Numbers In Action

We’ve got nothing against The Chaser.

(and let’s just pause to reflect that, by saying we have nothing against them, we’ve made certain the rest of this post will prove the opposite)

In fact, while their current series The Hamster Wheel might be somewhat hit-and-miss, when it hits it’s probably the best thing they’ve done yet. But it’s worth nothing that this week (or maybe last week, our maths is a little shoddy) is the 10 year anniversary of The Chaser’s first appearance on the ABC.

Yep, (roughly) ten years ago, in October and November of 2001, The Election Chaser screened on the ABC, featuring a bunch of fresh-faced young comedians huddling under Andrew Denton’s wing as they took swings at both sides of politics in what would soon become their trademark style. And thus, with a few bumps along the way – reportedly they were pretty much sacked when the ABC didn’t renew CNNNN (hence Charles Firth heading off to the US), with The Chaser’s War On Everything basically being their comeback show – a legend was born.

Oddly, not much has been made of this anniversary by The Chaser themselves. Presumably it doesn’t mean much to them; they were doing their newspaper long before the TV show, and were working on the television show long before it aired. Still, The Hamster Wheel did start airing roughly on the tenth anniversary of their first appearance on the ABC: so where’s the party?

Perhaps pointing out that this is their tenth year on the ABC is something they’d rather avoid, considering they’re still occasionally described as “The Chaser Boys”. That’s not a cheap shot (okay, it’s not entirely a cheap shot): before The Chaser settled in for the long stretch, satirical comedy teams on the ABC had a life span of a few years at best. Australia You’re Standing In It had two series, in 1983 and 1984; BackBerner went four years, from 1999 to 2002. Perhaps the longest run prior to The Chaser’s was Max Gillies. The Gillies Report ran one series in 1984-85; follow-up The Gillies Republic had one series in 1986 and then nothing until Gillies and Company in 1992.

In contrast, The Chaser have made the following over the last decade : The Election Chaser (6 episodes, 2001), CNNNN (19 episodes, 2002-2003), The Chaser Decides Mk 1 (4 episodes, 2004), The Chaser’s War On Everything (60 episodes, 2006-2009), The Chaser Decides Mk 2 (2 episodes, 2007), Yes We Canberra (5 episodes, 2010), The Hamster Wheel (8 episodes, 2011). Pretty impressive stuff.

You can take this somewhat staggering amount of output two ways: either they’re impressive comedy technicians and the only people able to create material at the rapid and demanding rate required by the national broadcaster’s ceaseless desire for topical humour, or they’re hogging all the seats on the topical comedy bus and not giving anyone else a go.

Again, for a large part of their career we think they’ve done good work (and for the rest they were making The Chaser’s War on Everything under what seems to have been fairly stressful circumstances), but does anyone really think that for a full decade they’ve been the only comedians working in Australia who could make sketches about politics?

[we won’t mention The GlassHouse if you don’t. And anyway, that was a panel show]

It’s not like they’ve really changed up their material over the decade either. CNNNN cloaked their mix of topical references and media swipes in the guise of a fake news channel; after that it’s just been various members sitting at a desk talking about topical references and media swipes before throwing to segments about topical references and media swipes (and the occasional musical number). They used to do pranks; thankfully now, not so much. They used to do vox pops; again, thankfully not so much.

That said, good luck naming any comedian who radically changes their work over their career. Sure, there have been some, but not many, and not any in this country: Barry Humphries and Shaun Micallef, Max Gillies and Tony Martin are still basically making the same kinds of jokes they always have. Our problem – such as it is – isn’t with The Chaser making the same show over and over again…

[though actually, what happened to that sitcom they’d occasionally talk about? Why don’t they try something different, at least format wise? Having a giant hamster as a desk doesn’t count, and changing up the format might make the actual jokes seem fresh…ish]

… as it is with there being no other “satirical” comedy voices getting a go at the ABC for a full decade. What, The Chaser have set standards so high no-one else could possibly reach them so hey, don’t even bother? At this point we’d usually reel off a list of contenders for The Chaser’s job, but how can we? The whole point is that, by staying put for a full decade, no competing voices (and traditionally the ABC is the ground floor for TV satire, even if all the floors above have now been demolished) have been given a chance. Though the Restoring the Balance team on TripleJ have done a pretty decent job with political satire over the last few years – perhaps giving them a television special isn’t the worst idea ever?

Until The Chaser arrived a decade ago the satire slot on the ABC was relatively open with fresh faces cycling through on a semi-regular basis; now it’s a closed shop, no other applicants need apply. That’s not to say The Chaser isn’t worthy of the work, or that they haven’t been doing as good a job as any. But isn’t it time the ABC at least started to consider bringing some other voices on board before The Chaser Boys start getting around on walking frames?

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1 Comment

  • pete hill says:

    You forgot to mention another satirical comedy- ABC’s The Dingo Principle which, like the others, had a short run-in this case, only one year (1988) and which starred Jonathan Biggins and Patrick Cook. The show was hit-and-miss and much of the humour had a dated 1970s American political rag-time feel about it but it did cause a stir at the time. Sketches which featured a psychotic Ayatollah and a singing Lenin drew outraged complaints from the Iranian and Russian embassies which the Murdoch gleefully reported in their usual Oh-dear-the-taxpayer-funded-ABC-is being-naughty-again style. Maybe that was the reason the show only ran one season or maybe the material wouldn’t stretch to a second series.
    Of course, there was good reason why the highly successful Gillies Report from 1984-85 only had a short-lived follow-up. That was because 1986’s Gillies Republic was absolute crap (or as Tony Martin-who worked on the series as a young researcher- described it recently in an interview with Justin Hamilton- ‘a f—–g disaster’). And 1992’s Gillies & Company was even worse.
    The Hamster Wheel has been uneven but at its best, it has had some of the funniest stuff I seen on Australian TV this year. With their faces now well-exposed, they have made a wise choice to drop the pranks and street interviews but, yes, a bit more experimentation with the format would not hurt. Yet credit where its due, the boys have stuck it out and have survived some choppy seas.
    Satirical comedy that goes in for topical humour in current affairs can be brilliant but it usually dates badly (and quickly), can be expensive and, nowadays, legally dicey. The new-age public-service ethos of the ABC can be expected to allow such productions very reluctantly, like the Vatican commissioning a biography of Charles Darwin.