We were going to talk about a review of Outland, but… ah, what the hell, let’s start with that. In The Age‘s Green Guide television supplement for Feb 16th, Jim Schembri had this to say about Outland: “The problem with this stab at a hip, savvy sitcom is that it is too gay”. Considering the show is about a group of gay science-fiction fans, that’s like saying the problem with The Love Boat is that it contains too much shipboard romance. Or that the problem with Cheers is that it glamourises alcohol abuse. Or that the problem with Two Broke Girls is that it’s about two poverty-stricken females. You see our point.
Fortunately, Schembri hasn’t just thrown this somewhat eye-catching statement out there simply to shock and annoy. He goes on to describe the episode he’s talking about (episode 3) before getting to the crux of his issue with the show: “Now, to be clear, penis jokes can be funny. The trouble is that there’s no relief from it, nobody to set up punchlines or to say to Fab ‘Does moisturising your elbows really enhance your prospects in the gay community?’ Outland is badly in need of a straight man, figuratively and literally.” Last things first: why does the show need a literal straight man? Why would only a straight-as-in-heterosexual man make a show about gay nerds funnier? Why not a woman? Why does the character have to be heterosexual? Are only straight men funny? What the hell?
He’s made his argument – one with a massive hole in it that we’re about to point out, don’t worry about that – and that argument is that the show needs a figurative “straight man” to set up the jokes and question the wacky behaviour of the rest of the cast. But why does that “straight man” have to be a heterosexual male for Schembri’s argument to work? Because the show does have a straight man: Max (Toby Truslove), who spent all of the first episode acting exactly how Schembri seems to want a straight man character to act: he was embarassed by his flamboyantly gay friends and constantly questioned their behaviour while setting up numerous punchlines with his frantic actions. While being gay.
Thing is, each episode of Outland focuses on a different character, which means that Max is a background player in the rest of the series. So the actual complaint should have been more along the lines of “the straight man is woefully under-used”… but then Schembri probably wouldn’t have been able to make his “too gay” and “Outland is badly in need of a straight man, figuratively and literally” comments, because they wouldn’t have made sense: the show HAS a straight man, he’s just not heterosexual.
Maybe we’re off base here, but what exactly does sexual orientation have to do with being funny? Outland covers a wide range of queer stereotypes and plays them all for laughs; no-one’s saying you have to find any of this funny (and Schembri’s problems with the show’s one-note comedy are reasonable) but to flat-out say that a comedy about gay characters needs a heterosexual male to make it funny is a somewhat strange – and frankly, distasteful – view of comedy.
To get back to what we were planning to bring up here, it seems that the rumours everyone but us heard about The Chaser leaving the ABC aren’t even true. From the same Green Guide: “Reports The Chaser team has left the ABC would seem to be premature, given the group has at least two television projects slated for the national broadcaster later this year.” Presumably the reports were based around the news that some of The Chaser team are working on a pilot for Seven; the fact that Chaz from The Chaser is currently appearing on the ABC on Planet America (Fridays, 6pm) seems to have passed these commentators by.
More importantly, so has the fact that The Chaser seem to be moving from a model where every show they make is a 100% full-time commitment on their part to a model where they rapidly go from show to show with a couple of projects on the go (this year it’s a panel show on Seven, maybe more Hamster Wheel, and maybe a “consumer affairs” show, not counting solo projects) at any one time.
Think of Working Dog (chances are The Chaser are, as they’re a massively successful model of comedians stretching themselves and developing a long-term television career): while they started out putting all their eggs into the Frontline basket, these days they go from network to network – they’ve had shows on Ten, Seven and the ABC in the last five years – while putting out books, movies and a whole range of shows.
It’d be silly to say “Has Working Dog left the ABC?” now, because they’ve gone and come back at least once already. Presumably that’s the model The Chaser are looking for: one where they – oh, Andrew Denton’s a good example too, having done shows on Pay TV, Ten and Seven as well as the ABC – aren’t beholden to any one network’s limited timeslots and programming choices.
Thing is though, with this broadening of options and opportunities comes something of a dilution in terms of actual output. Frontline is a rightly acclaimed television classic; The Panel and Thank God You’re Here were lightweight fluff that are, for the most part, already forgotten. Would The Hollowmen have taken so long to find its feet if it had been Working Dog’s sole project for eighteen months? Perhaps, perhaps not – but diversification is how you grow a company and these days Working Dog have a business to run. By the looks of things, so do the artists formerly known as The Chaser.