More than just about any other form of television, comedy requires feedback. Stand-up comedians hone their act in front of live audiences; even shoddy no-budget Australian comedy films manage to fit in a bunch of test screenings to help guide the editing process. So why, we hope you’re asking yourselves otherwise this post is going to be a waste of your time and ours, is Australian scripted television comedy made in such a way that the whole thing’s done and dusted before the audience even gets a look in?
Thanks to being neither the UK or the USA, television production in Australia has traditionally taken whatever form the networks have been willing to pay for. The ABC has tended towards the UK model of short series runs, but even with today’s tight budgets that’s not always the case – see the currently running twenty part drama series Crownies for one. In the early 90s The Late Show had two twenty episode seasons; in 2006 The Chaser’s War On Everything ran for 28 episodes.
Back at the dawn of time when commercial television actually made sitcoms they’d follow the US model, which is how Kingswood Country wormed its way into the heart of a nation and Hey, Dad..! became the longest running sitcom ever. More recently, Comedy Inc – AKA Nine’s late night attempt to meet their local content requirements – ran for 95 episodes over five years. That wrapped in 2007: in contrast Nine’s next attempt at sketch comedy, 2011’s Live From Planet Earth, ran for just three episodes. Whoops.
The drawbacks of extended seasons are obvious – extremely obvious if you watched the second, 24 episode-long season of The Chaser’s War on Everything in 2007. Cast and crew are worn down, ideas run out, things start getting a little rough around the edges. But there’s a bit of an upside to them as well. With more time, sillier ideas – or just ones a little different from the series norm – get a go. More importantly, there’s room for audience feedback, especially if episodes are going to air while others are being filmed.
There’s little doubt that The Chaser’s drift towards pranks in The War on Everything was partly due to audience feedback (people loved them), and partly due to their massive workload (you don’t have to script a prank). And it worked; The Chaser’s War on Everything was one of the biggest, most culturally influential comedy hits this country had seen since the Fast Forward / Comedy Company days.
Despite all this, in the last few years (with the notable exception of the Hey Hey it’s Saturday revival) the model for making comedy in this country has become set: short series with an all but guaranteed follow-up run on the ABC, short series brought to a premature conclusion* on the commercial networks.
The advantages on the production side are, again, obvious: writers have more time to write, the production team aren’t working on a weekly turn-around, the short run means everyone is (relatively) less stressed and having a finished product means the network has a lot more flexibility as to when they will air it. Okay, perhaps that’s only an advantage for the network: looks like 2011 will be yet another year when the ABC’s gay SF fanclub sitcom Outland fails to find a timeslot.
What this means for viewers is that sitcoms and scripted comedy has drifted down a couple of fairly dubious – to us at least – pathways. The first is the dreaded reoccurring segment. When you only have to do six or eight episodes and you can plan them all out beforehand, it’s easy to say “okay, we’re going to do this hilarious idea every week – we just need to think of six variations on whatever ‘this’ is.” So you get scripted comedies where the first episode seems great and fresh, but then the next episode is basically the same segments with minor tweaks. The joke was funny the first time; by episode five, not so much.
(yes, we know long running shows had regular segments too. But under weekly deadline pressures, some week the segments wouldn’t appear, or they’d mutate as the cast found different directions to take them. Arguably the big problems with Hey Hey it’s Saturday started when they stopped mixing things up and just did the same segments every single week.)
As far as sitcoms go, doing a short batch all at once (and with a DVD release just days after the conclusion) seems to have encouraged at least some creative teams to see their efforts as more of a six-part movie than six separate episodes. First episodes are no longer a way to hook viewers in and keep them coming back; now they’re a way to “introduce the characters”. The show’s already filmed and it’s going to air until the end no matter how it rates (Angry Boys proved that), so why not take it easy starting out?
Here’s why: people watch comedy to laugh. If you spend your opening episode “setting the scene” and “establishing the tone” and “introducing the characters”, that’s a whole episode we’re not laughing at. Of course, those things are important in a sitcom: they should also take about five minutes tops, otherwise you’re making a drama. We’re looking at you Laid. Don’t think we want to make a habit of it either.
Actually, Laid‘s a good example of one possible cure for this problem, on the ABC at least. The only possible reason – as far as we’re concerned – to give Laid a second season (which it did get) is because with sitcoms having extremely short runs (and six episodes really is pretty short for a comedy, historically speaking) giving them a near-automatic second go is pretty much the only way you can hope to ever see any improvement in your comedy programming. Good, bad, whatever, it doesn’t matter – you get a second go (unless you’re the extremely funny Very Small Business) because your first go is pretty much a practice run. Just like the first few episodes used to be when sitcoms like Frontline and The Games would run thirteen weeks.
This isn’t an ideal solution either. After all, part of the charm of a good sitcom is getting to know the characters and the way that knowledge amplifies the comedy. Spending six episodes with them, then taking a year off before presenting another six might give the production team time to breathe; it also means when the characters return we have to get to know them all over again, especially if during that year-long break the writers decide to mix things up a little.
Things weren’t better in the good old days – we did mention Hey, Dad..!, right? – but at least there was more of a chance that things might turn out better. We wouldn’t say failure is built into today’s system, but when you combine short runs, ratings pressure, a lack of off-air training grounds (seen any good cabaret acts or live sketch comedy lately?) and worshiping at the unfunny “awkward pause” altar of Chris Lilley, pretty much the only good news today is that Australian comedy isn’t entirely based around the work of Eddie McGuire and the Beached Az team.
*Despite strong initial ratings, considering the general negativity surrounding its first episode the fate of Good New World remains a little shaky. It’d be nice to think it could take on board audience reaction and improve in coming weeks, but considering it’s made by a fifteen year-old team that’s done nothing different in fifteen years, it’s more likely it’ll go down the Hey Hey revival path and stick to its guns even when people are clearly tuning out.