the festival is basically about promoting themselves. So long as that’s the case they’re going to be handing out reviewing gigs to anyone they can find who’ll take them, and that includes people who don’t have a clue.

The MICF management seems fine with this: whether the comedians themselves get much of a say seems doubtful.

*edit: the full review can now be found here.

2014
04.02

The Agony series is back with The Agony Guide to Modern Manners, and… yeah. Unlike some of the ABC’s long-running series where the end product is an insult on enough levels to make it worth our while to re-examine it every time it airs, the Agony shows are the same thing over and over and over. What more is there to say?

Of course, from a programming standpoint the shows are genius. Creator / host / cameraman Adam Zwar goes around to the homes of a bunch of b-list media personalities – many of whom are his peers or his wife, though over the course of the twenty odd episodes that have already aired he’s been casting his net increasingly wider, to the show’s benefit – and asks them a bunch of questions about living life. They answer, their answers are edited into bite-sized chunks, some “quirky” archival footage and Zwar voice-over is added to hold it all together and hey presto! Prime time viewing.

We all know that money is tight at the ABC and a series like this – Zwar and his wife are basically the entire production team and the guests are presumably paid a pittance – must be a godsend for the bean counters. It provides Australian content for cheap, gives local comedians and personalities valuable exposure (it basically kick-started Lawrence Mooney’s current ABC career), and rates well enough that bringing it back year after year doesn’t just seem like penny-pinching.

On the other side of the ledger, it’s somewhat pointless, rarely funny and borderline condescending. At least with Grumpy Old Men – you know, the show basically identical to this one only it came out a few years earlier – you had the angle that the old men were representing a world gone by; they’d seen society change around them and they weren’t happy about it. The majority of the cast of the Agony series are just your average prime-of-life media types who are telling the rest of us about the ways of the world because… they’re friends of the host?

But what about the tough questions being asked? Questions like: “How should you behave on your first day on the job?” Hey, aren’t most of these people self-employed or freelancers?  Then there’s “How should you behave in the office lift?” “What should you wear to work?” “What are the dos and don’ts of the office phone?” … And this is on television because why now? Wait, John Elliot just asked how to find Miranda Kerr topless on the internet. And no-one told him how. Come on, that would have been useful information.

The one moderately interesting thing about the Agony series as it’s developed is that it’s moved away a little from its original format, where – in Agony Uncles at least – it was a bunch of somewhat smug, generally good-looking, reasonably well-off blokes handing out relationship advice. As we pointed out way back then, these guys generally came off as dickheads to be pitied and laughed at, and their advice seemed largely torn from the pages of some 60s guide to being a knob. Which perhaps wasn’t all that big a surprise: Zwar spent a while as a successful weekend “man’s issues” columnist, and that’s an area where re-enforcing stereotypes (women like men with cash; men like to be the ones chasing women) rather than dramatically challenging them is the way to go.

But over the course of the series the advice being handed out has somehow become even more vague and general, to the point now that what we’re being served up in some segments is the shock revelation that some slightly famous people are gossips and snoops. The advice angle has been downplayed and rightly so, as generally speaking the cast are largely unqualified to advise anyone on anything past “how to get on television” (which is one more thing than we could advise people on, but we’re not the ones on television). Meanwhile the celebrity culture “tell us what you’re wearing” side of things has been dialled up until what’s left is a thin stew of mild anecdotes and celebrity polling (which celebrities like a bit of cleavage at work? which celebrities like to gossip?).

Oh, we’ve also had our attention drawn to this:

“There are certain websites that have had a lot to say about me over the years,” Zwar admits.

“My friend Shane Jacobson doesn’t read anything whereas I read whatever I come across, I don’t search for it, but I am slowly becoming tougher. I just don’t care anymore. It has to be pretty nasty for me to care, and that is not (me) encouraging Australians to write nasty things about me!

“It’s terrible when it comes from someone in the industry. That’s when it hurts. It doesn’t matter if it comes from a critic, that’s their job, and if it was from someone anonymous –then whatever. If they can’t be bothered putting their name to their comment then how much investment can they possibly have?

Hmm. Let’s get this straight. If you’re a nothing-to-hide member of the public – well, Zwar doesn’t even mention what he thinks of your opinion. If you’re a critic, he doesn’t care. Nameless and therefore un-invested chumps like us? Forget it. It’s only those in the industry – those who know all the hard work and effort that goes into making a program firsthand – that he’s listening to.

Oh wait – no he’s not:

“But if it comes from a colleague then that is always seen in the industry as over-stepping the mark.

“That’s a no-no.”

So if you’re not in the industry he doesn’t care what you say, and if you are in the industry you shouldn’t be saying negative things*.

We’re guessing emptying the suggestion box isn’t a full time job at ZwarCorp.

 

 

 

*This would come as a large surprise to 95% of the industry people we’ve met.

2014
03.31

So today we woke up to this:

[Chris] Lilley has been nominated for a Silver Logie as Most Outstanding Actor for his performance as the snobby cashed-up bogan schoolgirl in Ja’mie King.

It is sweet redemption for Lilley who was devastated when the ABC made a huge gaffe by failing to put in a submission for his Angry Boys two years ago.

“Sweet redemption”? Let’s just wait and see if he wins before we start flashing our boobs around. And considering the “gaffe” around Angry Boys was – if, as they say, the rumours are true – more about the ABC hurriedly washing their hands of a proven ratings flop than an innocent mistake, it shall be interesting to see if the in-house promotional effort required to get Lilley over the line is forthcoming. Especially considering the Silver Logie is a peer-voted category, thus ruling out his teenage tumblr fanbase.

Wait, you do all know the Logies are – to some extent or another – at the mercy of network publicists, right? TV Week needs television more than television needs TV Week: the awards aren’t outright fixed… we think… but publicists have their ways of making sure they get the result they want at least some of the time. Sure, Andy Lee could have been nominated for a Gold Logie over 2012 winner Hamish Blake because he’s awesome and 2013 was his year. Or it could have been because the Nine publicists decided he was the horse they were going to back this year. Which seems more likely to you?

And don’t think we haven’t noticed that the Logies continue to have nothing but contempt for comedy, what with all the actual comedy programs dumped in the “Popular Light Entertainment Program” and peer-voted “Most Outstanding Light Entertainment Program” categories. As previously and repeatedly stated by us, this seems like a fairly obvious attempt to disguise the fact that the commercial networks don’t actually make any comedy (Hamish & Andy’s travel shows aside): can’t have a category where the commercial networks can’t win now, can we?

The upshot of all this is that somehow comedy has managed to become, like any drama more complex than Home & Away, “elitist viewing” on Australian television. Despite occasional attempts to claim otherwise, the Logies are a populist award aimed at “popular” shows on the commercial networks: that means bland mainstream dramas and rubbish reality television. Seriously, even in the peer-voted “Most Outstanding Light Entertainment Program” category somehow talent show The Voice gets a look in. Much as it must be nice to win a Logie, against this kind of competition it’s hardly something to be proud of.