Now that the chorus of voices calling for Live From Planet Earth have faded, their unholy bloodlust sated, a new round of voices can be heard. “They pulled it too soon”, these voices say, “They didn’t give it a chance to find its feet”. And who’s to say they don’t have a point? Well, us for one.
To be fair, it’s true that television shows do need time to settle in. Talent should be nurtured, formats need to have their rough edges smoothed off, and audiences require time to get used to things that might be a little new or strange. But does anyone seriously think that given an extra few weeks Live From Planet Earth was suddenly going to blossom into a show that was worth watching?
This wasn’t a pre-recorded show, and it wasn’t like the producers didn’t know they had a turkey on their hands – for all the on-air swipes at both Twitter users and the general press, when you’re getting that much negative feedback you’ve got to know something ain’t right. So obviously after week one there were massive changes made to try and improve the show, and more changes were made yet again after the ratings continued to slip in week two. Right?
Of course not. Changes were made – week two was a better show, thanks largely to more Ben Elton stand-up – but by week three it seemed pretty clear that we’d seen all the alterations we were going to get. Having Elton increasingly interact with the sketches was a change, but it wasn’t going to save the show: sacking most of the cast after week one would have been more like it.
It’s easy to forget that television isn’t one big organisation from top to bottom. In this case, Nine was buying Live From Planet Earth from production company Freemantle. Presumably Nine was expressing serious doubts – and perhaps asking for changes to be made – after the first night. When those changes weren’t forthcoming, what else could the executives do but axe it? Put another way, what subtle depths did Let Loose Live – sorry, Live From Planet Earth – contain that audiences wouldn’t pick up on until week six?
That’s the other side of the argument: the show itself was basically fine, and that eventually the audience would have discovered it. Problem there is, unlike the usual midnight burial that passes for an Australian comedy launch, Live From Planet Earth was given a solid promotional push – ads, billboards, the lot. People knew it was on, they tuned in, they weren’t that impressed with what they saw. Without serious changes, those viewers wouldn’t be back, so where would these new viewers be coming from?
Hang on a second: why are we making this case for it being axed? It’s not like it was a long-running proven stinker like Hey Hey it’s Saturday – surely the benefits of having it on air training up new talents and getting viewers used to Australian sketch comedy outweighed the drawbacks? Well… no.
Some Australian sketch comedy shows have improved over time. The Ronnie Johns Half Hour went from being barely watchable in its first series to moderately funny in its second. But more often than not any improvement is accidental, the jokes remain as painful and unfunny at week twenty as they did at week one, and all we’re left with is a constant re-enforcement of the idea that Australian sketch comedy is, well, either The Wedge or Comedy Inc.
It’s not like the secret to making halfway decent sketch comedy is an actual secret: find a team that have built up some kind of chemistry together, maybe bring in a more experienced mentor (preferably not, but someone’s got to have some experience), and then let them do pretty much what they want. If it has to be live, try to throw in some pre-recorded stuff in there for variety; if it’s pre-recorded try to have a mix of studio and outside settings to vary things up. It’s not a sure-fire recipe for success, but it’s a damn sight closer than trying to pretend it’s 1972 and people will watch a badly-written sketch that’s just two people talking for five minutes.
Basically, the line’s got to be drawn somewhere. Live From Planet Earth seems like it probably should have been given another week, but why? It wasn’t getting any better and after three dud weeks a fourth wouldn’t have made any difference. Following on the heels of the slow but steady ratings decline of Hey Hey it’s Saturday last year, the real question here has to be: who’s running things at Nine, and why can’t they force changes on their live shows once they start to go down the toilet?