Chuck another dramedy on the barbie

Nothing makes a comedy fan’s heart sink more than the arrival of a new dramedy. Not because comedy and drama shouldn’t ever be combined, but because dramedies always seem to be either populist light dramas with little-to-no actual comedy (Packed to the Rafters) or sitcoms which turned out to be so woefully laugh free that even their own publicists baulk at marketing them as comedies (I Rock).

Even the massive success story that was SeaChange didn’t really get the mix right; it relied on a schmaltzy soap-style storyline for the drama and a handful of wacky peripheral characters for the comedy. Conclusion: don’t expect either quality drama or quality comedy in a dramedy. And if you’re hoping for a more organic mix of the two genres, forget it.

Yet, putting the two genres together needn’t automatically be an unsatisfying, awkward mess. Take the 1986 “pseudo-documentary” BabaKiueria, released on DVD a few years back. Written by Mother & Son creator Geoffrey Atherden, this is a “reverse angle probe” into the relationship between white and Aboriginal Australians, which images that Aborigines arrived on ships in 1788 to claim an empty land for their people. An empty land full of suburb-dwelling white folk.

Coming ashore to find a white family enjoying a barbeque in a local park, the Aboriginal first settlers approach the natives with caution. Their leader asks one of the elder white men what this land is called. Misunderstanding, the white man replies “Barbeque area”, and the nation of BabaKiueria is born.

BabaKiuera may be full of lame-ish gags like this, and the white/Aboriginal role swap scenario doesn’t work perfectly, but the dialogue is top class. The bulk of the show consists of BabaKiuerian television reporter Duranga Manika (a sort of Aboriginal Jana Wendt) spending time with a white family. Her film is characterised by a series of patronising and factually incorrect commentaries on their lifestyle and customs.

Betting on horses at the TAB is interpreted by the Aboriginal elite as a white religious ritual, where offerings of money are made to the Gods and paper tokens bearing mystic writings are received in return. A key part of the ritual is watching a TV monitor showing horses running around a track, something the whites believe will bring them luck. The worshippers who find that the horses did not bring them luck then utter curses and tear up their paper tokens.

As BabaKiuera develops, the light-hearted satire turns darker as an ANZAC Day parade is broken up by the Aboriginal police, despite the lack of violence, and an elderly marcher is arrested. In a distressing scene, the daughter of the family Manika has been staying with is taken away by the police to receive “an education”. Her parents shyly admit to the cameras that this is for the best, while their son angrily points out that this is not the views they have expressed in private.

Eventually the rest of the family are removed from their home by the government. Officials make a big deal of packing up the family’s possessions, but it becomes clear that the government are effectively stealing everything they own, while they will be dumped in a camp. The parents grimly accept their fate, while their son runs off in anger. BabaKiueria concludes with one of the bleakest endings to a comedy programme ever – a suicide.

But apart from the pointed, angry satire (much of it still relevant today), what marks this programme out from many which combine comedy and drama is that the transition between the two is seamless. Everything is played straight, no matter how ridiculous, and what starts out like a slightly weak sketch idea gradually evolves into a compelling, if difficult to watch, drama.

Gear changes this smooth just aren’t seen in your average dramedy, nor is dialogue this good. This is not to say that all dramedies need to be angry satires made in the 80’s, but that a poor drama with some tokenistic comedy or a poor comedy with a vague hint of drama simply isn’t good enough as a piece of television.

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2 Comments

  • menagers says:

    Top review Bean. I have very vague memories of this show, but after reading this I definitely want to seek it out again.

  • lance cairns says:

    You’re right. Australian writers aren’t educated about formats. In the States, every writer knows that half hour means comedy. And one hour means drama. The thing about the one hour drama is it can contain comedy, but the story is the thing. The thing about the half hour comedy is that it can have a strong narrative, but above all else, it must be funny. This isn’t really drummed home to Oz writers who are still writing blissfully from the heart. And the majority of writers who are educated in the craft of screenwriting (at RMIT usually) don’t really do much writing when they leave. Kris Mrksa being the exception. I know I’m generalising and will upset people, but I think Oz writers really need to be taught about formatting. That way they might entertain a lot more people, sell more formats and make a lot more money than they do.