Travelling North

It was announced the other day that Rove McManus has become the latest Australian to score a gig on American TV, and that’s all well and good but why him? There are lots of other far better Australian comedians having a crack in the US, why aren’t they getting gigs? One such example is Gristmill, AKA Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler, who we understand were (or are) planning to move to the US to pursue opportunities. And with quality work like The Librarians and Very Small Business behind them there must surely be plenty of opportunities for them to pursue…or are there? Because it’s all very well for a bland, solid everyman like Rove McManus to make it overseas, but Gristmill’s focus has always been on uniquely Australian characters – characters possibly too unique for the US market – so, despite their obvious talent, are they ever going to get anywhere?

Breaking the US market’s historically been a big challenge for Australian comedians, even now when hundreds of Australians in other parts of the entertainment industry are making it big there. Barry Humphries made a number of attempts over a 30 year period before he finally did it, and the progress of others has also been slow. Sure, Chris Lilley’s done extremely well to get HBO on board for Angry Boys, and FX are about to screen the US re-make of Adam Zwar and Jason Gann’s series Wilfred, but when an Australian comedy or comedian goes to America it always seems to be one which isn’t specifically Australian. Which kinda rules out Gristmill.

Gristmill’s brilliance in The Librarians and Very Small Business was their ability to highlight and parody elements of Australian society. Very Small Business was a subtle and clever attack on the attitudes and values of “The Howard Battlers”, and similar themes, mixed with a liberal dose of Catholic guilt, were explored in The Librarians. But while both were brilliantly funny series it’s hard to imagine them having quite the same resonance overseas. Particularly in the US, where a local version of Gristmill would be focusing on a rather different set of cultural attitudes and values.

In contrast, the characters in Angry Boys and Wilfred don’t necessarily need to be Australian, nor is the humour of Rove McManus, or indeed Rebel Wilson (such as it is), rooted in a specific Australianess. Kath & Kim, which like Gristmill’s work also focused on Australian suburban attitudes, did not travel well to the United States. Indeed those who remade it clearly didn’t understand why the show worked, and so failed to adapt it for local audiences (quite possibly the show was un-adaptable). And perhaps the same is true of Gristmill’s work: if your comedy comes from your observations of the immediate world around you, the same world you grew up in, then it’s unlikely to travel well.

The point of this article is not to have a go at Gristmill’s style or whatever plans they have to go overseas: they’re talented, there’s nothing wrong with having a go overseas, and comedians focusing their attention on who we Australians are and how our country works is a perfectly valid thing (in fact it wouldn’t hurt if more comedians did it). All we’re trying to work out here is why local talents like Gristmill haven’t (yet) made it overseas.

It’s also interesting to note that Gristmill’s most recent work is a series of videos featuring Robyn Butler as right-wing shock jock Arabella Twat, a character who despite being very much a comment on local pundits like Miranda Devine, Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones, could more easily be understood by overseas audiences than some of Butler and Hope’s other work. Either way, Twat (pronounced “Twart”, and very obviously both a twat and a tart) is another great creation and it will be fascinating to see how it develops. Gristmill’s website may list their US agent, and they may yet be heading to overseas, but Australian comedy would be all the poorer for losing them.

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20 Comments

  • roderick says:

    you are seriously off the mark. Neither wayne Hope nor Robyn Butler come close to brilliant but very close to painfully unfunny.

  • Linda b says:

    Roderick does not speak for everybody. I love all their shows. Good luck to them.

  • billy c says:

    I was never a fan but there are people out there who really like their stuff and there is not a lot of narrative comedy going on. Even being harsh I must say they have certainly improved

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    The Librarians has always been a bit hit-and-miss, though the “lets-just-do-anything” third season was a notch above the previous two. But Very Small Business was excellent out the gate and wonderful all the way through – whatever the ABC’s reasons were for not wanting a second series, they weren’t good enough.

  • roderick says:

    I thoroughly recommend the writers of this blog to perhaps get out of the fishbowl of living in this country where we delude ourselves we have a wonderful and unique sense of comedy and perhaps try living abroad. Then you will probably realise as I did how 3rd rate we really are. I compare us to the canadians who are similarly myopic about their sense of humour.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    “where we delude ourselves we have a wonderful and unique sense of comedy” Uh, have you actually read what we’ve had to say about Australian comedy over the last few years?

    Mind you, for once it’s nice to not be called “haters”…

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    And can we take you’d be interested in lots more posts comparing British originals to Aussie rip -offs? We’ve got a million of them…

  • Roderick says:

    “Gristmill’s brilliance in The Librarians and Very Small Business was their ability to highlight and parody elements of Australian society. Very Small Business was a subtle and clever attack on the attitudes and values of “The Howard Battlers”, and similar themes, mixed with a liberal dose of Catholic guilt, were explored in The Librarians”

    I’d respectfully submit that you haven’t exactly got high standards….

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    If you were saying that you thought the first couple of series of The Librarians wasn’t any good then we’d sorta agree with you (we gave it some lukewarm reviews back in the day), but Very Small Business was one of the best Australian TV comedies in ages – subtle, funny, satirical, some great performances – and The Librarians series 3 really cracked it as regards the laughs. Similarly Arabella Twat’s a very amusing and promising creation.

    If we didn’t have high standards this blog would be full of pieces saying that Rebel Wilson’s a great talent, that the sketches on Hungry Beast really take it to the edge, or that Angry Boys is a decent comedy, and we’ve critiqued them over and over, so we don’t accept your point at all.

  • roderick says:

    Reviewing a comedy as ‘subtle’ really means there’s no laughs but the reviewer wants everyone to know they get it on an intellectual level. I spent years getting things in Bachelor of Laws, Commerce and a Masters of Finance pursuits. When I watch a comedy I want to laugh.

    The reviewer in The Australian’s summation of Very Small Business at the time it went to air was that it was devoid of humour and played like a depressing drama. He was bang on.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    No he wasn’t.

    (to be fair, I did encounter a couple of actual small businessmen who hated VSB because it felt it was making fun of their “hard-working efforts to provide jobs”. Presumably they also had spent a lot of time studying business. Lets just say that for those who’ve had to work in shitty jobs bestowed upon them by self-important deluded tools, much of VSB was hilarious)

    As for your dismissal of “subtle”, that’s often true but hardly always the case. We too like to laugh at comedy, but in skilled hands small touches can be just as satisfying and funny as broad strokes

  • roderick says:

    grew up in a pub, lived from hand to mouth at times, voted Labor all my life and have little time for most people in business small or big.

    that doesn’t sway me as to whether I like a comedy. Brent was in small business. He was funny. Hope’s character wasn’t funny.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    You’ll have to do better than “Hope’s character wasn’t funny”, I’m afraid. Otherwise we’re in “No, Hope’s character WAS funny” territory and we all have better things to do than that.

    Personally, I felt Hope’s character’s mix of self-delusion, scam-juggling, constantly dodging clients and a wardrobe obtained entirely for nothing was close to hilarious – and extremely on-target if you’d had any experience in publishing. In the same vein, the riffs on the difference between circulation and readership were very funny (even, I think, if you knew nothing about publishing) and 100% accurate.

    Not to mention that Hope himself is as good as anyone in this country at getting across pathetic desperation without turning it into tragedy / despair – a far more realistic and funny combination than David Brent’s obnoxious self-obsession, which for mine stopped being plausible for a middle-management type in a “realistic” sitcom around episode three of The Office. Hence the US version’s making sure their Brent analogue Michael Scott was an excellent salesman to justify a pain like him still having a job.

  • roderick says:

    you really do have a barrow to push on this one. You a cousin or something?

    For the record: Ricky Gervais – internationally lauded. Wayne Hope – who?

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Unfortunately for you, we tend to trust our own opinions rather than whoever is it that decides someone is “internationally lauded”. But you already knew that, considering the amount of bile we’ve been heaping on the “internationally lauded” Chris Lilley, right? Then again, it would have been fair to expect you to notice the previous Gervais comment was about the plausibility of a character he played and not a swipe at the man himself – though Lord knows we’ve made plenty of them in the past.

    Unless you have an argument of your own to advance – rather than expecting us to dry up and blow away in the weight of international opinion and received wisdom – there’s not much more to be gained here.

  • roderick says:

    the fact that you have your own blog about comedy means you should know how it works. Comedy is binary. It’s either funny or it aint. If i need to explain it to you means it’s not funny.

    you can intellectualise your cousin’s show as much as you like but fact is it didn’t get a laugh.

    Chris Lilley, internationally lauded?? Your in that aussie bubble again. Did I miss his acceptance speech for his Golden Globe?

    For what it’s worth, you guys make a big song and dance about it but when the rubber hits the road you’re actually amateur hour when it comes to hating Australian comedy.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Well, from what I recall, we weren’t fans of your effort.

  • roderick says:

    and I’m delighted to be in the same company as Ricky Gervais.

    but now you’ve really got me intrigued. What exactly is your relationship to Butler and Hope?

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Seriously? You think just because we like a show we have to have a personal relationship with the creators? Come on, you’re not that stupid.

    We’re as connected to them as we are to you. Actually, we have a bigger connection to you at this stage. Which either proves or disproves your theory, I’m not sure which.

  • Roderick says:

    ok. I’m done. Keep up the good work.