The Secret Ingredient is Sport

There’s one word to explain why Peter Helliar keeps on getting work: footy. What, you thought it was going to be comedy? Seriously, Helliar might be mildly funny, but unless you’re his biggest fan alive you’d have to admit there are many comedians out there who are at least as funny as he is.  Many, many, many comedians. Pretty much all of them, in fact.

Make no mistake, Helliar can get laughs – as Rove’s jolly sidekick. And if you need a bunch of generic news gags, he’s up there with the middle of the pack. But otherwise, while he lacks the aggressively crap approach of Dave Hughes or the smug arrogance of a Charlie Pickering or a Wil Anderson, he makes up for it by being, you know… sorta bland. He’s the comedian you love to struggle to remember the second he’s off-air: chances are even he’s hoping he dies in a bizarre and gory sex accident, because otherwise even his parents will have forgotten he existed before the last spadeful of dirt hits his beige coffin.

And yet, despite all this, he somehow managed to go from being Rove’s rusted-on sidekick to scoring the high-profile Melbourne MMM breakfast radio slot, despite his last radio gig ending in ratings failure so extreme it killed the radio career of the far funnier Judith Lucy stone dead. When that turned out to be a massive dud that was axed after barely a year and the suicide of its producer, suddenly here he is hosting one of Seven’s biggest shows of the year, the AFL footy-tainment show The Bounce (Thursdays, 7.30pm in the southern states). Talk about failing upwards in your career: if The Bounce gets axed he’ll probably be hosting A Current Affair by the end of the week.

How can this be? He’s not an unknown quantity or an up-and-comer that’s shown promise: he’s provably, consistently shit (or at least, he is when it comes to drawing ratings as a host; his upcoming film I Love You Too will be a better gauge of his other abilities) At best, he’s like Magda Szubanski, a performer much-loved by the public just so long as she’s appearing in a show that would be really good even if she wasn’t in it. At least with Magda her various disastrous efforts at solo hosting are spread out over a number of years: Helliar goes directly from one flaming ratings turd to the next before the smoke’s even had a chance to clear.

The reason why is simple: he seems to like making jokes about footy. Other comedians like footy – Helliar’s former stomping ground on Ten Before the Game is full of them – but most comedians take football too seriously to make a lot of jokes about it (check out the sour faces on Dave Hughes or Mick Molloy when their teams lose). Helliar, on the other hand, seems to like footy without being super-committed to any one team. So logically he’s the guy to turn to when you need a host for your high-profile sports comedy show – you can’t have a host that loves one team above all others or you’ll piss off 13/14ths of your audience. As for the fact that he’s never successfully hosted anything in his long career… well, there’s a first time for everything.

It’s probably too soon to write The Bounce off as yet another Helliar-hosted flop – but let’s do it anyway. Well, at the very least it’s off to a rocky start, which at Seven usually involves being axed within three weeks. And speaking of The White Room, it seems that most of the writing staff of that ill-fated stinker travelled directly from that sinking ship to the decks of The Bounce, where – depending on which edition of The Herald-Sun you read- they were either “booted” or “quit” after the first episode.

Normally the first question here would be “why would you hire a bunch of proven losers to put together perhaps your most high-profile show of the year?”, but as that question’s already been asked about Peter Helliar let’s keep the repetition to a minimum. Plus there’s an actual proper answer to that question: as no-one at Seven has any experience in putting together any kind of live entertainment program over the last decade or so (the Herald-Sun reported that executive producer Rick McKenna’s qualifications included Kath & Kim, the Fox Footy channel and Tonight Live with Steve Vizard. What, no Done Lane Show producers handy?), so grabbing people from Rove makes sense.  Or it does if you ignore the failure of The White Room – but in hiring Helliar as front man they’ve shown that a few duds on the resume don’t really matter.

To wander off-topic a little: in the two stories the Herald-Sun has run to date on the departures from The Bounce, the first – on March 31st – said that line producer Rachel Miller and four writers were “dumped” by McKenna because “the former Rove people were critical of McKenna’s decision-making”, despite his aforementioned extensive live talk show experience from the black & white era. The story also said they were dumped because they “had trouble adapting to the more family-friendly comedy content of The Bounce compared to Rove and The White Room”. So presumably by “family-friendly” they meant “funny”.

Anyway, in the second story – on April 4 – writer Jason Marion responded, saying the writers had quit because their position on the show had become untenable after Miller was “driven out” by management. It seems that they had “no confidence” in new boss and “close friend” of McKenna, Pip Mushin and so left in dribs and drabs over the next few days. Interestingly, Marion says “we all worked really well with Pete” – just not so well that they felt they could stick around to continue working “really well” with Helliar once Miller left.

These aren’t set designers or camera operators: these are the people who write – wrote – Helliar’s jokes for him. Just how much input or control does he have over what goes to air when his writing staff walk out on the show (according to the Herald-Sun, “Seven spokeswoman Susan Wood confirmed no staff had been sacked”) while he stays behind? How much did they bring to his on-air persona? Did he ask any of them to stay?

Behind those questions lies the real answer to why Helliar was hired for this gig in the first place. As far as the bigwigs at Seven are concerned, it doesn’t matter that Helliar’s stunk up the place with every high-profile hosting gig he’s ever had: like everyone else without the title “executive producer” in front of their name, he’s just a very small cog in a very big machine.

As far as they’re concerned, Helliar brings nothing to the job apart from a bland, mildly likable, vaguely footy-related persona. Whatever went wrong in the past doesn’t matter, because everything else is provided by the boys in the backroom. If they get it wrong one week there’ll be a new team out the back the next. And the next. Until they get it right. Footy is a team sport after all, and while Seven has proven time and time and time again over the last decade that they don’t know shit about comedy, they do seem to know a little bit about footy. It’s the one with the oval ball, right?

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