We all know television doesn’t work this way, but still: It’s tempting to think the decision to team the second half of Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys series with Lawrence Leung’s new series Unbelievable (ABC1, Wednesdays, 9.30pm) was guided by more than just the programmers grabbing whatever was next on the shelf after Hungry Beast finished.
While Lilley’s show is almost entirely populated by unpleasant, insulting morons (which doesn’t automatically mean they’re not good comedy characters, of course), Leung has rapidly built a reputation as the nice guy of Australian comedy. Yeah yeah, Australian comedy already has more than enough “nice guys”, from Adam Hills to Charlie Pickering to whoever else gets to host a show where they ask bland, inoffensive questions while pretending they could care less.
But with Leung’s first show Choose Your Own Adventure, he established himself as a guy who was nice to his parents, interested in things in a modest, nerdy way, and out to make people laugh by making a fool of himself instead of sinking the boot into others. Considering his television career started off the back of The Chaser – basically, The Chaser wanted to do less episodes in 2009 so stand-up Leung (who also wrote for them) was given a show partly to keep the crew in work and the timeslot filled – it’s refreshing just how different his approach was.
Choose Your Own Adventure was such a personal project for Leung – he mined his own childhood hopes and dreams for large parts of it – that it was difficult to see exactly how he was going to follow it up without spending a decade or so building up material. Mystery solved: like John Safran before him, Leung has chosen to take his personal approach to comedy and use it as a lens through which to examine an area ripe for mockery.
In his various television series Safran tackled music, religion and relationships: here Leung is looking at the supernatural with an eye to debunking pretty much all of it. Even if his approach isn’t exactly ground-breaking (talk to expert, use what expert said to construct comedy sketch; repeat) he gets a lot of laughs out of the material. Seeing Leung in episode one give psychic readings based on karaoke machine lyrics is as funny as anything shown on the ABC this year.
If all this feels a little familiar though, that’s because Leung’s show often feels like the kind of thing Safran would do – as in, pretty much exactly the same in format if not approach. Leung doesn’t quite have the edge Safran brings to his explorations, but he’s not as big a smart-arse either. Leung gets laughs from being surprised that psychics are all a con; with Safran you want to see what he’ll do with that information. Leung’s is a gentler approach, but underneath he’s just as ruthless a debunker as Safran – though less likely to make himself the butt of the joke.
It’s as likely the similarities come as much from ABC budget restrictions as from anything else. If Leung is just running around interviewing people Safran-style, that means the ABC doesn’t have to pay for a big cast. Plus it’s a good way to hedge bets content-wise: even if you’re not a comedy fan, you might be interested in whatever aspect of the supernatural he’s tackling this week. In the hands of a less assured performer, it could easily sink into the morass of stale, generic television. Fortunately for Leung – and us – he’s more on the ball.