Australian Tumbleweeds

Australia's most opinionated blog about comedy.

Vale Have You Been Paying Attention

Whoever thought it would come to this: after what – thirty weeks? – HYBPA? has finally left our screens. Well, for 2015 at least – it’s already been announced it’ll be back in 2016. And why wouldn’t it? You don’t let a show that nobody’s watching run for 30 weeks, even on Channel Ten.

For once, it’s not exactly difficult to figure out why people are watching it. Unlike just about every other comedy quiz or panel show made in this country, it doesn’t rely on comedians blathering away telling long-winded and only marginally humorous personal anecdotes. Instead, host Tom Gleisner sets up a news gag, the contestants fire off a comedy answer or two, we get the real answer and we move the fuck on.

We find ourselves saying this a lot because it’s true: if you can’t make one brilliant joke, you’d better make a whole lot of shit ones because at least then you’ve got some chance of getting a laugh. And HYBPA powers through the gags, using a fairly straightforward format – none of those shitty “games” that pad out shows like The Chaser’s Media Circus here – to throw out as many punchlines as possible.

When the show first aired there was a bit of discussion as to whether the answers were scripted. Our view: who cares? Presumably a bunch of the answers are scripted (or at the very least workshopped) beforehand, but so long as they’re funny we’re fine with it. That’s because we like to laugh at our comedy rather than sit there waiting for some endless dead-air story to finish before the next question.

No doubt there are people out there for whom the rapid-fire, suspiciously perfect nature of the replies gets in the way of the casual vibe they look for in a comedy quiz show, but let’s be honest: in Australia we simply don’t have enough comedians who can be off-the-cuff funny in a relaxed way. We’ve had a decade or more of shit comedy quiz shows allowing various blow-ins to waffle on about their carpark adventures; it’s time to let the people who can actually write jokes have a go.

That said, what we do have plenty of in this country is moderately funny breakfast radio jocks somewhat overqualified for their current job back-announcing Taylor Swift and taking calls on dubious talkback topics. Pretty much the only thing their day job trains them to do is get in fast with a one-liner; it’s kind of surprising it’s taken this long for someone to come up with a television show that utilises their abilities.

Unfortunately, with the show itself optimised for the kind of media personality who talks over the top of everyone else – and here the game show format really proves its worth, as Gleisner literally gets to tell everyone else to shut up while someone speaks – they’ve had to introduce “guest quizmasters” to showcase the usual crew of generally pointless people with something to promote. For a while there it looked like this was going to do some serious damage to the show, and even now it remains a bit of a dead zone. But the contestants – mostly Ed Kavalee – have started cracking wise about the quizmasters and with Gleisner keeping things moving it’s now generally tolerable at worst. Unless there are politicians on.

Have You Been Paying Attention isn’t flashy, or fancy, or bringing any hot new talent to our attention. It’s a basic, bare-bones show focused on being funny, and for the most part it succeeds. It’s the kind of show it’s easy to overlook, because it doesn’t do much beyond getting the job done.

Australian television could do with a lot more like it.

Vale Open Slather

In a recent episode of podcast The Little Dum Dum Club featuring Open Slather cast member Demi Lardner, the Foxtel sketch series was described as being on break. We’re pretty sure that was a joke, but no one laughed. Presumably in the Australian comedy industry you need to be an optimist to get by.

The final episode of Open Slather aired quietly a few weeks ago, and despite the many twists and turns in its production history it ended how it started out: crap. It may have had a cast of much-loved veterans and promising newcomers, an experienced production team and a commercial TV budget, but the series never quite jelled.

Was it that slightly grainy, vaguely film-stock look they applied to the vision? (You know, the one that’s been ruining TV sketch shows since the early noughties.)

Was it the characters written to be a hit that didn’t quite work so they still persisted with them right ‘til the end anyway? (Hello that gay fitness guru who calls everyone “fatties”!).

Was it the sketches about contemporary life and online culture that felt like off-cuts from This Is Littleton?

Was it the by-numbers parodies of TV shows that possibly air on either Fox 8 or Arena (and frankly, who can tell the difference)?

Put it this way, we got more laughs out of Gina Reilly’s guest role on Please Like Me than we did her appearance in Open Slather. And Please Like Me’s co-written by Josh Thomas!

The only thing that could have saved Open Slather would have been an original vision. Something that wasn’t a few concepts from 1989 rehashed and reheated for 2015. The sketch shows that have had an impact in recent years, such Inside Amy Schumer and Australia’s own Mad As Hell, have all felt like personal, original visions of their creators and stars. Open Slather? It felt manufactured, old-fashioned and pretty much everything else that’s the opposite of what good sketch comedy should be.

The Future is Now

Press release time!

Actually, it’s a pretty big press release, as the ABC has just announced a hefty chunk of what they’ll be coughing up in 2016. So let’s focus on the comedy bits:

First this:

ABC iview will continue to lead the way with a range of digital-first exclusives, including the second series of the highly inappropriate and hilarious YouTube hit, The Katering Show. You Can’t Ask That will pose the awkward questions you’ve always wanted to ask but never could; and from WA’s up-and-coming online stars Mad Kids, a comedy about a group of reporters at DAFUQ?, the hottest thing in non-mainstream, cross platform news.

Then this:

We also have a hilarious line-up of funny and entertaining programming for 2016.

Comedian Luke McGregor takes us on an embarrassingly honest and humorous look at sex in Luke Warm Sex; he’ll also pair up with Celia Pacquola to star in Rosehaven, a new comedy series filmed in rural Tasmania.

The ABC Comedy Showroom brings together some of Australia’s best comedic talent – including Eddie Perfect, Ronnie Chieng, Lawrence Mooney, Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan – for six new pilots, each the first episodes of a brand new sitcom. Audiences will get to vote on the episodes they’d like to see as a full series.

There are new seasons of firm favourites including Black Comedy, Upper Middle Bogan, Soul Mates, Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering and Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery.

Two shows with Luke McGregor? Guess with Utopia and Dirty Laundry Live nowhere to be seen the ABC has to keep the McGregor levels up somehow. Oh, and there’s also this:

the hit series Stop Laughing… This Is Series returns to more deeply  explore how humour, laughter and comedy have been integral to our national identity.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see that someone, maybe, agreed with us that three hours isn’t sufficient to tell the history of Australian comedy. But actually, we’re guessing that after editing the interviews so heavily for the first show they realised they had more than enough offcuts to piece together a whole new series. Get ready to compare and contrast haircuts and backgrounds between both series!

So, to begin an overly extended conclusion, what’s notable here is what’s not mentioned. No Gruen? No Chaser? But as they’re usually sprung upon us towards the end of the year, we’re going to pencil them in anyway.

And where’s the big flashy exciting items? Even last year they had “Shaun Micallef sitcom!” to get people excited, and before that there was “Chris Lilley’s Back!”, “Spicks & Specks is back!”, “Denton is back!”, and you get the idea. Yes, they pretty much always fizzled out, but that wasn’t the point – they sounded exciting (to a general audience) and drew attention to the comedy line-up as a whole.

But there’s literally nothing here to get anyone not already fully invested in comedy paying attention. Seriously, when you’re leading off your comedy line-up with not one but two shows featuring Luke McGregor – who is very funny but is yet to become an established draw – you’re not doing much to get the general public excited about comedy in 2016.

Also, bad news for all those First Blood contestants: looks like the “real” ABC has ignored all their hard work and gone ahead with their own comedy contest. Note: “Audiences will get to vote on the episodes they’d like to see as a full series” does in no way imply that any of the pilots will actually get a full series.

But the big stand out is the return (for an unprecedented third season) of Upper Middle Bogan. Gee, aside from Shaun Micallef’s Ex-PM (which does not seem to be returning), has the current head of scripted ABC comedy actually developed any scripted ABC comedy (as opposed to picking up former ABC2 series) during his reign? In fact, doesn’t the return of a show that – if rumours are correct – he definitively said would not be returning on his watch put his position under something of a shadow? Not that his co-workers were casting shade his way at a recent public function that we definitely didn’t attend.

Otherwise, once the thrill of seeing potentially interesting new shows has passed, we’re once again left with the sight of the ABC doing their best to make a tight budget stretch. Panel shows are out (thank fuck); a host wandering around talking to unpaid guests and extras is in. It’s a safe line-up at a time when television audiences are declining: by failing to either rope in some actual big names or come up with anything really exciting, it’s a little too much like the worst of all worlds.

Don’t Mess With Your Ex

Shaun Micallef’s The Ex-PM finished up last week, going out the way it lived – as a half hour sitcom. Which made it a bit of an oddity on Australian television in 2015, as the days when the ABC’s head of scripted comedy was willing to make (or with the funding to make) sitcoms that aimed for a wide audience seem to be over. The Moodys and Upper Middle Bogan are out: a whole bunch of niche shows initially meant for ABC2 are in. And next year when the ABC2 surplus has gone? Hey, you’ll still have The Weekly.

This kind of left The Ex-PM in limbo. While Micallef himself has become one of this country’s towering greats as far as comedy’s concerned, that’s largely come about because he’s sat still and done something people can understand – news satire, AKA the one kind of comedy the ABC does like to keep around – for five seasons and counting. Micallef’s sense of humour has always been just a little offbeat for a nation that’s made Dave Hughes a star: it helps a lot when his kind of comedy is put into a container that people feel comfortable with.

But in Australia 2015, a sitcom isn’t really that container. Hard as it is to grasp for hard-core comedy fans such as ourselves, it seems sitcoms are edgy stuff for Australian audiences these days. The last two sitcoms that actually hit big would be Kath & Kim and Summer Heights High – both of which tackled material that’s about as mainstream-audience-friendly as you can get.

Shaun Micallef playing a former PM might seem like similar sure-fire stuff at first glance, but with Shaun Micallef in the lead we were never going to get some kind of broad strokes At Home With Julia cartoon. What we did get ended up taking a little time to settle in: Micallef had clearly put in a bit of thought as to what an actual former Prime Minister would be like, whereas much of the audience just wanted to see him play some stuffy old duffer constantly being brought low by a squad of dimwits. Which is what we eventually got.

Part of the reason for the death of the Aussie sitcom is that a sitcom’s biggest strength is the audience’s familiarity with the characters. When a sitcom only has a handful of episodes to establish itself, that strength is gone: every scene with a character becomes a scene re-introducing us to them. It’s still possible to get laughs in that situation but it’s definitely a lot harder, especially if you’ve filmed all the episodes first so you’re not even getting audience feedback to guide you. No wonder people make dramedies instead: at least there if no-one laughs you can pretend you were being serious.

With Micallef – or the”Shaun Micallef” that we know from television – that’s not a problem. Shaun Micallef has been on our screens on various shows for so long now that we know what to expect: a slightly officious, slightly overconfident patrician figure who’s good on the double takes as the real world refuses to conform to his beliefs. So a show built around him titled The Ex-PM should have been perfect, right?

Thing is, Micallef – the real one – seems to have gone into this sitcom deciding to play an actual character rather than just “himself”. And suddenly we’re back to square one, only worse: now the audience has to get their heads around “Shaun Micallef” not acting entirely like we expect him to. To make the worst possible comparison, it’d be like having Daryl Somers turn up in a sitcom playing a comedy character that wasn’t different enough from his established persona for viewers to have a clean break (this is why Robin Williams made all those dramas), and yet not similar enough to his established persona for viewers to immediately relax.

These are all minor quibbles: the show found its feet quickly, delivered laughs promptly, gave us a chance to see John Clarke doing what he does best, reminded us that Lachie Hulme can be pretty funny when he’s not playing Kerry Packer, and ended up our favourite sitcom of the year (sorry Utopia). But it goes to show that making good television relies on a whole lot of things, and time – which Australian television never seems to have enough of – is perhaps the most important thing of all.

Oh wait, How Not to Behave got fifteen weeks and was shit from start to finish. Forget we said anything.


Wil Anderson: Legacy Hire

The latest series of Gruen wrapped up last week after yet another ratings triumph:

Gruen has ended a stellar run on ABC winning its timeslot again with 948,000 viewers. The show has never dipped below 900,000 all season (last week’s 897,000 was eventually adjusted to 900,000). Host Wil Anderson gave no indication if the show would return in 2016 -fingers xd.

Obviously our fingers are held in a slightly different fashion, given our long-running fondness for the series.

What is there left to say about the Gruen series of programs that we haven’t already groaned out while lying on the floor of a grimy pub toilet splattered in our own vomit? You all know the drill: we complain that they’re nothing but advertising for the very idea of advertising presented by a comedy knob fronting a panel largely comprised of sweaty advertising shills and soulless mercenaries that’s then edited into near-incoherency with a side serve of audience cutaways to convince you that somewhere someone remotely human found this crap funny. And then it rates its pants off.

Otherwise, we don’t have all that much to say, which is why we didn’t say much of anything at the time. Gruen has been totally fucking inert remarkably consistent since it first began, and while it’s perfectly effective as blatant propaganda for the advertising industry and is fairly obviously in breach of ABC guidelines, as comedy it leaves more than a little to be desired. Which is probably the point, as playing on your desires is what advertising is all about.

Pretty much the only interesting thing we did think about during this year’s run is the way that Wil Anderson’s now no longer part of the Australian comedy scene. Hurrah! But seriously: much like fellow one-time ABC stalwart Adam Hills, Anderson now spends much of his time working on his career overseas, safe in the knowledge that he can wander back here when he feels the need and Australia will welcome him with open arms. He’s no longer in the “building” stage of his career here – all he has to do is maintain what he’s already got, while putting the real effort in elsewhere.

Sometimes this approach works, sometimes it doesn’t. Hills seems set enough in the UK that his lack of television work here isn’t a problem, while one-time talk show star Rove McManus seems to have returned from the US for good – to a radio gig alongside the star of the Bachelorette, no less – which goes to show that the rest of the world often really doesn’t give a shit. Anderson’s focusing on the US, which doesn’t seem like a country that actually needs “Wil Anderson”. but as he’s working on his stand-up the increased opportunities over there presumably make it worthwhile even if he doesn’t hit the big time.

And let’s be honest: after this year’s ratings bonanza – figures which would have been disappointing only a few years ago but is officially “amazing” for a Wednesday night ABC comedy now that the network’s fucked up that goldmine – Gruen is never going to go away. Anderson can slave away on the US stand-up circuit, or dick around on a banana lounge by the pool in Heyfield. It doesn’t matter: he’s got a steady income that doesn’t require him to do a great deal more than turn up and read shit jokes off the autocue.

Imagine if some actually funny Australian had that kind of professional security? Imagine if some halfway decent Australian comedian had that gig and spent the rest of the year working on riskier comedy right here, able to try new and different stuff safe in the knowledge that even if their idea tanked they’d still be able to make a decent living? Imagine if your tax dollars weren’t going to fund Wil Anderson’s dream of hearing laughter in an American accent?

Of course, comedy – and life – doesn’t work that way. What he does with his money is 100% his business; as the host of a hit show, he doesn’t owe us a thing once the cameras stop rolling.

He doesn’t seem to owe us much when the cameras are rolling either, come to think of it.


Ronny Chieng on The Daily Show – and other Aussies on American late night TV

If you’ve ever wanted to break into American late night TV, but were worried it would never happen because you’re not American, then there’s some good news: not being American doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore.

The very British John Oliver is all over HBO with his investigative news comedy show Last Week Tonight, Englishman James Corden just took over the very late slot from Scotsman Craig Ferguson, and South African comedian Trevor Noah was the unlikely replacement when Jon Stewart left The Daily Show. Yes, all the barriers have been broken down in late night. (Unless you’re a woman.)

The revamped Daily Show brought with it a number of new correspondents, as many of the old guard had also left, including veteran husband-and-wife team Jason Jones and Samantha Bee. One of the new faces greeting was Australian Ronny Chieng.

If you’ve not heard of Chieng, it felt like he was right on the verge of becoming a household name in Australia. In addition to his comedy festival shows, he’d appeared in ABC2’s Little Britain riff This Is Littleton, SBS’s Legally Brown, and Peter Helliar’s It’s a Date. The sort of shows that give way to a radio show or a fill-in spot on The Project.

Getting a gig on The Daily Show, a show that is firmly cemented internationally as the gold standard of news comedy, is no small thing, and Chieng is the first Australian to even come close.

And yes, we’re including Dan Ilic, who was famously fired from Al Jazeera earlier this year when he was caught using studio equipment to make himself a Daily Show audition.

As a side note, it’s interesting how much traction Ilic got for that story (articles about his firing appeared in Mumbrella, TV Tonight, Pedestrian and even The Australian). Especially considering that, given how The Daily Show audition process actually works, this might not have been the epic coronation it first appeared. According to every correspondent who’s managed to score a gig on the show, including Al Madrigal, Jessica Williams, Hasan Minaj and Ronny Chieng himself, the actual audition process goes like this: you submit a tape, and then if they like the tap, they call you in to the studio to do a desk piece and a greenscreen piece. Ilic was, according to the reports, asked by the producers to submit a tape, but clearly nothing eventuated. We can’t really fault Ilic for riding the wave of publicity that he got. After all, “Comedian auditions for Daily Show” sounds far more impressive than “Comedian sends mail to popular show”.

But we digress.

Chieng isn’t the only Australian to crack the late night Comedy Central late night slot. When The Colbert Report ended, its replacement was The Nightly Show, a “minority”-themed news show that focused on the systemic oppression of minorities in America. The show, which took a very long time to find its own voice but seems to have finally settled into a consistent and enjoyable rhythm, often features three guests talking the issues of the day with host Larry Wilmore. To make up the numbers, there’s a rotating roster of the show’s writers who get on-air time, from former Daily Show showrunner Rory Albanese to head writer Robin Thede to the show’s obvious breakout star Mike Yard.

And yet there seemed to be zero fanfare when Australian comedian David Smithyman first appeared on The Nightly Show. Partly because The Nightly Show took more than a commercial break to find its feet and nobody bothered sticking around, but also because nobody had heard of David Smithyman. It actually took us literally hours of googling to find out what his name was, and we’d seen all the episodes he was in.

Smithyman was an odd one. With a weird accent we wouldn’t have picked as Australian if they hadn’t flagged it upfront, and a strange energy that didn’t seem at ease plugged into the “We now cross to gay Santa Clause”/”Joining us now is a divorced squirrel” format the show enjoys. He now seems to have disappeared from the show. Whether this is because he’s scored a writing gig on Fresh Off the Boat, or whether he was just quietly disappeared from the show (wherefore art thou, Shenaz Treasury?), it’s not clear. But it’s very strange the way Australia, so keen to embrace and promote and cheer for and then turn against any Australian who makes it big overseas, completely missed Smithyman.

But the parade was certainly held for Chieng, followed by a patient wait for Chieng to actually make an appearance.

The show was quick to introduce the other two hires Roy Wood Jr and Desi Lydic, but took its time with Chieng. It could be strategic, but it’s more likely practical: Chieng appears to have had a number of long-standing tour commitments to fulfill, and has been frequently tweeting from around the world in the month-and-a-half since the show returned to air.

His first appearance was a strange to-camera tech piece that riffed on the idea that Chieng just wanted his father to love him. Following that, as well as a brief cameo in a correspondent-heavy sketch, Chieng’s next proper appearance was the traditional Daily Show field report.

The premise of the report was that Chieng, a foreigner, has been told that the USA’s voting system is the best in the world, and is all gung ho and excitable during interviews with experts, until he finds out that the system is actually fucked. It’s as standard a Daily Show field report as is possible, which is probably a good thing. Proving that he can fulfill the standard remit of the correspondent is a smart move this early on, and watching him dry hump an outdated, overpriced voting machine (“For $6000, I expect to be able to fuck it”) certainly got a laugh out of us.

The most interesting thing about that report – at least, from our perspective – is that there was no mention of Chieng being Australian. In fact, there was no mention of it in his other appearance either, which is strange because that’s usually the first thing they do. Trevor Noah is getting a lot of quality mileage out of his South African heritage, and even Jason Jones and Samantha Bee would exploit the fact that they’re from Canada if an outsider perspective was needed to make a gag work.

What they did emphasise was Chieng’s actual heritage. He may have started his career in Australia, but Chieng was born in Malaysia, a fact that is underscored in this field report. To be fair, the joke in question – Chieng mocking of the electoral office using a 56k dialup modem, something his “grandmother in Malaysia” wouldn’t even use – would not have worked if he’d mentioned Australia. Sure, disfavourably comparing any country’s internet to Australia’s woeful network is funny, but Americans don’t know that. Malaysia having superior internet is funnier for reasons that should be self-evident. (Racism. The reason is racism.)

It will be interesting to see if they ever mention the Australian connection. Chieng is The Daily Show’s first Asian correspondent, and with shows increasingly pressured to show diversity (and diversity beyond the white-black dynamic that often shuts out Latinos and Asians), there’s a lot more to be gained from drawing a line under the Malaysian connection. They can probably get away with it, too. Unless you’re the Sherlock Holmes of linguistics, able to tell from the slight lilt of the vowel which part of the Southern Hemisphere you spent you early 20s in, nobody’s going to be scratching their head wondering why they’re not making bloomin’ onion jokes.

(References to Bloomin’ Onions – a dish served at the US chain Outback Steakhouse –are the staple go-to Australian reference for Americans, like “lucky charms” when they’re talking about the Irish. Even high-minded comedy shows like The Daily Show still favour gags about countries that need to be explained to the people they’re actually about.)

So Australia hasn’t quite planted a flag in the US late-night expat invasion just yet, so we should perhaps be gracious and give Malaysia some credit for its coup. This is the Asian Century, after all.

Adam Hills Does Not Want To Kill Anyone

So first Adam Hills tweeted this:

And now he’s said this:

It occurred to me that if we dangled Pauline Hanson alongside the French flag, perhaps it would let Muslims around the world know we don’t blame them for the atrocities of an organisation that claims to represent them.

In my head I saw Miss Hanson in a harness, maybe a trapeze, looking comically chastened, suspended below a girder. I thought it was a funny image, so I tweeted this: “Australia would send a better message to the world if we just hung Pauline Hanson from the Sydney Harbour Bridge”

I committed a mortal sin of twitter – sending a tweet and not being clear about what you mean.

About an hour later I checked twitter and was surprised by the outrage. I mentioned it to my wife, who replied that perhaps people thought I wanted Pauline Hanson executed by having her hanged from the Bridge.

In time I have come to realise that the word “hung”, although technically not the same as the word “hanged”, still puts the same image in people’s heads. For that I apologise. I was in no way suggesting Pauline Hanson should be executed.

Angry at being told off by most of twitter, and my wife, I returned to the scene like a dog to its vomit. I tried to clarify that I meant “hung” like dirty laundry, not “hanged” like a criminal. I tried to reinforce that I don’t think Pauline Hanson’s views represent the majority of Australians. I tried to make the image more and more absurd, to reinforce that I was both joking, and not at all advocating someone’s death.

None of it helped.

So here is what I do not think: I do not think Pauline Hanson, or anyone, should be executed, and hanged from any Australian icon, let alone the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I do not condone violence against women. I do not support the shitheads that call themselves ISIS.

And earlier this year we said this:

See, we’re starting to think the loveable Hills we were getting for all those years on Australian television was the act, and the shouty angry guy who seems just a little too scary for comfort is the real deal. Free from the confines of being the safe pair of hands on Spicks and Specks, it might just be that he’s letting the mask slip to show a guy we’re kind of glad is currently half a world away.

Personally, we would have gone with “dangled”.

A Quick Two Words on Tropfest

As you no doubt know by now, this year’s Tropfest short film festival has been cancelled:

Popular short film festival Tropfest has been cancelled after 23 years with founder John Polson saying it may be due to a “terrible and irresponsible mismanagement” of funds.

Billed as the world’s largest festival of its kind, Tropfest attracts hundreds of entries and is watched by thousands every year and was due to take place on December 6.

“It is devastating for me to announce today that Tropfest will not be taking place as scheduled in [Sydney’s] Centennial Park this year,” Mr Polson said in a statement.

Usually we wouldn’t care in the slightest – and not just because, thanks to loads of people wailing and gnashing their teeth, it looks like the massively successful international festival will probably be bailed out – as short film is not really our thing. Or anyone else’s outside of Tropfest, going by the number of “without Tropfest, Australian short film is doomed” messages swirling around social media and those portions of the press that benefit financially from Tropfest.

But c’mon guys, Tropfest is where a lot of Australian television’s biggest comedy types got their big break. Paul Fenech! Adam Zwar and Jason Gann! Austen Tayshus! Matilda Brown! Abe Forsythe! Okay, most of them were already working hard before Tropfest gave them a boost – or in the case of Brown, she was Bryan Brown’s daughter – but, you know… Tropfest!

And there’s all the big name comedy cameos! Last year’s winner Granny Smith starred Steve Vizard! And we were too depressed to do any further research there.

Then there’s the way that, more often than not, the winner is basically just a firmly average comedy sketch that just happens to have cost tens of thousands of dollars to film. Which does tend to reinforce the biggest problem with Australian film and television comedy these days: the idea that the script comes last. Coming up with a twist ending isn’t good writing; spending eight minutes telling one shitty joke is worse.

Despite Tropfest having an outsized impact on the shape of Australian comedy over the last decade or so, we’re pretty confident that the impact has been all bad. The people it made into successes were either going to make it anyway or didn’t deserve the attention; that whole “every film must feature one item” gimmick and the way it demanded all rights to the entrants’ films made it seem just a little like the whole event was more about promoting the Tropfest brand rather than the film-makers themselves.

So our quick two words on Tropfest? You can probably guess.


The unlikeable Ex-PM

Recent episodes of The Ex-PM have seen a shift away from plots which rely on the audience believing that Andrew Dugdale was once Prime Minister (as we pointed out in our first review of the series, this is difficult), to plots which rely on the audience believing that Andrew Dugdale is some guy who’s very well known (much easier to buy). It’s a subtle shift, but a good one.

Gone are the heavy-handed political references that didn’t work as…um…satire? Was that the intention behind the scene where Dugdale’s at a primary school reading My Pet Goat while back at home toy planes were crashing in to his chimney? We don’t know. Anyway, now The Ex-PM is more about plots that any rich and/or famous person could be in, which makes it a lot easier to file Dugdale as an unlikeable idiot with lots of money, and enjoy the laughs generated from him getting in to a variety of absurd and/or sticky situations.

There’s a lesson here for anyone writing a sitcom – you can make a change mid-series and still write the series you intended. Or, to posit another theory about this subtle shift: playing to your strengths in comedy is always a good idea. And if you’re Micallef this means weird/absurd characters and plenty of them, and an over-the-top performance from him…which should be pretty funny in the final episode where he’s held hostage by the Russian mafia.

Best Aussie sitcom of the year? Yeah, probably.

And Not a Housos Movie in Sight

What’s that you say? We’re experiencing a golden age of Australian cinematic comedy? This we had to see for ourselves – and so we spent our Saturday watching not one but two Australian feature-length comedy films currently screening in cinemas. Shouldn’t the non-awaited third film in Paul Fenech’s Housos trilogy be out by now as well? Guess you can have too much of a good thing.

To be fair, The Dressmaker probably doesn’t exactly count as a “comedy” – we sure didn’t laugh much – but it is a prime example of the kind of broad-strokes comedy material that used to dominate Australian cinema right up until The Castle was actually funny. If you’re lucky you got Muriel’s Wedding; if you weren’t, you got Welcome to Woop Woop. Either way the general feeling was of watching a comedy made by people who were the kind of loud dickheads you ran away from at dinner parties.

The Dressmaker (which stars Kate Winslet as a French-trained Aussie dressmaker who returns to her 50s-era shithole small town to wreak revenge on the local freaks by… making dresses) is actually not half bad as a movie – that’d be largely thanks to a bunch of good performances and a story that, in a rarity for Australian film, actually keeps moving forward – but as a comedy we’re back to the collection of grotesques that our film-makers (as opposed to comedians) think are sure-fire laugh getters.

For fuck’s sake, this movie actually features an evil hunchback who gets his komedy kumuppance because once he starts running he can’t stop. Plus Shane Bourne plays a drug-rapist. And Hugo Weaving plays the local cop who also wears a full matador outfit because he’s flamboyant. Tonally it’s all over the shop which kind of works dramatically but as a comedy it’s a big old mess. It’ll probably be the biggest locally made hit of the year: no-one ever seems to go broke making comedy for people who need to be told when and where to laugh.

Now Add Honey, on the other hand, is made by people who actually have a decent recent track record in comedy: Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope, aka Gristmill, the team behind The Librarians and Upper Middle Bogan. The premise here is kind of involved; the short version is that a surprise family reunion goes wrong when L.A. glam stage mother Beth (Portia de Rossi) is arrested for drug possession, leaving her sister, down-to-earth but high-strung lawyer Caroline (Butler), stuck with Beth’s daughter, teenage international superstar Honey (Lucy Fry). Much fish-out-of-water hijinks ensue.

It’s a fairly straightforward premise but the film stumbles around for a while putting everything in place. There’s a third sister (Lucy Durack) and her engagement subplot that goes nowhere but does provide an excuse to have Hamish Blake (who plays her fiancée) in the film; Caroline’s husband is sleeping in the spare room and spending nights “at the office” but she’s too busy to notice; her older daughter has both teen problems and teen sass while her younger one is obsessed with the “Monkey Girl” character that’s made Honey a star. Plus Angus Sampson is a sleazy paparazzi lurking in the bushes outside. If that sounds kind of crowded, that’s because it is.

Gristmill’s sitcoms have all tended to have strong premises which were largely ignored in favour of character-based work. But in a sitcom you have the time to explore your characters; here with such a large cast pretty much everyone ends up having some big motivation that’s kind of glossed over. Caroline is yet another of Butler’s trademark stressed-out characters, if not as hyper-ventilating as the one she played in The Librarians. Yet despite her stressed-out nature being exactly the kind of issue we expect to be solved in a movie, here the cause is touched on once (she brought up her sisters after their mother’s death) and never dealt with. In another kind of movie this matter-of-fact approach would be praise-worthy – what’s done is done and we have to move forward in our lives – but in a comedy it feels like a thread left dangling.

Culture-clash stories are a comedy staple because no-one needs to think much about what’s happening and so all the effort can be put into the jokes. She’s from L.A., they’re from Melbourne, in the end she makes their lives a bit more glamorous and they bring her a bit more down to earth. But here we get a third act that’s all about the dangers of sexualising children (Beth wants Honey to transition out of kid’s entertainment via a sleazy music video and sexy photo shoot while Caroline does not approve) and why society says some kinds of bodies are fine to look at while others are seen as gross. It’s slightly funnier than it sounds, promise.

Teenagers acting sexy when they’re not prepared for the consequences – which here would be “Angus Sampson” – is a real issue, but it’s not an issue that is unique to glammed-up L.A. TV stars. So there’s really two stories here that only kind of overlap: how do you deal with a movie star in your suburban home, and how do you deal with a teen who’s under pressure to be overtly sexual before she’s ready for it. You could make a decent comedy out of either one; cramming them both into 100 minutes results in a bit of a mess.

Presumably the idea was meant to be that a): things would start out as a family dealing with this alien creature dropped into their midst, b): eventually they’d realise she was just like them then c): discover she had her own big problem she was dealing with and they’d band together to help her out. But there’s so much crammed into the first and second acts – we didn’t even mention the drug rehab stuff, or the failed marriage stuff, or the “you kissed the boy I liked” stuff, or Honey’s US agent, or Angus Sampson in the bushes, or the TV celebrity chef – that it all gets a little muddled. And a muddled story is the enemy of comedy – or at least, a guy that owes comedy money.

That said, unlike The Dressmaker this does contain a number of actually funny scenes. Butler can do “exasperated” in her sleep and get laughs, Blake is a constant scene-stealer (to be fair to everyone else, all he has to do in every scene he’s in is get laughs) and everyone else is extremely good at both the drama and the comedy. Well, maybe not Sampson, but he’s stuck playing a cartoon character. And Fry is playing a character that has to go from a broadly drawn caricature to a a real-life scared girl, which would be a big ask for anyone so it’s no big surprise that her scenes can be a bit all over the place.

Taken alongside The Dressmaker, we have here the two extremes of Australian movie comedy: one is a movie that works as a movie but isn’t all that funny, the other is funnier but doesn’t really hold together as a movie. Being funny is the hard part, but Australian comedians who stumble out the gate never get a second chance to make a film so we never get to see if they have a really good film in them.

Sadly, despite having some decent laughs, Now Add Honey just isn’t that good a film.