Australian Tumbleweeds

Australia's most opinionated blog about comedy.

Vote now in the Tumblies 2016!

Voting is now open in the Australian Tumbleweeds Awards 2016!

Now in its 11th “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/tumblies-2016

You have until midnight at the end of Friday 6th January 2017 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.

It’s a Christmas Miracle

One of the highlights of this year’s election was Sammy J’s Playground Politics, a faux kids show a la Play School that sunk the boots into our politicians with a cheezy child-friendly grin. So good news! As part of the ABC’s seemingly endless enthusiasm for putting on comedy during the non-ratings period, this week sees a special Christmas, uh, special in which Sammy J goes to town on the current state of the political landscape.

It’s already up on iView if you don’t want to wait until the free-to-air premiere Wednesday night, and for a ten minute show it manages to pack in a lot of decent gags (we laughed at “The undying corpse of Kevin Rudd window”), some extremely well-crafted political nativity figures, and a guest appearance from a politician who’s actually pretty good at the condescending tone required of a children’s show host. Not that that’s really much of a surprise.

(as usual, letting a politician in on the joke is always a bad idea, but at least here forcing him to put on the creepy tone of a children’s show host makes it seem like part of the joke is on him)

We’ve scratched our heads before over the ABC’s current policy of putting comedy on during non-ratings – hey, we’re not seeing any first-run drama going to air in January – and they’re not done yet:

Relax after Christmas with three new comedies exclusive to ABC iview: Goober, Almost Midnight and Lost in Pronunciation

Monday, December 19, 2016 — Three new 6 x 5minute narrative comedy web series, Goober, Almost Midnight and Lost in Pronunciation – all collaborations between ABC and the South Australian Film Corporation – will launch exclusively on ABC iview during the Christmas/New Year week. The series showcases new South Australian screen talent both on and behind the camera.

Goober is about Harry (Brendan Williams), a too-friendly Uber driver, convinced that every passenger will be his next best friend. Harry is on the autism spectrum, and spends his days bemusing and confusing his passengers – despite the support of his dad (Shane Jacobson), always just a hands-free phonecall away with encouragement and wisdom.

Harry is eternally optimistic, especially when it comes to Wendy (Ashton Malcolm), who works in the booth at Harry’s favourite drive-thru restaurant. Harry is convinced that any day now he and Wendy will be happily married. With a house. And six children. And a dog. All he has to do is summon the courage to talk to her about something other than ice-cream.

Goober comes to iview on Boxing Day. Written by Ben Crisp. Produced by Kirsty Stark. Directed by Brendon Skinner and Simon Williams. The show is from Epic Films – Screen Producers Association of Australia’s 2016 Breakthrough Business of the Year.

Almost Midnight is a coming-of-age romantic comedy, with each of the six episodes set a year apart against the backdrop of that glorious moment when boundless promise and uninhibited drunkenness combine – the final five minutes of New Year’s Eve. Dave (co-creator/writer and director Stephen Banham) wants a fairy-tale romance, but lacks the ability to meet or, more importantly, keep the woman of his dreams, Jen – especially when he’s hampered by the appalling advice of his best friend and self-professed ladies’ man, Acka (co-creator/writer Aaron Casey). Over six New Year’s Eves, we witness Dave’s growth from a bumbling wall-flower to a fully-matured man, comfortable in his own skin and ready for love. But when the clock strikes midnight, will he get his wish or turn into a pumpkin?

Almost Midnight comes to iview on Boxing Day. A We’re Not Boys Production. Producers: Alex Keay and Peta Bulsara.

Lost in Pronunciation is a ‘fish out of water’ comedy series from the award-winning and fast-rising comedian, Venezuelan born Ivan Aristeguieta. It premieres Sunday 1 January on ABC iview.

Lost in Pronunciation is the autobiographical story of a young man who escapes the dangers of Venezuela only to find himself in ‘the lucky country’s’ safest, friendliest state – South Australia. With the help of two Aussie housemates, lesbian tradie Tia (Lori Bell), and her hipster vegan brother Scott (Nic Krieg), Ivan learns that to become a permanent resident isn’t so much about ticking boxes on a form, but adapting to the strange and unique customs that we may take for granted, but make us truly Australian. Created and written by Ivan Aristeguieta and Chris McDonald. Director Richard Jasek. Produced by Julia DeRoeper.  A collaboration between ABC iview, the South Australian Film Corporation and JDR Screen

But if they’re half as good as Sammy J’s Playground Politics, the only complaints we’re going to have will be about the timeslot.

It comes but once a year

In word terms, 2016 was the year of “democracy sausage” and “post-truth”, but if the world of comedy had its say it’d probably go for “banter”, a term rightly mocked in The Yearly with Charlie Pickering for describing conversation that sounds funny but actually isn’t. Oh, the irony. But as joke after half-arsed observation died and/or went nowhere in the ABC’s end-of-year round-up the other night, it became clear that the problem wasn’t that The Yearly… contained a lot of banter – banter, in the right context, such as a pub, can be quite amusing – it’s that The Yearly… wasn’t funny at all.

Peak unfunny was achieved about a minute into Tom Gleeson’s report on live baiting in greyhound racing, the premise of which was that he was doing a fearless report about how live baiting had been wrongly banned despite all evidence to the contrary. Was the intent of this sketch that Gleeson was a kind of post-truth reporter, ignoring all the evidence that he was wrong? Or was it more that he was just an idiot for continuing with his line when all the evidence showed that he wrong? Whatever the high concept was meant to be here, it didn’t work. And the largely unresponsive studio audience seemed to agree.

Then there was that running gag of Pickering’s where he called Hillary Clinton “President” when he was describing how her campaign was going in February. Yeah, we get it, she was meant to be a shoe-in for the White House, except…calling her “President Clinton” throughout the show doesn’t work as a gag. We know how it turned out in the end, and any end-of-year wrap-up has to remember that. Cue a confused reaction from the audience.

An ability to understand what’s going to make an audience laugh is important in comedy, and that ability seems to have been lost on the people who made The Yearly with Charlie Pickering. Maybe they should have stuck to making sarky gags about the likes of Harambe and Kim Kardashian? They’re easy, lazy and crap, but at least people respond to those.

The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, it was announced to the three people who made it through the whole hour of The Yearly with Charlie Pickering, will return in February. And we’re fairly sure we know already how funny it’s going to be.

And, sure, President Trump will be in post by then, and satirists usually shine when there’s a right-wing idiot in charge – remember the hilarious glory days of satire during the George W. Bush/John Howard years? Except, on the back of a year marked by celebrity death and dodgy election results in countries around the world – not to mention the ongoing horrors in Syria – can we really rely on Charlie Pickering to make us laugh? A man seemingly not willing to credit his audience with knowing the 2016 US election results?

Vale Please Like Me yet again

It’s safe to say we haven’t been in tune with the critical consensus around Please Like Me from the start. Critics love it; we’re left scratching our heads. But the antics of the last few weeks have gone at least some of the way towards explaining this gap, because as we’ve read report after report after report about how the show’s fans have been wailing and gnashing their teeth over the tragic death of Josh’s mum, we’ve been thinking “hang on a second – how many fucking people have died on this show already?”

A big death in a sitcom – or a drama – is a well you can only visit occasionally. Rack up a hefty body count and each death means less whether you’re watching The Wire or The Walking Dead. Most comedy shows keep the big emotional character deaths to a bare minimum; even a show like Buffy with a double figure body count only really turned on the waterworks that time when Buffy’s mum died. So how many big deaths has Please Like Me served up?

  • Season one: Peg dies, final episode set at her funeral.
  • Season two: Ginger kills herself, everyone takes a camping trip to dwell on it.
  • Season three: Ben has a cerebral aneurysm and could “die at any minute” for an episode or two. Has big operation that could kill him. Shock twist: he doesn’t die.
  • Season four: Josh’s mum, who first appeared in episode one having tried to kill herself, kills herself.

 

Anyone else seeing a pattern here? A boring, emotionally manipulative, badly written pattern?

If you’re writing a sitcom – wait, we mean “dramatic comedy” – where the big third act twist every year is that somebody dies, forgive us if by season four we don’t feel surprise, or much of anything else, when it happens once again. You can be less forgiving of the way we also feel it’s lazy writing, cheap drama, and the hallmark of a show that’s been poorly written from the outset, but we clearly don’t give a shit about your feelings as truly concerned critics wouldn’t be mocking your pain when the grief is still oh so raw.

[what exactly are people grieving here? As supporting characters go “Josh’s Mum” was central to the show but not exactly top tier. Maybe if they’d killed off Tom we would have cared more. Guess there’s always season five.]

What all this kerfuffle makes clear is that Please Like Me is not a show the fans enjoy for superficial reasons like characterisation or plot or sharp one-liners. Of course they don’t: it doesn’t have any of those things. Remember how the scene everyone praised in the first episode of this season was Josh playing with a teddy bear on a bus? They’re giving that shit away for free if you’re willing to risk hanging around the local kindergarten.

What the fans seem to like is the whole atmosphere of the show. It’s an idealised fantasy of twenty-something life, a blur of cosy share houses and late night clubbing and awkward family dinners where it’s clear your parents still love you despite all your problems and friends that stick to you like glue even though you have your differences there too.

And you know what? We’re fine with that. Decent television has been made based on less. And Please Like Me does a good job of it: it always looks great, and the seemingly accidental combination of often sub-par acting and clumsy scripting actually creates a “realistic” vibe that makes it easy to buy into the fantasy that what we’re seeing is an actual slice-of-life.

But we’re not seeing an actual slice-of-life: it’s television, and calling it “honest” is a somewhat major misreading of what’s being served up. Sure, if by “honest” you mean “hey look, a show that admits people die” the label fits, but then Game of Thrones is leagues ahead in the honesty stakes there. And what else is left? “People fight”? “Relationships end”? “Josh Thomas once played with a teddy bear on a bus”?

Realism – and no, we haven’t forgotten we’re talking about a show still often described as a comedy – is about more than just presenting difficult issues.

The show has dealt with homophobia and racism, depression and workplace harassment, breast cancer and STDs. There was an abortion which, in a refreshing turn, was treated not with kid gloves but with openness and no regrets. There was commendably realistic gay sex – a lot of it.

And? Is it enough now to just present a laundry list of hot button issues? All those topics have been tackled on other, much better shows: there was a “no regrets” abortion on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just a few weeks ago. The Office dealt with workplace harassment; STDs have been “dealt with” on comedies since the 70s. Racism? Kingswood Company did it better.

We’re well aware that we’re talking at cross purposes when it comes to Please Like Me. Fans want to talk about the issues it deals with; we want to talk about the way it deals with those issues. Not the “sensitive” way it tackles them – Josh Thomas and company are clearly not idiots, and they’re firmly on the right (that is to say, left) side of these topics – but the way it tackles them as a piece of art.

Call us old-fashioned, but it’s just not enough to take the right stance on the right issues if you want to create decent television. We don’t watch television to have our beliefs confirmed as the correct ones – we take our beliefs much too seriously to let a sitcom influence what we believe either way. We watch television first and foremost to be entertained, as that’s all it’s good for. And as entertainment Please Like Me is just not all that good.

At this stage, going on about exactly why it’s not good would be a waste of everyone’s time. Where fans see brilliant acting from Thomas, we see a firmly average actor being placed in scenes where his inability to express subtle emotions makes him a blank the audience can project their feelings on (see also: Eminem’s entire performance in 8 Mile). When you present a character with the body of his dead mother, staring blankly isn’t great acting, it’s staring blankly while the audience thinks “wow, he must be totally devastated yet also resigned because he clearly knew this was always going to happen – what a great performance to convey all that”. When he cries, he’s just in a scene where he has to cry.

How can we be so mean? How can we just dismiss the fans’ feelings when clearly this show has affected them so deeply? Surely it’s the mark of a great show to make people care so much about the death of a supporting character? Well, no.

Long-running shows make you care about their characters, especially if they’re heavily character-based. Killing off a character you care about is always going to make you feel something. Please Like Me is a niche show that rates so badly literally the only people left watching are the hardcore fans: we’re willing to bet money more people were more devastated when that guy – you know the one – died on Offspring.

Ok, so now we’ve proved conclusively that Please Like Me is crap. But don’t take our word for it – even Fairfax’s Please Like Me superfan Debi Enker knows it has serious problems:

Yes, the characters can be muddled as they confront life’s big questions: Am I gay? Is this love? Have I chosen the right career? Can I save my marriage, and do I really want to? They can make mistakes and behave badly. But one can only take so many scenes where they hang around in each others’ flats or congregate at the FU Bar and moan.

It’s instructive to look at the British series This Life, by comparison. It dealt with characters at a similar stage in their lives. It also had a community of twentysomething characters linked by where they lived. But, crucially, it integrated them professionally. All the principal characters were, or had been, lawyers. Key parts of the show’s landscape were its characters’ struggles with their careers: the jockeying for position, the politics of the firm, the cases they were handling.

This integration of their working lives added a dimension and momentum to the series, and gave the characters a place beyond the bars and bedrooms, affording an additional perspective. They might be stumbling around, doing self-destructive things, but there was always a sense that they were doing something.

Oh wait, that was from her review of The Secret Life of Us back in 2001. Still kind of relevant here though. For a show constantly praised for being “honest”, Please Like Me sure wasn’t interested in the struggle to make a living – a struggle that, last time we checked, tends to pretty much dominate the lives of most twenty-somethings.

So is it finished? It’s hard to imagine it going on, but we say that every year. It’d be hard to top the dead mum, but Josh still has a few friends who could full under a bus and there’s always more hot guys to pash. But with Pivot, the US network that’s been funding the show since season two, having collapsed earlier this year and the ABC seemingly extremely disinterested in putting money into it (who could blame them – the free-to-air ratings are reportedly so low it’s being beaten by statistical errors), it’s hard to see how it’ll be back. Just one more death for the fans to grieve.

It’s hard to watch, but life itself is hard to endure. And Please Like Me just reminded us all of that.

Oh, it’s been reminding us of that for a long time now.

 

It Starts to March Back and You Worry Like Hell

The love affair between Fairfax and Josh Thomas has been one for the ages. Occasionally though, we have to ask: maybe Fairfax is coming on a bit strong?

“Almost an angel”? Have these people ever actually watched Please Like Me? Even its fans think Josh can be a bit of a prick:

Time and again we have watched the shadow of pain cross his face, only to return in the form of bitter vitriol against those he loves.

Then again, this cover is promoting a profile that contains the insight “Flat hair is awful,” so perhaps we’re expecting too much.

Usually here’s where we’d point out that you can tell when a newspaper has lost all perspective when it’s running a huge story promoting a television series that only had one episode left to run. But how else could they run a picture of Josh Thomas dressed as a Christmas Tree ornament before December? And presumably a shot of him in his speedos couldn’t run until January at the earliest so obviously they had no other choice but to wait.

But if this story is pretty much useless when it comes to promoting the fourth and at this stage final season of Please Like Me, what is it good for? Well, for one thing, it’s quite handy for those looking to study the way these kind of profile pieces are constructed. Take, for example, the pressing subject of Josh Thomas’ hair:

 “I couldn’t watch series one [of his Emmy-nominated show Please Like Me] because my hair looks so weird. Everyone looks weird, actually, but I’m the worst.” He shakes his head. “My hair wasn’t flat, though. I was just bald.”

Bald? In the past 13 years, Josh Thomas, who is now 29, has been a stand-up wunderkind (in 2005 he became the youngest ever winner, at 17, of the Raw Comedy Competition at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival), a commercial TV stalwart (including a stint on the quiz show Talkin‘ ’bout Your Generation), and, most recently, creator, writer and star of the hit ABC show Please Like Me. (The series, now in its fourth season, has won several awards and sold in several territories overseas.)

As is true for many comics, Thomas’s own best material is always himself: his unexpected coming out; his cute dog; his very odd voice. But baldness seems new, and also logically impossible. How could he be balder in season one (made in 2012) than he is in season three (in 2014)? “Oh,” he says breezily, sitting down, “I got a hair transplant between series two and three.”

A hair transplant? I am amazed. Do people still have hair transplants? Thomas leans forward, pointing to his lower scalp, near his ears. “They cut a strip of your hair from around here, and they slice it into tiny pieces, and sew it on here.” He pats the top of his head. “It grows forever.” He leans back. “People who go bald either aren’t paying attention, or don’t want to take a pill every day that slightly adjusts their hormones.” He smiles suddenly. “But I feel very comfortable taking any pill that gives me any moderate gain.”

Why has he never mentioned this? “Well, no one’s ever really noticed.” He shrugs. “Except for the occasional guy on Facebook saying, ‘Hey! You seem to have more hair! Um, how did that happen?’ “

Does the author believe that Thomas gaining hair between seasons of his television show is “logically impossible”? Is the idea of a hair transplant really the kind of thing that leaves journalists “amazed”? Is anyone who actually watched the first season of Please Like Me in any way surprised that Thomas had work done to prevent career-killing baldness? “No-one’s ever really noticed” seems like the kind of thing that may not actually be true – for one thing, he definitely must have thought people would have noticed otherwise he wouldn’t have spent thousands of dollars to stop himself from becoming a bald 30 year-old.

If you’re willing to stomach being treated like an idiot – or feeling like you’re reading some horrible giddy teen’s diary (“At this point, I have to confess, I fall slightly in love with Josh Thomas.”), there’s a fair bit to be gleaned from this article, though it’s probably not the obvious stuff both parties involved seem keen to impart. For one thing, those wondering how close the character of Josh on Please Like Me was to the actual Josh Thomas will have noted that the line “People who go bald either aren’t paying attention, or don’t want to take a pill every day that slightly adjusts their hormones” is exactly the kind of cluelessly dickish yet adorably charming – if you’re “slightly in love” with Thomas – line TV Josh drops all the time. Don’t those hair loss pills cost hundreds of dollars?

And once you realise that, it becomes much harder to swallow this:

On Please Like Me, [Thomas’] charisma infuses everything – set, characters, crocheted couch cushions – so you have one of those viewing experiences in which you watch half an episode and suddenly find yourself longing for the show to be real and for you to be in it: 22 years old, drinking wine from a plastic cup and doing shoulder shimmies to Justin Bieber.

But the show isn’t real; the star just admitted he had a hair transplant to keep his youthful looks, which last time we checked wasn’t a storyline on the show. And now here’s the bit where we have to loudly but firmly spell out the obvious: we don’t care what Thomas has done to his hair, or any other part of himself. He’s an actor, his looks are his career, maintaining those looks is perfectly legit and none of our business unless he wants to make it so.

What annoys us is when fans and reviewers of the show go on about how realistic the show is.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Please Like Me runs very close – at times terrifyingly close – to Thomas’s own life. He plays a character called Josh, who lives with his best friend Tom (played by his real-life best friend Tom Ward), his dog John (real-life dog John) and his stuffed hen (real-life stuffed hen Geoffrey). In episode one, series one, his mentally ill mum tries to commit suicide. Just like his real-life mum.

Last time we checked, Thomas’ real-life mum is still alive, which isn’t something we can say about the fictional one.

And that’s because, as the hair transplant detail underlines, Please Like Me is not some magic window into the pure truth about “real life”. It’s like every other piece of fiction ever: the creator (in this case, Thomas) chooses what to reveal and what to conceal in order to create something that seems real in some ways and not in others. Does anyone on Please Like Me have a steady job? Yeah, tell us some more about how realistic a look at 20-something life it is.

That’s not to say the show isn’t, as they used to say, “based on actual events”; it’s clear many of the show’s events are lightly fictionalised versions of Thomas’ real-life experiences. But just because something happened to him doesn’t make it interesting, and he doesn’t seem capable – or all that interested – in putting in the work to make those events work on television as drama or comedy. There’s no insight into what any of these events might actually mean, hence the ongoing presence in even the most glowing reviews of the reviewer wondering if we’re meant to like Josh or see him as a bit of a dick. We don’t know because the show doesn’t know; it’s just a bunch of things that happened.

Realism is a crutch fans of Please Like Me lean on to justify the way the show is largely about bugger all and often doesn’t seem particularly interested in being either funny or dramatic. But it’s not a realistic depiction of 20-something life: it’s a rose-glasses fantasy of cosy hipster-living with some mental health issues mixed in. Putting the two side-by-side doesn’t suddenly make “realism”; it makes it a fantasy with some real-world issues. And once you realise that it’s a fantasy – like every other show on television – then suddenly its flaws aren’t so easy to brush off.

 

 

Whoa, Fancy Boy (wham-ba-lam)

We’ve heard more exciting comedy announcements than the one about Fresh Blood alumni Fancy Boy and Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am getting series. But when we tuned into ABC2 last night and discovered that only one of them was terrible, we found ourselves feeling slightly less Scrooge and a little more Tiny Tim. It’s a Christmas miracle! Kinda.

Of the two, the one we thought was terrible was Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am, a show the ABC describes as a…

fun and twisted cavalcade of sketch, music video and narrative comedy that highlights and flips commonly accepted social constructs around women, men and society.

Cue lots of sketches about women partying hard and not taking any shit from men, or gathering in the toilets to complain about men, or similar. And don’t get us wrong, all of these are perfectly valid topics for comedy to explore…it’s just not very finessed as an end product. It’s like the first draft of a student revue, full of energy and passion and a genuine desire to speak out, but about as subtle and hilarious as a sledgehammer.

Immediately following it, though, is a far better program. Fancy Boy features a mostly male cast performing three series of sketches, which take some worrying if recognisable Aussie characters – a single-issue politician, a group of hardened drinkers in an outback pub, and a woman who hates Muslims – as far as they can go. Not all these are entirely successful, but it’s nice to see three-dimensional characters in sketch comedy as well as a hefty dose of absurdity.

If you’re a fan of the podcast The Sweetest Plum, where Fancy Boy Head Writer Declan Fay and fellow comedy writer Nick Maxwell improvise ridiculous characters and then put them into scenarios where they become even more ridiculous, then this is that but in the form of actual sketches. Overall, it’s pretty funny stuff.

Watched back-to-back, Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am and Fancy Boy are not just a clash of styles, but a clash of attitude when it comes to sketch comedy. Wham Bam just seems to want to make a noise, Fancy Boy wants to push comedy to its limits. Fancy Boy also has hell of a lot more to say about its area of focus – Aussie personality types – than Wham Bam has to say about the relationships between women and men.

If you’re baffled that both series got funding from the same people, join the club. It’s clear which of the two is the stand-out here.

Off the Boil

Two weeks in and the verdict on Working Dog’s new animated comedy series Pacific Heat is… well, it’s not positive. And fair enough too: for 2016, it’s a great example of 1980s comedy. It’s not news that Working Dog’s sense of humour hasn’t been cutting edge since around the mid-90s, but in animation – where the performances can’t underline when they’re being ironic – a lot of their usually iffy race- and gender-based material comes off second best.

But of course, that kind of insight is largely above and beyond local television critics, who’ve instead decided to go with the most obvious and least interesting observation possible: it’s like Archer, only not as good.

Ever since the synopsis and first still for Working Dog’s new adult animation Pacific Heat (playing on Foxtel in Australia and Netflix in the US) premiered online, fans of the Emmy award-winning spy show Archer smelt a rat. It appeared that the Australian production company was feeding Archer through the proverbial photocopier.

Really? Is that how it appeared? That an Australian comedy team that have been working consistently for the last 30 years putting out a wide range of parody-based comedy and have spent much of the last 20 years trying to come up with formats for overseas sale* just suddenly decided to “photocopy” an American animated series because… um…

But who needs a logical explanation when it’s totally obvious that Working Dog have “form” in the area of the-lawyers-say-we-can’t-call-it-plagiarism:

And the Working Dog team have form when it comes to cop comedies. Their short-lived, live-action 1995 series Funky Squad was itself an extended remake of the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage film clip from the previous year.

Case closed, your honour. Oh wait, hang on a second: Funky Squad was actually based on the radio series by Working Dog – itself helpfully titled Funky Squad – from 1994. Insert joke about wondering why Working Dog are bothering to make television when they already have time travel.

The argument here seems to be that whenever Working Dog do a blatantly obvious parody of some well worn genre, they’re not really doing a blatantly obvious parody of a well worn genre – they’re just ripping off someone else’s blatantly obvious parody of a well worn genre. Because all those other times Working Dog have done blatantly obvious parodies of well worn genres – The Johnny Swank radio series parodying spy cliches, the Jetlag travel books, the Audrey Gordon’s Tuscan Summer cook book and spin-off TV series, Russel Coight’s All Aussie Adventures, the Shitscared skits on The Late Show where they went and actually showed documentary The Devil At Your Heels saying “this is what inspired us”** – they were really just ripping off American parodies of the same thing, right?

Not that this review is all about sinking the boots into Working Dog for being shameless plagiarists, of course:

More importantly, standards and tastes have evolved. Pacific Heat feels like a time traveller from a different era; I’m surprised that the creators didn’t bulk up the material with a few homophobic jokes (or maybe they did: I only made it through the first four episodes).

Okay, so which one is it – a blatant knock off of a very current US comedy show, or an example of the way Working Dog’s comedy hasn’t been updated since the 1980s? Did Working Dog really watch Archer and think “hey, let’s rip this off… well, let’s do an animated cop show that’s totally a rip off of Archer, only we won’t take any of the jokes or character dynamics or any of the stuff that’s actually unique to Archer, we’ll just take the most obvious but also least specific thing about that show”?

What Pacific Heat actually is – as we mentioned in our initial review because we occasionally like to do some half-arsed research – is a version of the short comedy radio plays Working Dog did in the late 80s and early-to-mid 90s. It’s animated because when they tried doing a live-action version in the aforementioned Funky Squad it didn’t really work, and it’s being compared to Archer because most TV critics don’t remember that there was an animated version of Police Academy and Murder Police never went to air.

Still, there’s a lot of actual things wrong with Pacific Heat, and this review eventually gets around to covering them… in the comments section, where the show also gets a decent defense (or just a more accepting reading) from a few posters.

But then, it seems like they actually engaged with the show being discussed rather than feeling the need to remind people of the Mickey Rooney performance in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

 

 

*ie The Panel, Thank God You’re Here

**That didn’t really stop people from saying it was a Superdave knock-off. But then, those people didn’t remember Paul Hogan’s Leo Wanker.

Binge is Just Another Word For Gorge

Press release time!

ABC will keep you entertained and laughing all summer

ABC summer highlights

Monday, December 5, 2016 —

ABC will keep Australian audiences entertained throughout the long summer days with a stocking full of specials, premieres and events throughout December and January.

The festive fun kicks off with ABC iview’s Binge on the Best of Australian Comedy featuring some of Australia’s best comedians and actors in shows that will keep audiences laughing. These include (amongst many others) Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me (all 4 series), Luke McGregor and Celia Paquola’s loveable new comedy Rosehaven, Shaun Micallef’s unique political comedy The Ex-PM, side-splitting satirical kitchen comedy The Katering Show (both series) plus two new series Fancy Boy and Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am will premiere.

Wrapping up 2016, Charlie Pickering, Tom Gleeson and Kitty Flanagan dissect the year with their trademark caustic humour in The Yearly with Charlie Pickering. A range of Christmas specials will delight audiences including the convivial Steven Fry in the QI Christmas Special (his last ever!), the comic Would I Lie to You? Christmas Special, [etc etc let’s cut it off here – ed]

Here’s pretty much the only new news in all that:

The Yearly with Charlie Pickering – Wednesday 14 December at 8.30pm

Notice we didn’t say “good news”.

There’s also New Year’s Eve coverage mentioned, but no names are as yet named – and considering the controversy that’s regularly erupted every years that the ABC has put comedians in that slot, it’s probably reasonable to assume that whatever they’ll be saying while waiting for the Sydney Harbour fireworks to go off, it won’t be funny (or even “funny”).

But hey, when the ABC is giving us the chance to binge on the best of Australian comedy, who are we to complain?

Vale Rosehaven (and Upper Middle Bogan)

A hefty chunk of the ABC’s scripted comedy wrapped up last night, and it’s a sign of just how forgettable much of the ABC’s output has been over the last year (okay, years) that they’ve already both pretty much vanished from our memories. Why is it only the shockers we remember? We’re still waking up in a cold sweat after nightmares about Randling.

Of the pair Upper Middle Bogan was clearly the superior project, even though this third season did show a little wear and tear. It’s a definite flaw in the Australian model that most of our scripted comedy is neither as proudly formulaic as your average American sitcom nor as sharply observed as the best of the UK’s output, leaving us with shows that often start to feel a little tired by their second series (*cough Utopia cough*). Strong performances and enough storytelling hooks to keep the storylines coming helped out, but this time around it was fairly clear that of the ten or so characters only about half were reliable laugh-getters.

That said, one of UMB‘s constant strengths has been the way it’s been able to wring laughs out of mixing and matching the entire cast, and the way the two families seemed more integrated this season did pay off. Unlike a lot of Australian comedies where it’s clear that the writers really only came up with a handful of comedy pairings – again, in Utopia there’s never any reason to put Rob Sitch and Celia Pacquola together because they’re both playing the same character – even when UMB had two characters that were comedy idiots (oh wait, that was everyone except for the nerdy daughter, the angry mum and the snooty grandmother), they were usually different kinds of comedy idiots (ditzy versus mellow, for example) and so could strike off each other in funny ways even when the plots were lacking.

(also, has there been another comedy in recent memory that was so consistently about rich people? Bogan or not, both sides of the divide were on the whole extremely cashed-up, and while the show was both well aware of this – see the episode about buying all the best possible camping gear for a trip meant to toughen the kids up – and often mocked it, it still kind of felt there was a culture clash angle there that wasn’t being fully exploited even when the show was trying to talk about money)

Rosehaven, on the other hand, only really came to life when stars Luke McGregor and Celia Pacquola were together, because despite being a scripted (by them) series where they both played characters that were not Luke McGregor and Celia Pacquola for long, long stretches it felt like a show where they just hung out together and riffed about stuff. There was a whole bunch of your typical fish-out-of-water material lying around, but the series never really felt all that interested in picking it up.

Part of the problem is that there were really two shows here. One was about the friendship between Luke and Celia’s characters, and if this had been a halfway decent US sitcom that would have been the whole focus – come up with some vaguely coherent hook for the show (“it’s like The Odd Couple, but one’s a chick!”) that won’t be too distracting and just let them be funny together.

The other was your more traditional fish-out-of-water dramedy where some city dude finds themselves stuck in the country surrounded by quirky comedy types and the comedy just happens because we’ve seen it all a million times before. But much of the comedy (and the drama) comes from having a lead who is a fish-out-of-water – not a fish-with-another-fish-they-can-turn-to-right-there-by-their-side-in-the-water. “Oh no, I’m finding it really hard to adjust to this new town oh wait lucky I bought my bestie with me” is not a formula for laughs, drama, or much of anything else.

It almost would have been preferable if they’d been playing a married couple; at least then they would have been a unit trying to fit into a new place. But by having them as best friends too often the show felt like it was just telling the same kinds of stories twice. The episodes that worked best were ones where they had distinctly different situations going on – Celia dealing with the council workers hanging around the house while Luke was being bullied at the local radio was a highpoint. But mostly they were too similar – not as characters, but in their situation as young urban types adrift in a country town (again, putting them in a location where the setting wasn’t a big deal would have made for a better show because it would have shifted the focus to their differences rather than the way that they were the same) – to really make it feel like we needed the show to be about both of them.

But good news! Neither show was a complete disaster. Upper Middle Bogan probably won’t be back, but producers Gristmill definitely should be – their generally optimistic mainstream suburban comedy is exactly the kind of thing Australia needs to make on a consistent basis. As for Rosehaven, well… hopefully it’ll improve as the two leads get a better handle on what kind of show they’re making. Though considering it’s partly funded by the Tasmanian government, fingers crossed that show doesn’t turn out to be “quirky tourism video”.

Cheap Laughs and a 30 Year Growth

Back in the mid-80’s, some people in the UK came up with an idea for an improvised comedy radio show called Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which was a sort of mash-up of theatre sports and stand-up, inspired by a regular improv night at London club The Comedy Store. Following the radio series, it was quickly brought to TV by Channel 4, then sold to ABC in the US.

The series ran in both countries for a decade and was enormously popular. Legendarily popular in fact, achieving the sort of cult status that makes the likes of TV executives at Foxtel think it’s worth bringing here 30 years after it started. But is it?

Sort of.

Sure, being able to switch on the telly and see the kind of anything-could-happen sketches you’d otherwise have to make a special trip to a comedy club to watch was an exciting novelty in the mid-80’s, but 30 years on not so much. Comedy clubs are everywhere, stand-up’s on TV all the time, and large chunks of broadcasters’ comedy budgets are given to comedy panel shows which are mostly improvised. There’s also YouTube. Which means a revival of a 1980’s improv comedy format is going to look a bit shabby unless it’s given a 2016 twist, or happens to be really, really funny.

Host Tommy Little and performers such as Cal Wilson and Steen Raskopoulos do their best, but Whose Line Is It Anyway? Australia is basically a cheap show with cheap laughs; it probably cost about $5 to make, and if you want sophisticated humour go elsewhere, because this is the kind of easy gags and off-the-cuff, sweary comedy you’ll find at your local pub’s monthly comedy night.

The makers do a good job of giving the show the feel of a pub comedy night – something a surprising number of stand-up TV shows fail to achieve – but…there’s a bit where the cast are given some inflatable yellow and black things and they pretend to be bees, and the audience laugh way more than they should at it. Yes, it was a low moment, but still…

Look, we get it, part of the appeal of Whose Line Is It Anyway? is moments like this, and the reason it’s lasted so long as a format is because watching comedians trying to improvise a sketch is quite compelling. Will they make us laugh? Will they fall on their face? And if they do, can they come back from it? Except – and here’s where it all falls apart for us – there are clearly some parts of the show which are scripted or semi-scripted. The songs, for example. And when the rest of the show isn’t amazing, even if you take into account that most of it is improvised, it’s hard to watch these songs without thinking “Couldn’t they have given these performers a bit of time to make this even better?”

Here on this blog, we’re always going to argue for the very best comedy it’s possible to make. And we’re never going to accept arguments like “Not enough budget” or “Not enough time” when we’re watching a show that isn’t as funny as it should be. Maybe the performers need a bit more experience making this kind of show before they get really good at it – you don’t become Colin Mochrie overnight – but the producers and commissioners might also need to think about how they can make it better, which might mean more budget and more time.

*

Paired with Whose Line Is It Anyway? Austrlia on the Comedy Channel is the long – extremely long – awaited comedy series from Working Dog, Pacific Heat. If you remember their radio “drama” series from the 90s (or even their FM Playhouse stuff from the 80s) that eventually led to the not-exactly-fondly-remembered Funky Squad, then you know exactly what to expect: a police drama – think action rather than whodunnit – only with a lot of dumb characters and dodgy stereotypes.

The story itself is largely played straight, at least in the first episode, and the animation, while fairly limited, doesn’t really hinder a show based largely around verbal jokes. You could argue that better animation would actually be a drawback: the jokes here are often so rapid-fire that having anything more going on visually would be a distraction. Unsurprisingly, the biggest laughs come from the interaction between Rob Sitch (playing his usual preening dickhead) and Santo Cilauro (playing his usual numbskull), but everyone gets something idiotic to say eventually. Working Dog have been doing this since the 80s, and they’ve got this kind of freewheeling stupidity down pat.

Comparisons with US animated spy sitcom Archer are both unfair and impossible to avoid. Archer is a sitcom with characters that, if not exactly 3D, at least have a couple of sides to them. It’s a show that, if not exactly deconstructing spy movie cliches, gets a lot of its laughs from “what would happen if real people – or people realer than the usual spy movie types – were put in spy movie situations”. It’s an office sitcom about a bunch of snarky dicks only they occasionally go on missions involving super-villains or cyborgs or space stations or drug lords.

Pacific Heat also has a drug lord in its first episode, but the joke there is that he has a broad Asian accent no-one can easily understand, which wasn’t exactly cutting edge comedy back when Get Smart was doing it in the 60s. It’s not a show interested in doing anything more with its cliches – and those cliches are thirty years old at times, though there is a back-at-base hacker character to bring things up to the cutting edge of a NCIS spin-off – than stringing them together to make the basics of a cop drama which they can then throw a lot of dumb jokes at.

So the story just provides a series of standard scenes that writers Sitch, Cilauro and Tom Gleisner can then stuff full of as many jokes as they can. There’s some rapid-fire wordplay in here; if you laugh at one joke you’re probably going to miss two. Which is fine, as only every second or third joke really lands. It’s silly in the Get Smart mould (a scene set in a strip club is about as racy as it gets, and “racy” is definitely overselling it) and about as modern: again, a bunch of jokes about an Asian drug lord’s dodgy accent are retro in a way that’s unusual for 2016.

The result is a show that feels like a call-back to… well, we’ve already mentioned Get Smart, but shows like Police Squad! and Sledgehammer also come to mind. No-one here is remotely plausible as a character, and they’re not meant to be. Most of the Working Dog members got their start in comedy performing in university revues, and an extended revue sketch is what this feels like: everything here has only as much depth as it needs to make the jokes work and the jokes are thrown out fast because those jokes are all it has to offer.

Perhaps that’s why Foxtel has teamed it with Whose Line Is It Anyway? Australia: they’re both shows that, in very different ways, are about a bunch of performers going from moment to moment trying to get laughs.