Welcome to the Australian Tumbleweeds 2011. This year we will be announcing all the winners throughout today via this blog. You can “experience” all the action on Twitter by following us or using the hashtag #tumblies. We also have a Facebook page if you prefer that sort of thing.
The results of the first category, Worst Newcomer, will be announced at 10:00am EDT. But while we’re waiting, here are a few thoughts from us on the 2011 Australian comedy year…
2011 was a bad year for Australian comedy – on television at least – but not in the ways we’ve come to expect. Yes, the energy level was down across the board, with old favourites either tanking hard or stuck in a rut while the fresh faces were shunted off to digital channels where they wouldn’t upset the Spicks & Specks fans. But there was more to it than that: for the last decade or so the big problem with Australian television comedy has been there just hasn’t been all that much of it. Especially if you consider shows like the various Gruen efforts and Spicks & Specks to be more like chat show mutations than scripted hilarity.
Ironically, this has worked to comedy’s advantage: without much of it around, audiences were free to create brilliantly hilarious examples of the form in their own minds and assume that was the standard we’d achieve if only we made enough of the stuff. If that sounds far-fetched, consider how a decade off-air – and the remorseless efforts of Daryl Somers – led a large chunk of viewers to believe that Hey Hey it’s Saturday was actually a highly entertaining variety show. The poor, deluded fools.
Sadly, actual exposure to the real thing soon revealed Hey Hey for the steaming turd it always had been (well, since 1990 at least). And so it has proven with Australian comedy in 2011. In previous years comedy’s low profile, combined with the occasional big ratings winner (Summer Heights High, The Chaser’s War on Everything), had made it seem like comedy might actually become something the majority of Australians might like to watch. Not after 2011.
This was the first year in recent memory that a commercial network (Nine) made a concerted effort to put local comedy anywhere near the heart of their promotional push. Unfortunately, “The Home Of Comedy” turned out to be more of a house of horrors. Nine’s first big effort, Ben Elton’s Live From Planet Earth, was to be the biggest flop of the year, a disaster of epic proportions that the media tried desperately to blame on twitter snark instead of the slightly more realistic proposal that the show itself was arse.
It was all downhill from there: Tony Martin’s The Joy of Sets was thrown away in a dud timeslot, Hamish & Andy’s Gap Year failed to do the massive numbers Nine was hoping and a revival of John Clarke and Ross Stevenson’s The Games in time for the 2012 Olympics was quietly shelved. Comedy may not be dead on the commercial networks – Hamish & Andy will be back, and The Chaser are working on a panel show for Seven – but the boundaries have firmly been set.
Things were no better on the ABC. Chris Lilley’s triumphant return turned out to be a ratings disaster as Angry Boys shed over half its audience during its three month run. New comedy was increasingly shunted across to the low-ratings digital channel ABC2, while Spicks & Specks – the bland but extremely popular music-based game show – finished up, thus knocking out the lynchpin of the ABC’s Wednesday night comedy line-up. An Andrew Denton-hosted word-puzzle game show will replace it in 2012: it will be very interesting to see if it comes close to replacing it ratings-wise.
While there were individual signs of success throughout the year, the overall picture is one of high profile efforts failing to deliver. If comedy is to survive as anything more than just an ingredient added to news-talk shows and prime-time soap operas, good comedy needs to be made and just as importantly, bad comedy – the subject of the Australian Tumbleweed Awards – needs to be identified.
If television networks, producers and the media continue to claim that below-par shows are anything more than below-par shows – if they say, as they did in 2011, that Live From Planet Earth was brought down solely by smart-arses on twitter and Angry Boys was a huge hit once you take into count various non-ratings methods never before taken into count – then audiences will lose the little faith they have in the media’s television coverage and will take their interest in trying new comedy with them. If someone serves you a shit sandwich and when you complain you’re told that according to all the experts you were served a delicious steak sandwich and there’s plenty more where that came from, chances are you’re not going to order that sandwich again. Or even visit that restaurant.
Good comedy has always been in the minority in Australia, as it is around the world. It doesn’t help anyone – viewers, networks, or creators – to pretend otherwise. Praising bad comedy as good – or even as merely average – treats the audience as idiots and the industry as little more than a home for hacks and skilled self-promoters. After a year where the bad was firmly on the rise and the industry pointed fingers everywhere but at themselves, it’d be nice to say there’s hope on the horizon. But we’ll leave the foolish optimism and wilful ignorance to the experts.