Comedy Free Comedy

The number one thing a comedy has to do is make people laugh. But that’s kinda hard, so every few years there comes along a sweeping trend in comedy – one that doesn’t involve comedy at all. Instead of simply trying to make people laugh, the people behind these trends will claim to be “breaking new ground” in comedy by adding something to the mix to distract viewers from the fact that they don’t really seem to be laughing at anything they’re seeing. The most recent version of this – the Ricky Gervais / Chris Lilley school of saying something crass or offensive and just lingering on it until the viewer hopefully laughs out of nothing more than sheer embarrassment – has been pounded into the concrete enough for now. So let’s instead take a look back at the attempt before that to create comedy-free comedy, an approach that’s best summed up by three words that’re enough to send a chill down any eight-cents-a-day viewer’s spine: Dog’s Head Bay.

In the late 1990’s, the ABC found itself with an unexpected hit on its hands: Seachange. Why it was unexpected is a bit of a mystery today: a more nakedly commercial program it’s hard to imagine, what with the family-friendly mix of soft-sell romance, lightweight drama, and a few decent laughs (let’s not forget that Seachange’s co-creator was Andrew Knight, the guy next to Steve Vizard during the Fast Forward / Full Frontal days). Seachange’s effect on Australian television drama was massive: basically, apart from The Secret Life of Us and Underbelly, you can’t make a successful Aussie drama without ripping off either its tone (Packed to the Rafters, anyone?) or the whole damn thing (Always Greener, East of Everything).

But who watches Australian drama? We’re here for the comedy, and Seachange – combined with shrinking ABC drama budgets – put forward a new model for Aussie comedy, one where the numerous laugh-free spaces could be filled with the kind of quirky drama that audiences had refused to pay for at the cinemas since the late 1980s. Presumably in this climate hiring noted playwright and unfunny bastard David Williamson and his wife to write a 13-episode sitcom seemed like a good idea, as did sticking solid dramatic tree stump Gary Sweet in the lead; whoever was supposed to check the quality of the finished product was clearly asleep at the wheel and the wheel wasn’t attached to anything in the first place because the second this crapfest went to air the ABC found its budget pretty much cut in half out of sheer disgust at the contempt being shown for the very concept of entertainment.

At this point it’d be great to post a few links to clips or reviews to illustrate just how amazingly bad it and its reception was – and trust me, it was bad. But you will just have to trust me, because the second this turd started stinking up the ABC’s bowl everyone involved ran a thousand miles. There was no video release; no DVD release is planned. The reviews – scathing at the time –are locked away in mouldering piles of print down at your local library. There’s next to no information on the show itself to be found on the internet: if you didn’t know anything about it, you might even think it was a halfway decent (or at least, misunderstood) show.  And this kind of mass forgetting of how our home-grown television is often made for the enjoyment of everyone but the viewer is how we come to having a series – not one, but a series, with each episode two and a half hours long – of Hey Hey It’s Saturday reunion specials.

Dogs Head Bay wasn’t quite enough to kill the idea of quirky Australia dramedy stone dead, sad to say. Corridors of Power was a six-part political-themed stab at the comedy / drama crossover that managed to combine the few crap parts of Frontline with the barely noticeable weak points of The Games into a series about a pre-selection struggle that felt like being bailed up at a party by a junior public servant desperate to tell someone about the amazing new insights he’d had into preventing rorting of the internal mail system at their Reservoir depot. It did, however, get slightly better reviews – unfortunately, they almost entirely gave off the impression that this was a show that was good for the nation rather than something a sane person would want to watch.  A televisual version of steamed broccoli might have sounded like a good idea inside the ABC, but out in the real world lessons on how the country is run are about as popular as Corridors of Power turned out to be.

And then there’s Bad Cop Bad Cop. Coming in half-hour chunks, this one actually looked like a sitcom – a curiously laugh-free version based around the antics of two corrupt cops running through various dodgy schemes while both sleeping with the same mildly sexy bent lawyer. To be honest, this did feature semi-decent plotting and some halfway effective performances (especially Michael Caton as the older, more laid-back of the two corrupt cops) – only problem was it was being sold as a half hour sitcom when it showed next to no interest in making anyone laugh. Whether the makers simply thought “two corrupt cops getting tangled up in various schemes – that’ll be hilarious!” and left it at that or tried to put in jokes but they were so bad no-one outside the writing staff realised that that’s what they were meant to be and so the actors simply played them straight… well, at this stage who cares.

It was around this point that the ABC suddenly seemed to realise that if they were going to bother making comedies, they probably should get comedians to make them. Seachange’s legacy lives on in the drama department – I did mention the strident and painful East of Everything, didn’t I? – but the comedy side of the street seems to have shrugged it off for good. Well, on the ABC it has: Seven’s Packed to the Rafters probably counts as comedy to some, what with a wacky neighbour called (for Christ’s sake) Carbo…

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