When we haven’t been having a chuckle at Hey Hey it’s Saturday being nominated for a “Most Popular Light Entertainment Program” Logie (what, they’re handing out Logies just for turning up now?), we’ve been having a semi-serious discussion here at Tumbleweed Central: why doesn’t Australian television make more comedy for teenagers?
Put another way, when you look back at the big comedy successes in Australia over the last half-decade or so – the shows that have actually made it into mainstream culture – they’ve had a fairly strong appeal for the high school crowd. Summer Heights High – well, duh – and The Chaser’s War On Everything with its prank-heavy focus both pulled in huge ratings on the back of a teen audience. And yet, outside of those shows what is there for the comedy fans in (school) uniform?
If you’re feeling charitable, Good News Week probably appeals to a teen audience. But over on the ABC, what have you got? Spicks & Specks is solid family fare (and accordingly, rates its pants off), but then you’re left with shows like The Gruen Transfer, Hungry Beast (which is the kind of show parents think kids want to watch), The Librarians, Laid, John Safran’s Race Relations – all perfectly decent shows on their own terms, but not exactly aimed dead-on at the teen crowd.
That’s not to say teens can’t latch onto show you wouldn’t expect them to, or that they won’t gravitate towards shows that might seem to skew older. But you can to some extent predict the kind of shows teenagers en masse will want to watch and short sketches, teenage characters, jokes and catchphrases you can repeat the next day and scenes / moments you can say “did you see that?!?” about rate high on the list. So less Laid, more Beached Az.
It’s also interesting to note that not only have the ABC’s two (well, two and a half – Beached Az has punched well above its weight) biggest comedy success stories of recent years been teen-focused, but they were also made by comedy teams / individuals whose prior successes allowed them a certain amount of leeway. In recent years the one-off series and efforts by first-timers on the ABC seem to largely fall into the Gen X inner-city hipster demographic (The Librarians being something of an exception); comedy that plays to a wider audience on the ABC has been largely left to those allowed to do what they like.
Let’s make it perfectly clear that we’re not advocating some kind of lowest common denominator approach to comedy; we’ll leave that to the paid TV critics. What we are suggesting here is that shows aimed at a teenage demographic often seem to do very well in the ratings, and if ratings are the be all and end all of television production this should perhaps be taken into account.
Far be it for us to suggest that if Summer Heights High had been exactly the same show content-wise but had been solely about the occupants of an old people’s home it would have done far worse in the ratings. And we’re not suggesting that if Chris Lilley’s patented brand of obvious stereotypes and supposedly “offensive” material had rated worse then both critics and the ABC would be less inclined to fawn over him as the second coming of Barry Humphries. Heck, we’re not even going to argue that teenagers will watch any old slops (though for a while during the first series of The Wedge it looked like that might have been the case).
But it doesn’t seem too far off the mark to suggest that the ratings success of some of Australian television’s least artistically impressive comedy series lies in part in the fact that they’ve also been some of the few series actively courting the teenage demographic. It’s a comedy market that seems to be often ignored by the ABC (especially with their in-house efforts), and as the ABC is currently the primary source of Australian television comedy, on the rare occasions when they put out a teen-friendly show we shouldn’t be surprised when it rates extremely well.
In summary: Angry Boys looks like yet another tired trudge through the one-track mind of Chris Lilley. But the kids are probably going to love it.