Tonight Spicks & Specks died the way it lived: as a bland, largely forgettable chunk of televisual muzak that actively repelled any attempt to engage with it beyond the occasional glance at the screen. Of course it was a massive hit watched by millions: how could it have possibly failed?
Just to make things very clear, we’re fully aware that creating a hit show is amazingly difficult and requires large amounts of both skill and luck. It’s even more impressive when said hit show relies to a large extent on looking like no-one involved is really trying all that much. So on that level – a level we really don’t care about all that much, being fans of shows that are, you know, actually worth our time – Spicks & Specks deserves both our respect and admiration.
On the level we do care about, Spicks & Specks was a ghastly waste of effort and talent. Week after week, year after year, the funniest comedians in the land – both local and on tour – would turn up and get to gasp out a couple of one-liners in between performing the kind of party games that get your house burnt down by disgruntled guests. Some of the games were funny; some of the performances even more so. THEY’RE STILL PARTY GAMES.
What Spicks & Specks was, both on stage and inside your home, was a complicated device designed to guarantee mediocrity. The games and quiz segments and musical numbers were so restrictive that the actually funny people were stifled and rendered bland; on the other hand, by being so restrictive the crap guests usually came out looking okay. If you want to watch a show that makes crap guests look okay, more power to you; we’d much rather watch the funny people being funny, thanks very much.
[which is probably why the really funny people – your Tony Martins and Shaun Micallefs – only made the occasional appearance. We did get an awful lot of Hamish Blake though, which isn’t surprising considering he’s pretty much the only high-profile radio talent around who can tell a joke. Considering it was a show built entirely around talking and music and jokes, imagine how good Spicks & Specks might have been if Australia had a functioning radio industry it could’ve tapped for talent…]
Beyond that, it was a show of cardboard depth: people sat there and answered questions and… yep, that’s about it. The aforementioned mediocrity ensured things never got too funny – if someone seriously started riffing they were cut short (all those people complaining about the obvious editing in The Joy of Sets clearly never watched an episode of Spicks & Specks) plus there was always Adam Hills handy to kill a joke with some over-egged laughter – and with nothing at stake in the quiz itself all that was left was the illusion of entertainment. Things happened constantly, they just never meant anything.
Against this backdrop, no wonder the hosts stood out. Not too much, mind you: Hills was Your Gracious Host, Alan Brough was The One Who Took Things Seriously, and Myf Warhurst was Australia’s Sweetheart. Seven years of having them hanging around for months and months on end and that’s all we got. That’s all we needed to get: anything more than that and people might have started paying attention. They displayed just enough personality for the folks at home to differentiate between them so they could pick a team to cheer on and no more.
[Well, no more in recent years; remember how a while back there was the occasional hint in the TV review pages that Brough was coming off as a little too serious about his desire to win? Looks like the ABC nipped that in the bud – even if he is the only cast member who hasn’t had his own solo ABC series announced yet…]
What we will miss about Spicks & Specks is the way that it delivered around a million viewers week in week out to whatever comedy show the ABC decided to screen after it. Yes, this did mean that a lot of crap got a ratings boost it didn’t deserve – hello Gruen family of programs – but it also meant a lot of other comedy shows managed to rake in respectable viewing figures too, which helped create the impression that Australian comedy was actually popular out there amongst ABC viewers.
This might not seem like a big deal now. After seven years of Spicks & Specks the Wednesday night comedy block on the ABC is firmly entrenched, and while people complain about the occasional dud on the whole the idea of showing locally-made comedy on the ABC has general acceptance. But around the turn of the century the ABC had no fucking idea what to do with Australian comedy, and so for the most part decided not to make any and threw away the little they did.
Sure, Kath & Kim rated well, but anything that couldn’t pull in viewers on its own was left to sink or swim in a number of seemingly random timeslots. The first series of Double the Fist screened late Friday nights just before Rage; the first series of The Chasers War on Everything struggled with a Friday night start time that depended on whenever the UK murder mystery before it ended; Eagle & Evans was taken off air after three weeks and dumped months later in a graveyard timeslot.
The success of Spicks & Specks made it possible to find Australian comedy without having to search for it. It’s hard to underestimate how important that’s been over the last seven years. Without Spicks & Specks, Chris Lilley’s We Can Be Heroes (which aired after it in 2005) might never have found an audience… so yes, there’s a dark side to all this too.
If we’re lucky, the ABC will come up with a new series to anchor Wednesday nights. Ah, who are we kidding: there’ll be a string of also-rans and not-quite-theres and series two of Laid and eventually Wednesday will become the night for docos or UK dramas or whatever the hell crap it is the ABC shows on Tuesdays or Thursdays. The passing of Spicks & Specks is the end of an era: we only wish it’d had been a show more deserving of its’ success.