Eighteen or so months ago the news came through that a DVD of The Money or The Gun was in the works. It would feature compilations of six episodes and a commentary from host Andrew Denton, director Martin Coombes and producer Mark Fitzgerald. The DVD was supposed to be out in November 2009, was then delayed twice, and has still not appeared; EzyDVD currently list the release date as “unknown”. But when DVD companies don’t come through with the goods the internet eventually does, and recently a number of full episodes have been made available online – they’re a fascinating watch.
The Money or The Gun, which began in 1989 and ran for two series (plus occasional specials thereafter), was Andrew Denton’s first major TV success. It followed on from Denton’s first series, Blah Blah Blah, which according to Wikipedia was a late night comedy show featuring “adult humour” and “controversial” live performances. In a slightly earlier timeslot and with (presumably) a larger budget, The Money or The Gun also proved controversial, but seems to have been a more experimental and issues-based show.
Described by Denton at the time as “the highest mutation of a chat show, or the lowest mutation of a documentary”, each episode of The Money or the Gun explored a theme or issue through a mixture of sketches, expert interviews and vox pops. There was also a version of ‘Stairway to Heaven’, performed by a different act in a style relevant to the topic of the episode, in every show. Amongst the roll-call of well known acts who performed the song in the series was Rolf Harris, whose version later became a worldwide hit.
Well known episodes of the series include ‘Prostitution’ (famously, the vision from a sequence in which a prostitute demonstrated how to put a condom on with your mouth, by felating a microphone, was censored, although the sound was not); ‘The Year of the Patronising Bastard’, a look at disability which was inspired by an incident which occurred during the filming of series 1 when Denton mocked a member of the studio audience who he thought had fallen asleep – the woman turned out to be blind (this episode later won the United Nations Media Peace Prize); and ‘The Topic of Cancer’, in which Denton interviews young cancer sufferers at a camp run by the charity CanTeen. Amongst the episodes available online are shows covering topics such as anxiety, banking, depression, the police force, boxing, insects and the 80s/90s comedy boom, as well as the aforementioned ‘Prostitution’.
The early inklings of Denton’s self-titled Channel 7 tonight show, as well as more recent series like Enough Rope and Hungry Beast, can all be seen in The Money or The Gun – the mixing of serious topics with comedy, the trademark interview technique of asking unusual or confronting questions – but it quickly becomes clear why the planned DVD was to be a compilation, because the results are patchy.
An oft-repeated mistake in the series is that an entire sketch is built around a not particularly funny, one-joke premise. In the ‘Comedy Boom’ episode, a pun on the word “company” in The Comedy Company, and the plethora of Four Corners-type investigations into the dodgy dealings of bankrupt businessmen being broadcast at that time, inspire a sketch about the supposed financial backers of The Comedy Company, who operate through a series of shelf companies (with names like Uncle Arthur Holdings, Confruit and The Mole Trust) registered in tax havens. You can see what they’re trying to do, or what they think they’re trying to do – or what they hope they’re doing – but you wish they hadn’t. Straight-up interviews with Ian McFadyen or Mark Mitchell would have been better and said more than their cameos in this sketch.
Another major problem for the series is the length of each episode. In series one the shows last a whopping 57 minutes; in series two the episodes are shortened to around 43 minutes – and are much better for it. By series 2 it also becomes clear that the format, and Denton’s skillset, are better placed to cover issues effecting people rather than broader topics. The episode on depression is far better than the episode on insects – in the former Denton can draw on his own personal experiences or those of others; in the latter the episode barely moves beyond the idea that insects frighten some people.
Amongst the well known faces to appear in The Money or The Gun (who have not already been mentioned) are The Doug Anthony Allstars and Wendy Harmer in the ‘Comedy Boom’ episode (both are also parodied in a send-up of The Big Gig in the ‘Police’ episode, with Denton playing Harmer), and Julia Zemiro and Robyn Butler in ‘Anxiety’.
‘Anxiety’ looks at a day in the life of Julia (Zemiro), a typical young woman who lives in the city, works for an insurance company and is looking for Mr Right. Robyn Butler plays a guest at a party Julia attends. In one of a number of jokes throughout the series which reference the censorship of the “putting a condom on with your mouth” sequence in ‘Prostitution’, Zemiro can be seen felating a banana her character eats during a lunch break. This appears to be the earliest known television appearance by Zemiro – what a way to start her career.
Having watched around 10 episodes of The Money or The Gun, I would say that while there are parts in most episodes which don’t work, it deserves a proper DVD release. And by “proper” I mean “episodes in full”. We are not talking about a sketch show, where the previous scene has no relation to the current one, but a hybrid of comedy, drama, documentary and chat shows, where each section of the show is designed to build on the other. Remove a sketch that doesn’t quite work and you ruin the entire show. Perhaps this is why the promised DVD has not yet appeared. Either way, I’m grateful to the anonymous person who’s made episodes of The Money or The Gun available – in full.