2014
10.24

“When it comes to sodomi, you can’t afford to be a tight-arse”. Would you look at that: an actual joke on an Australian comedy shown on ABC2. And from one of the guys behind Beached Az! We should just pack up and quit, clearly we’re in a world where all the old signposts mean nothing. Holy crap, an “Accidentally Kelly Street” reference! “Karl Drogo”! This show’s a goldmine.

We’ve never been fans of The Bondi Hipsters, mostly because we enjoyed UK series Nathan Barley when it did the exact same thing only better a decade earlier. Plus being “an internet sensation” tends to turn us off for a number of reasons, largely to do with the level you have to pitch your comedy at to cut through online. So it’s fairly safe to say our expectations for Soul Mates were… not all that high.

And now that we’ve seen the first episode? Well, we’re still on the fence, but we’re slightly more towards the middle of it. Having four separate plotlines is a good way to keep things moving along, especially as it’s clear from the start that none of the storylines could support an entire episode on their own. The caveman one, this week at least, is basically just a “how dumb were people before they knew how things worked?” joke that barely holds up across the brief time it gets.

The Kiwi Assassins one presents a different set of problems: jokes about NZ accents and riffs on 80s action movies are funny for about 30 seconds the first time you encounter them, and then it’s move along folks, nothing to see here. Ok, your personal mileage may vary; let’s all just agree that they’re not a bottomless well of comedy, and that it’s a well that for pretty much anyone not still giggling at “fush n chups” or the idea of a three minute training montage set to a fake generic 80s pop hit (seriously guys, the joke died a death at the 60 second mark) the well has run dry. Plus New Zealand has been serving up some pretty decent comedy of late (the vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows is funnier than any Australian film of the last five years, for one thing); getting laughs from how they speak when they’re getting laughs from actually being funny is not a great look.

The Time Travel Agents bit had a couple of decent jokes beyond “the future, where they dress funny”, so we’re going to put it in the “positive” column. The Yoko Ono one was helped by largely playing out in the background while other stuff was going on – the idea of having even two things going on at once seems to be one that Australian comedy has largely forgot. That’s one of the advantages of a TV show made by people who came to comedy from making their own sketches (in contrast to stand-up) – they have a better idea of how to get laughs beyond simply having people saying funny stuff (the future guy’s bottomless carry bag being an honest-to-god visual joke).

As for the Bondi Hipsters… well, as we said, this stuff was funnier when Nathan Barley did it a decade ago. And again, hipsters are an easy target. But at least here there were the hints of an actual comedy dynamic (the meek guy and the aggressive, slightly out-of-wack guy) which just made us even more depressed to realise a lot of Australian comedy can’t even manage that these days. Different personality types can be funny when played off against each other! Who knew?

Overall then, Soul Mates was better than we expected. We just weren’t expecting very much. Let’s call it “competent” for now: there were a lot of broad and easy jokes, but at least they were jokes, and giving the leads various comedy personas went some way towards diluting the smug annoyance that the Bondi Hipsters have generated on their solo outings. The real trouble is going to be stretching all this out across eight episodes, especially as the preview for next week didn’t hold out the promise for a lot of change – guess the cavemen are just going to be puzzled by pretty much everything we take for granted, huh?

The characters could get funnier the more we get to know them, or this could be one of those series that start out strong but by week three they’re just spinning their wheels. The future! It’s not just where you get to make jokes about how robots piss.

 

2014
10.20

In Helen Razer’s recent examination of the history of the laugh track for The Saturday Paper -

– which is something of a must-read, if only for the part where she says:

It is not so much that the laughter is immediately infectious – psychological studies indicate that a laugh track or an enhanced “live” track, such as that used to augment sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience, does not prompt viewers to laugh.

Then two paragraphs later:

The value of a joke, then, is determined by the inhuman mechanism of a laugh market and our laughter, heretofore a spontaneous physical reaction, becomes labour. Comedy becomes less a matter of jokes than it is of biopolitics. Just as a prisoner is required to undertake certain physical actions at certain times of the day, any poor sod doomed by habit to watch the immensely unfunny The Big Bang Theory is led by the culture’s wardens to chuckle at nothing.

Prompting us to wonder if anyone – editors, the publisher, Razer herself – read over her story before publishing it, because last time we checked it’s hard to see how the “chuckle wardens” of the laugh track could lead anyone to do anything considering she just said a laugh track does not even prompt viewers to laugh, let alone “chuckle at nothing”, c’mon people this kind of garbled rambling garbage is just the kind of shit we need to-

*deep breath*

Ahem. Sorry about that.

Anyway, in that article she also writes this:

This nation’s most artful comedy in years is Josh Thomas’s heartbreaking Please Like Me, whose sad-funny season finale this week was made possible by a production team that would not even pitch the show as comedy let alone remind audiences of the constraints of the genre by the use of enhanced or artificial laughter.

Please Like Me wasn’t pitched as a comedy? Somebody should have told the ABC, as we went back into our archives and found this press release from 2012 with “COMEDY” stamped all over it:

JOSH THOMAS show goes into production for ABC1
 

Filming starts today on the new comedy series PLEASE LIKE ME, written by and starring comedian Josh Thomas (Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation). PLEASE LIKE ME will be shot on location in Melbourne and will air on ABC 1 later this year.

Inspired by Josh’s award-winning stand-up comedy, PLEASE LIKE ME is a 6 x 30 series about growing up quickly, and about realising that your parents are not heroes, but dopes with no idea what’s going on – just like you.

Award-winning stand-up comedian Josh Thomas is the Generation Y team captain on Network Ten’s Talkin’ ‘bout Your Generation. He has appeared on The 7PM Project, Good News Week, Rove, ABC TV Q&A, and as host of the 2011 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala. In 2010, he was nominated for a TV Week Logie Award for Most Popular New Male Talent and won the GQ Comedian of the Year Award. He was the curator of the Inaugural Brisbane International Comedy Festival.

Josh Thomas says ”I feel a little bit guilty about all of these very talented people running around doing all this work because of what I typed up on my laptop late at night whilst drinking wine and probably also watching Hairspray.”

As well as writing the series, Josh Thomas stars in PLEASE LIKE ME as Josh, alongside his cavoodle, John. The series also stars Debra Lawrance (Home & Away) as Mum, David Roberts (Offspring) as Dad, Judi Farr (Unfolding Florence) as Aunty Peg and Caitlin Stasey (Tomorrow When The War Began, Neighbours).

ABC Head of Comedy Debbie Lee says “We’re so happy to be bringing Josh’s world to ABC TV in what promises to be such a funny and surprising series. PLEASE LIKE ME will show Josh’s talents in a whole new light.”

>Producer Todd Abbott says “We’re thrilled that the ABC have been such staunch supporters of this project, and that we’re going into production while it’s almost feasible for Josh Thomas to play a 20-year-old.

“The scripts that he has written have attracted a top-shelf crew and a dream cast.”

PLEASE LIKE ME is directed by AACTA and AFI award-winner Matthew Saville (The Slap, Cloudstreet, We Can Be Heroes) and produced by respected comedy producer Todd Abbott (Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey, Rove, The Dream with Roy & H.G.). Executive Producers are Todd Abbott, Kevin Whyte, Josh Thomas, Debbie Lee.

 

Heaven forbid we suggest that Thomas and everyone associated with Please Like Me – including its many fans in the media – were more than happy to call it a comedy right up until the moment they noticed people weren’t laughing.

Or, going by the ratings this season, watching: no-one seems to have made public the ratings for the last few episodes that we can find, which tells us it wasn’t in the top 20 digital channel shows. Considering the massive amount of promotion it received, that can’t be a good look.

On the positive side, with series three of Please Like Me already locked in thanks to the show being bought and paid for by US cable network Pivot, there’s a strong chance it’ll be shown on ABC1 whether the ABC likes it or not:

As a longer-term measure, the ABC is expected to closely explore shutting down multi-channel ABC2 and moving its youth-focused content to its main channel or online catch-up service iView.

Still, more comedy on ABC1 is always good news as far as we’re concerned… oh right, Please Like Me isn’t a comedy, is it? Razer’s incoherent drivel highlights a perpetual problem with this kind of dramedy: it’s not funny enough to be a comedy, not good enough as a drama to stand as a drama, and largely supported by people who lack both a sense of humour and even a rudimentary idea of how comedy works.

[for example, the real reason why Please Like Me doesn't have a laugh track, above and beyond stylistic reasons - a laugh track would make it extremely difficult to claim it was a drama, for starters - is that, by being a single camera sitcom (that is, one filmed like a drama, and in contrast to traditional three camera sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends, which are filmed in front of a studio audience), there's simply no plausible place for the laughter to be coming from. Single camera sitcoms don't have laugh tracks because there's no audience there to be laughing (or not): Razer's article about "oh no, laugh tracks are coming back, what does this mean for our culture, damn you capitalism" totally ignores the fact that what she's really talking about is a drift back to three camera, studio-based sitcoms and away from the single-camera format that shows like Larry Sanders originated and later efforts like Scrubs popularised.]

As a result, Please Like Me ends up being praised simply for what it is: it’s about young people living in the inner-city, Thomas is playing a gay character that isn’t a stereotype, it combines jokes with drama to make both stand out against the other, it takes a thoughtful approach to the subject of mental illness. All this is true as far as it goes; unfortunately most of the discussion around this season hasn’t reached the point of “is any of this any good?”

We’ve probably said way too much about Please Like Me this year, so we’ll cut this one short. Suffice to say, for us combining comedy and drama isn’t some kind of magic act that conceals the fact that neither the drama or the comedy were good enough to stand on their own. Mix in a lot of sloppy writing, erratic characterisation, an emphasis on “funny lines” rather than actual jokes, and an approach to drama largely built on “people dying is sad”, and you have an effort that, to be honest, we’d rather forget.

So we’ll probably be writing more snark about it any day now.

2014
10.17

Comedy: the ABC’s got you covered! Actually, maybe a little too covered – with four new comedy series starting in the one week you’d think they were having a closing down sale or something. We’ll give each series the extended treatment in the coming weeks, but just to get the ball rolling here’s our initial impressions of the quartet.

*The Chaser’s Media Circus: The ABC has a long tradition of current affairs-based comedy game shows – or at least, that’s what we think Good News Week and The Glasshouse were meant to be – and we have an almost as long tradition of disliking them. Partly it’s because of pacing: unless you really work hard to make a gameshow fast-paced (see the recent Have You Been Paying Attention?), things tend to get bogged down. First you have to explain the current affair bit, then the joke: again, unless you really streamline it, the end result is only about 50% comedy. And with most current affairs jokes being smirk-worthy at best – what, politicians are stupid and the media exaggerates things? – that 50% can feel like a lot less. As it does here.

The other big problem here – apart from the fact that this kind of show always feels a bit cheap unless you’re the UK and have massive depth when it comes to razor-sharp comedy minds – is that The Chaser work best when they put a bit of work in. With the exception of Chaz – who barely got a look-in this time around, which counts as a major negative for us – and Hansen, the Chaser team largely come off as decent front men who work best with a strong backroom behind them. So an improv-heavy gameshow format wouldn’t have been our choice for a Chaser showcase even if they’d figured out a way to make the format work. And the non-core Chaser guests? Well, they didn’t accidentally set light the set on fire, so there’s that.

We’ve already had a decent comedy gameshow (HYBPA?) and a smart current affairs comedy (Mad as Hell) this year: this is going to have to get a lot better real fast if it’s going to challenge either.

*Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery: It’s easy to forget this largely forgettable show traces its lineage back to Enough Rope – until we start getting the tragic tales of schoolyard tramua, that is. We’re no fans of Dave “Hughsie” Hughes here, but as a seasoned stand-up he did a decent enough job of making wandering through his childhood haunts into watchable television (especially when he linked it to his drive to perform, which is really the only thing we’re interested about).

It’s all very lightweight and big on cheap sentiment (sad parental stories are gold for this show), and Zemiro’s only vague interest in using this history lesson to shed any real light on how Hughsie developed his comedy style – what, not even a “all this bullying made me really… angriiiiiiiiii” (though we did get a list of influences, so that’s something) – is pretty shit. But hey, we got to see his kids and his mum and Warnambool looks like a nice town, so… great.

*Upper Middle Bogan: Slip-n-Slide! It’s nice to occasionally see some physical comedy in our local sitcoms, and while it wasn’t up there with Shaun Micallef’s rotating room skits from Full Frontal, it did provide yet more variety in what is the front-runner for Australia’s best sitcom. With a cast in double figures – and with them all being at least moderately well defined (not the same as deep, mind you) comedy characters – Upper Middle Bogan is a show that doesn’t have a problem filling an episode to the brim. Abandonment issues, faulty cooling, a reconciliation, the aforementioned slip-n-slide, a giant fan… Individually none of these elements are classic comedy, but it’s all about the pacing.

Well, not totally: having a quality comedy cast doesn’t hurt in the slightest. And the dialogue contains a few decent zingers too.

“They weren’t proper lies, they were just climate based lies.”

“This is a marriage, not an election.”

We’ve said it before, but here goes again: unless you’re an A-grade comedy genius, your next best bet when it comes to getting laughs is to pick up the pace. If you can’t be great at one thing then being good at a bunch of smaller things is almost as good. Plus there’s some actual affection between the characters, which is hard to pull off when you’re dealing with broad stereotypes (it’s all about the balance – a dash of sentiment is nice, filling half the episode with it is dull). It’s solid lightweight fun, and we’re glad to have it back.

*It’s A Date: Tonight’s theme is “Do set-up dates work?” The trouble with this show is that while the dates (two an episode) usually start out strong – here they involve a young woman and a pastry delivery guy roped into a date by a breakfast radio show, plus a women expecting to date her friend’s brother-in-law only to get stuck with his dad – once people are actually on a date the storytelling options narrow down fairly fast. Awkward conversations do get stale eventually, despite what the last decade of Australian comedy would have you believe.

But then here comes the heartwarming romance as our wacky miss-matched couple learn to connect on a more human level (despite the comedy set-ups) and we’re looking at our watch because c’mon guys, you’ve only got less than fifteen minutes each here to bring the funny and the tinkly piano music isn’t cutting the mustard. Yes, we know that sustaining comedy over an extended period is hard and a bit of tonal variety is a great way to keep things interesting, but let’s say it again: IT’S ONLY FIFTEEN MINUTES JUST BE FUNNY. Really, even the breakfast radio one – which is prank heavy and so presumably going to be “the funny one” has to get in a bunch of sad moments (she’s crying because she’s physically incapable of having children! Ha!) and the relationship is doomed anyway because breakfast radio is evil. Well, we can’t argue with that.

We’ve got nothing against love – no, really – but one problem here that could have been easily solved is that both stories are taking roughly the same tone of “awwww lurv you guys.” There’s eight episodes of this, which means sixteen dates, and if they’re all hitting roughly the same note then boredom’s going to set in fast. And if they don’t – if in later weeks we get a bunch of hilariously mean people screwing each other over alongside the sweet tales of true love found – then why didn’t they pair each of the “nice” stories here with one of those ones for variety? Guess we’ll have to stay tuned…

2014
10.14

How could we have gotten it so very, very wrong?

JOSH THOMAS’ PLEASE LIKE ME SERIES ONE NOMINATED FOR INTERNATIONAL EMMY

ABC is thrilled to announce Please Like Me (Series One) has been nominated for an International Emmy for Best Comedy Series – the only Australian show nominated at this year’s awards in any category.

 
Created, written by and starring Josh Thomas, Please Like Me has been critically acclaimed around the world, and was recently commissioned by ABC TV, in collaboration with US television network Pivot, for a third series to air in 2015.

 
In reference to the International Emmy nomination, ABC Director of Television Richard Finlayson said: “ABC are thrilled at this incredible achievement from a remarkable show. Josh Thomas and his team have done not just ABC, but all of us in Aussie TV, proud.”

And so far so good as far as we’re concerned. It really is a big deal to be nominated, and this nomination is the kind of thing those involved with the show should be proud of. Unlike the actual ratings for the show, but that’s a subject for another time.

Then there’s this:

ABC TV Head of Comedy Rick Kalowski said, “Please Like Me is a series only the ABC could have made – and as well as Josh and his amazing team, I offer my huge gratitude to my ABC predecessors Debbie Lee and Stuart Menzies, who commissioned one of our greatest shows”.

We’re assuming that was meant to say “a series only the ABC could have made… with a lot of help from that US cable network that basically took over the funding after series one. Because a comedy series based around a comedian hanging out with his friends making jokes and talking about his relationship problems is sooo groundbreaking.”

And let’s read that last part again:

“one of our greatest shows” – ABC TV Head of Comedy Rick Kalowski

Do we really have to list all of the comedy shows that the ABC has done over the years that Please Like Me would have to be better than for this statement to be even remotely plausible? For arguments sake, let’s say that “greatest” is defined as “all time top ten”. For this statement to be true there have not been ten comedy series better than Please Like Me across the history of the ABC. Please Like Me is in the all-time top ten ABC comedies. All-time.

Just off the top of our heads, here’s ten other ABC comedy series:

*The Gillies Report

*The Big Gig

*Kath & Kim

*Frontline

*The Games

*The Micallef P(r)ogram(me)

*Summer Heights High

*The Money or the Gun

*Spicks & Specks

*Mother & Son

Now cross one off that list, because Please Like Me is better than at least one of those shows. You might disagree with those ten shows; feel free to come up with ten of your own. But remember, Please Like Me has to be in there somewhere, because according to the current Head of ABC Comedy it’s “one of our greatest shows”.

Wait – he didn’t even say they were specifically comedy shows…

2014
10.14

Press release round-up!

ABC Mental As… reaches Australian audiences on TV, radio and online and raises $1.47 million for mental health research

It was the week the ABC went dotty and audiences answered the call to support ABC Mental As… On TV 5.9 million Australians tuned in during mental health week and $1.47 million has been raised for mental health research to date.

The biggest cross-platform programming event the ABC has ever held, ABC Mental As… saw the broadcaster start a national conversation about mental health issues and engage its audiences in a very important issue that affects the majority of Australians in some way during their lifetime.

The challenge was to use the ABC’s storytelling resources to lead the community in breaking down some of the stigmas associated with mental illness, raise awareness of those issues and to in the process help raise some much needed funding for mental health research.

The week culminated in the Friday Night Crack Up, a live broadcast that saw some of Australia’s finest entertainers and celebrities from every network band together for this great cause.

The Friday Night Crack Up achieved a combined metro and regional reach of 2 million across ABC and ABC2 while ABC TV Mental Health programming had a combined metro and regional reach of 5.9 million viewers between 5 to 12 October. One in four Australians tuned in to ABC TV during this landmark week of programming. (Source: OzTAM and RegionalTAM)

There’s a lot more after that, but we’re all about the comedy here. Wow, who would have guessed a comedy-based variety show would rate so well? Ok, Daryl Somers for one, but his idea of “comedy-based variety” and the general public’s part company around the time he says he wants to host.

Still, that’s a fairly impressive figure, and while no doubt a lot of the audience drawing power came from the various one-off bits from high profile comedy types (Rob Sitch as Mike Moore, Shaun Micallef and Frances Greenslade, etc) – and having it be the capper to an entire themed week wouldn’t have hurt either – you’d have to think someone somewhere at the ABC is thinking of a way to keep the ball rolling. Compared to pretty much anything else on television, live variety is still relatively cheap; even if all the ABC’s attempts at it in the 21st century have first stunk then sunk, if at first you don’t succeed…

THE CHASER’S MEDIA CIRCUS

The Chaser team returns to ABC TV this Wednesday at 8.30pm, with a brand new format, The Chaser’s Media Circus, which turns the news game into a game show.

Each week, host Craig Reucassel and two teams of guests dissect the week’s news together with Chas Licciardello, the one-man media brains trust who is a sort of cross between Dickie Knee and Rain Man.

Joining the Media Circus this week for Team Australia are Ben Jenkins (The Checkout), Waleed Aly (The Project) and Andrew Hansen (The Chaser). ASIO has been informed that Alex Lee (The Roast), journalist Ellen Fanning and Chris Taylor (The Chaser) are officially part of Team Evil.

The Chaser’s Media Circus: the news game where everyone loses. Wednesdays at 8.30pm on ABC.

Wow, the more we hear about this the less interested we become. If it didn’t have the Chaser name on it we’d be worried it was shaping up to be The Gruen News; having someone from The Roast on board doesn’t exactly raise our hopes for sparkling satire. Still, The Chaser have been solid comedy performers these last few years. The benefit of the doubt remains in effect.

JULIA ZEMIRO’S HOME DELIVERY

New series starts Wednesday October 15 at 9.00pm, ABC

Julia Zemiro returns to walk our favourite funny people down memory lane, and back home to their old stomping ground.  With each step uncovering the people, places and events that shaped them into the person we know today.

Shot entirely on location, this nine-part series – six in Australia and three in the UK – features home-grown guests: Dave Hughes; Wendy Harmer; Julia Morris; Nazeem Hussain; Sam Simmons and Stephen Curry. The Home Delivery UK episodes star Bill Bailey, Ross Noble and Ruth Jones.

Julia Zemiro is an interviewer of great charm, wit and depth.  She puts her guests at ease with her genuine curiosity and warmth, and they respond by opening up and sharing parts of their lives not usually revealed to interviewers.   She plays along with her comedic companions in a way that delights and entertains but she is also an astute and sensitive listener, willing to probe and ask the difficult questions. 

Each trip back in time is as different as the performers are themselves. Some revel in returning to place they grew up and may not have seen in years and share happy memories and heart -warming anecdotes. For others, returning to the scenes of their formative years is a more complicated and bittersweet experience.

All guests set off on their ‘day of Delivery’ willing to go deep.  They reveal personal stories from their childhoods to the present day.  They open up about their Mums and Dads, brothers and sisters.  They spill their guts, share their stories both happy and sad and give the viewer real insight into the performer within and the person they are.

The series starts on 15 October with Dave Hughes, followed by Wendy Harmer, Ross Noble, Julia Morris, Bill Bailey, Sam Simmons, Ruth Jones, Nazeem Hussain and finally Stephen Curry.

This one’s a dilly of a pickle. The first series was a bit of a disappointment to us, though it lifted its game as it went along. The big problem seemed to be that it largely relied on the guests’ ability to tell their own stories, rather than being based around a strong interviewer as host. Zemiro’s recent ABC interview with new Doctor Who Peter Capaldi didn’t exactly convince us that she’s been developing her skills in that area, so this could shape up to be a bit more hit and miss than we’d like.

Of course, we’d also like it to be about how the guests developed as comedians, not a bunch of random heart-warming or -wrenching tales of youthful suffering, but it’s from the folks who brought you the blatantly manipulative Enough Rope: even we know you can’t zoom in on those award-winning tears if they’re not there.

2014
10.11

We go on and on about this so often even we’re sick of it. No, not Josh Thomas: the twin evils of Australian criticism – critics siding with their mates instead of the viewing public, and critics who think the best way to support the local industry is… oh wait, since when was “supporting the local industry” even part of a critics job? Now retiring film critic Margaret Pomeranz has come out swinging against the harsh hand the local press dealt Josh Lawson’s recent sex comedy The Little Death:

The latest manifestation of our apparent cinematic self-hate has been around The Little Death, Josh Lawson’s take on sexual fetishes. Australian critics have almost universally condemned the film, which stands in contrast to its rave reception at the Sydney Film Festival, where it premiered and was second-most-popular film with the audience, and at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was launched – and widely sold – internationally.

Among those Australian critics who have “universally condemned” The Little Death were, um, us:

It’s basically a collection of lame sketches that’re only slightly better than The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting, in that once they explain the basic set-up (they’re all based around couples with a specific fetish – one woman is turned on by her husband crying, another has a rape fantasy, a guy only gets turned on by his wife when she’s unconscious, etc) they just wander around for a while then fizzle out. Off the top of our heads, of the four main storylines two end in a pregnancy, one ends in marriage and one in divorce. They might be legitimate relationship milestones but they’re hardly surprising or funny.

So yeah, not big fans.

The thing to pay attention to in Pomeranz’s somewhat incoherent article – first she talks about local films that received solid reviews but were shunned at the box office, then she blames poor reviews for the bad box office of Australian films… so Australian films should be given good reviews even though by her own argument good reviews don’t help at the box office? – is this bit that comes a mere ten paragraphs after she starts defending The Little Death:

A disclaimer is in order here. I was unable to review the film because my elder son was one of the executive producers. But that connection means I can see up-close the anguish of putting a film out there only to have it so dumped on locally.

So she’s not speaking here as a reviewer, or even as a supporter of the local industry: it’s the mother of one of the producers saying “stop picking on my son’s movie”. Why did this even get published?

Only kidding: we all know that blaming reviewers for when a local movie or TV series tanks is a national pastime. No matter that when critics do come out in force to support something that the audience clearly isn’t interested in – oh look, more articles on how Please Like Me is “the best show you’re not watching” – it makes fuck-all difference. Critics should side with the local industry at all times, even if that means (as has arguably been the case with the career of Margaret Pomeranz) the general public becomes aware of their bias and ignores them. Because hey, if the public are ignoring critics, they’ll probably pay more attention to actors and film-makers telling them how great Australian films are, right?

We’ve been doing this long enough to know just how much power critics have in the real world, and it’s pretty much bugger-all. The only time we can influence anyone’s decision is when they’re a): open to the idea of watching something but b): haven’t made up their mind as to what to watch. When it comes to Australian films, after years of duds – duds critics like Pomeranz talked up hard for “the good of the industry” – the audience has made up their mind. Unless it actually looks really good – and honestly, how many Australian films can you say that about – they’re not interested*.

As for Pomeranz, turns out she’s just another “critic” who sides with the big boys instead of the viewers who turn to her for advice. It’s no surprise that she came out with this twaddle having already announced her retirement; now she doesn’t even have to pretend to be objective about what she wants to peddle. This is the kind of ingrained bias that puts people off both critics and the media they shamelessly promote. At this stage of her career, she’s doing more harm than good.

 

 

*other real problems with getting people to see Australian films include: poor marketing, limited availability, and lack of audience drawcards. C’mon, we’re talking here about a middle-class sex sketch comedy with Josh Lawson as the star: it’s a wonder they got anyone out of their houses to see that.

2014
10.09

The fact that the final episode of Utopia involved the Nation Building Authority missing out at an awards night was yet another might big clue that whatever Working Dog were seeking to achieve with this sitcom, a bluntly realistic look at the infrastructure management of this once-great nation probably wasn’t it.

(ok, sure; there probably are – well, almost certainly, but don’t expect us to do the research – awards handed out to public service organisations. But they’re hardly the kind of thing you’d mention up front in a “realistic” look at infrastructure management.)

Instead, we got pretty much exactly what we want from Working Dog in sitcom form: someone smart but largely ineffectual becoming increasingly exasperated as the seemingly logical but astoundingly stupid people around them browbeat the very idea of “change” into the ground. It’s not a particularly complex set-up, but it’s a great way to generate jokes: we’ll take it over “a bunch of interchangable people are mildly snarky to each other, then someone dies” any day.

“Why would anyone agree to something so stupid?”

“It was an election, it got away from us, the PM signed a Memorandum of Understanding.”

“Why?”

“I don’t think he understood it.”

Sure, it’s a cheap joke, but it’s a joke. Australian television comedy has never really been writer-driven – even back in the 80s most of the big shows (Mother & Son aside) were writer-performer led – but there once was a time when writing was actually seen as kind of important to making comedy work. Working Dog, being more on the “writing” side of the writer-performer scale (and not just because they write actual books), tend to create writer-driven comedy: situations are chosen because of their comedy potential, characters are designed to be funny – whether on their own or in their interactions with others – and so on.

To the untrained eye – which seems to cover an awful lot of the current crop of Australian television critics – this kind of thing can seem old-fashioned and quaint. The current fad in comedy as far as they’re concerned is for “realism”: characters are vaguely defined (just like real people), they drift in and out of mundane situations (just like real life), and they don’t say jokes – just vaguely amusing things every once in a while (just like real life). Unfortunately, this makes for shit comedy. Just like 99.9% of real life.

Why this isn’t plain for all to see remains a mystery to us. Maybe it’s because with a show like Utopia it’s easy for pretty much anyone to see how good it is – which is pretty good but not quite a classic. There are lots of jokes, some pointed observations, a bunch of broad performances –

– actually, if you were looking for problems with Utopia, the performances might be a good place to start. None of them were actively bad, but very few of them were all that good. We’re going to blame the writing here: having Rob Sitch playing an exasperated straight man (a role he did effortlessly) felt like a waste of his talents, while pretty much everyone else (with the exceptions of Kitty Flanagan’s forceful yet disconnected PR flack and Lehmo’s brash governmental liaison) was playing a character without any real character. They got the jokes out there, but there was never much going on with the personalities behind the jokes; the idea that a situation would become funny simply because we could anticipate how a character would react to it didn’t ever get much of a look in here –

– and that’s pretty much it. Don’t get us wrong, it’s extremely difficult to get even that much right and we’re not downplaying the skill that’s gone into Utopia in the slightest. We’re just saying that it’s a broad comedy that’s clearly trying to be funny: to a large extent it’s a case of you laugh or you don’t, which tends to leave critics with not a whole lot else to say.

Of course, it could just be that Utopia had the misfortune of being a show about the way the government uses infrastructure to divert attention from its problems just at a time when the government was using the threat of terrorism and military action to divert attention from its problems, thus making what should have been a sure-fire topical comedy seem just a little adrift. Fingers crossed that for all our sakes things are back on track for (the inevitable, and much-anticipated by us) second series…

 

2014
10.07

Twitter time:

“PMJG”, in case you were wondering, is Julia Gillard, currently giving a talk in support of her autobiography. And while we tend to think the brief existence of At Home With Julia may have had more to do with politics rather than gender – the ABC is constantly sucking up to the Liberal side of politics, because that’s the side that’s happy to rip the guts out of their budget – it’s still a good point.

So hey, why did we have to wait until we had a female PM before we got a satirical show focusing on a serving PM’s home life? Or has Gillard – and everyone else – forgotten this comedy gold from Rove Live:

Just be grateful we couldn’t find any clips of Wednesday Night Fever‘s “Downton Abbott”.

2014
10.02

And so Greg Fleet’s long awaited sitcom Die On Your Feet died the way it lived: ignored by pretty much everyone. Hey, members of the Australian media rabbiting on about how Please Like Me is “the best comedy you’re not watching”; how about mentioning the comedy starring actual big comedy names like Greg Fleet and Adam Hills?

But of course, a show that’s actually trying to be funny isn’t what Australian comedy is about these days. Die On Your Feet was in many ways a throwback to the mid-00s, when the sitcom everyone wanted to rip off was Curb Your Enthusiasm: people sitting around making jokes and being mean to each other in a realistic setting. Hang on, isn’t that Please Like Me? Oh wait, we said jokes.

Snark aside, the Curb-model for sitcoms was a quasi-documentary approach to people whose careers involved being funny, and that seems to have been what Fleet was going for here. What he actually got was a bit of a mess: many of the individual scenes across the eight episodes worked well, but they barely hung together as individual episodes and as an entire series… well, like we said, some of the individual scenes were funny.

Which isn’t something we could say about the cast. Fleet has done a lot of acting over the years, and this contains some of it. Hills and Corinne Grant were either terribly misacast or extremely good at playing shape-shifting aliens who never quite got the hang of humanity. Which, again, is partly the fault of the quasi-documentary style: presumably Fleet wanted comedians in the lead roles (and the numerous talking to camera about comedy scenes do usually work ok), and not every decent comedian out there is also a decent actor.

The really disappointing thing about this generally somewhat disappointing show is that there’s a lot of stuff here that isn’t disappointing. If Fleet had somehow fashioned all the jokes here into a novel – or even a very lightly-plotted movie – it’d be a winner for sure. It does a really strong job of capturing the sense of a bunch of mates piss-farting around trying to top one another with quips and one-liners; it just doesn’t work at all when it comes to making those mates feel like actual human beings over the course of four hours. Which is a long time to spend with characters with so little depth they vanish when they turn sideways.

Plus the show was just shabbily made. The big build up at the end of ep 7 was one of the central characters was going to kill himself. Ep 8 starts with everyone else sitting around talking about someone who’d just killed himself, but then TWIST: the previously suicidal character comes in and it turns out it was someone else who topped themselves. Only – and yes, this could be our problem more than the show’s – it just felt confusing. So wait, the guy we saw writing a suicide note and staring at a noose at the very end of the previous episode just… thought better of it? Eventually it was all explained, but a confused audience is not always a laughing audience.

Die On Your Feet ended up being a reminder that putting together even an average sitcom is really difficult and you need pretty much everything to be firing to make it work. Usually when a comedy series fails it’s because the writing’s bad and it drags everything else down; here the writing (especially the funny stories and jokes) were so good it almost made everything else worthwhile. The moral here? If you fill your sitcom with characters who make jokes about everything in their lives, eventually you’ll have a show with a lot of jokes.

So if you’re willing to throw out just about everything most people watch a sitcom for, up to and including the situations – much of the show felt like they’d just filmed hour upon hour of chat in a handful of locations then spread it out across the eight episodes – then what’s left here is actually pretty good. If you were to put together a YouTube collection of the show’s funniest scenes and present them in random order with zero context, you would have a funnier and more enjoyable viewing experience than Die On Your Feet.

Though maybe leave out all the last episode suicide stuff. Even for a show fond of going bleak, that was bleak.

2014
09.30

So Australian comedy actor Josh Lawson has turned writer-director and made a film called The Little Death. But how to get your small quirky comedy noticed in a cinema marketplace where half a dozen films from overseas debut every week? Maybe like this:

Why is Josh Lawson bashing Australian cinema? You’d think that a guy who’s leveraged his success in local television and film into prominent roles in American films like Anchorman 2 and television series like House of Lies would have some loyalty to the industry, but apparently not. Promoting his directorial debut, sex comedy The Little Death, Lawson has seemingly stumbled on a convenient marketing catch phrase – “If you are an Australian who doesn’t like Australian films, this is the film you should watch, because neither do I” – that he’s been throwing around in his interviews.

Unfortunately, the reviews once people actually saw it were more like this:

But how does The Little Death — Lawson’s first feature as writer and director — fare when it comes to walking the walk?

Let’s just say it ain’t got the legs.

As Lawson has pointed out, it is clear there are millions of movie misanthropes in our midst who’d rather stay home and wash their hair than go out and watch an Australian production.

However, The Little Death isn’t going to be the one that stops many of them reaching for the nearest shampoo bottle.

Which led to a result like this:

Josh Lawson’s The Little Death generated a tonne of media coverage and mostly favourable reviews after selling to the US and multiple other territories- so why haven’t Australian audiences been more aroused by the sexy comedy?

That question is being debated after the saga of the secret sex lives of five Sydney couples rang up $77,700 at 34 screens last weekend and $83,500 with previews.

Having seen it on this very tight-arse Tuesday, here’s our answer: it’s just not very good.

It’s basically a collection of lame sketches that’re only slightly better than The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting, in that once they explain the basic set-up (they’re all based around couples with a specific fetish – one woman is turned on by her husband crying, another has a rape fantasy, a guy only gets turned on by his wife when she’s unconscious, etc) they just wander around for a while then fizzle out. Off the top of our heads, of the four main storylines two end in a pregnancy, one ends in marriage and one in divorce. They might be legitimate relationship milestones but they’re hardly surprising or funny.

The trouble with sketch comedy in this country for a long time now is that the old idea of “it’s too hard to come up with a punchline so getting out when you can is good enough” has mutated into “it’s too hard even developing an idea past the initial concept so… yeah”. A woman is turned on by her husband’s tears, so she comes up with ways to make him cry. That’s it. It just escalates until it ends. No twists, no surprises – and even worse, no insights: what would it actually be like to only feel sexually attracted to the person you love when they were in actual distress? Don’t expect answers here – all we get is someone playing tricks on her partner over and over so she can get her rocks off (as the kids say).

(there’s a minor subplot about an old guy who goes around door-to-door handing out baked Golliwogs, then when everyone is distracted by nostalgia he informs them he’s a sex offender. It’s the same joke three times, then on the fourth appearance he arrives during a fight and says “I’ll come back later”. This is the kind of throwaway running gag that could work in a movie packed with rapid-fire jokes and cut down to a minute tops: when it’s a slow burn spread out over what feels like minute upon minute of dead air, you’re just wasting everyone’s time)

There’s been a bit of flack sent Lawson’s way for the rape fantasy storyline, but for us that was actually one of the more sensitively handled plots: how do you go about fulfilling your partner’s sexual fantasy when it goes against everything you believe in? Of course, the storyline doesn’t actually answer any of those questions and the resolution is a massive cop-out – basically, so long as he thinks he’s done a good job it’s all good, while her unfulfilled fantasy is basically filed under “I’ll just pretend I got what I wanted so we can move on with our lives” – but in and of itself it’s not handled offensively.

Mind you, it’s not handled funnily either.

As for Lawson slagging off Australian film in general, who can blame him? For the audience this is aimed at he’s probably right. But that’s like complaining that Australian film isn’t making enough sketch comedy movies so no wonder people aren’t going to the cinema any more because clearly sketch comedy is what the mainstream wants. If people want this kind of thing they can get it elsewhere and better: Australian film is, on the whole about the kind of stories people can’t get anywhere else. Usually because all the stories with mainstream appeal have been grabbed by television or overseas film.

So this kind of stuff from the producers is a big load of crap:

“There is no doubt that we have a brand issue here, and what we’ve seen is a few key critics dig the boot in and causing a great deal of harm in an environment where our product needs nurturing,” Hilton said, “especially when we have a film that could break out and resonate with audiences. If we were reviewed 4 or 5 stars across the board and people still didn’t come, we could have pointed to a brand issue, unfortunately that’s not the case here.

“This film is for audiences, it’s not an ‘important’ story with serious message, it’s a comedy. And it’s the only thing a comedy needs to be, hilarious. What’s most disappointing about the soft opening is that the film works. We’ve seen it work for 90 minutes, every time we play to a full theatre.

Yeah, good luck getting those full theatres now. Because whatever this film is, unless you’re someone who giggles at the word “rape”, it sure as shit ain’t hilarious.

Still, we’re talking about a director who, when faced with criticism, responds with “how many films have you made, champ?” The real problem with film-making in this country is that we have a shitload of directors and producers who don’t seem to understand that perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to actually spend a few bucks on a script editor so they didn’t end up filming something that was arse.

Going by his first film, Lawson is a halfway decent director and the cast is pretty sharp across the board. But the script is an aimless mess, congratulating itself on its bravery for discussing sexual fetishes while having nothing of interest to say about them. Making a bland film aimed at an imagined white middle-class Australian mainstream isn’t breaking new ground, or giving the people what they want. If you want to do that and you’re making a comedy, maybe you might like to start with a couple of decent jokes.