A few months back we ran a post about how, for all its critical praise and fannish worship, The Late Show wasn’t all that influential when it came to actual Australian comedy television. Someone wrote in to take us to task for not mentioning The Chaser’s War On Everything, and rightly so: while it may have lacked the two elements that really made The Late Show – the live energy and the focus on the cast as comedy characters – it was certainly a show keen to follow in the footsteps of Mick, Tony, Rob, Tommy G, Jane, Jason, Judith and Santo.
Phew, lucky we got that out of the way before discussing the second series of The Chaser’s latest effort, The Hamster Wheel! Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to point out their opening “Ratings Flop” musical number was following so firmly in the footsteps of The Late Show‘s classic second series opener “Still Number Four” you’d have to staple the words “homage” and “salute to” together to come close to covering it. Not that we’re grumbling: making fun of the collapse of the ABC’s once proud Wednesday night comedy line-up is a-ok with us. We even laughed when Mad as Hell did it a few months back. Blamed Adam Hills and everything.
That’s the big problem facing much of the ABC’s current comedy line-up: they’re all fighting over a very small slice of pie. There’s no denying that there’s much comedy to be mined from the media and news coverage, but with Mad as Hell, The Gruen Prolapse and Media Watch all covering pretty much the same turf, having The Hamster Wheel pile on pretty much guarantees there’s going to be some serious overlap in there somewhere. Who knew you could have too many jokes about failing newspapers?
To be fair to The Chaser, they pretty much got there first. They’ve been covering the news / politics round at the ABC for a decade, and now that the pranks are largely a thing of the past (trying to marry Malcolm Turnbull aside) they’ve got their product down to a thin, nutritious paste with the occasional chunk of meat mixed in. Pointing out to opponents of gay marriage that following the Bible means following all of it – even the bits where a wife is supposed to “submit” to her husband – and watching them squirm is the kind of thing no-one else is currently doing, and seeing Fred Nile refer to our current PM as “him” just about justifies the show on its own. It’s what they do, they know how to do it, and so long as they’re not doing it 20 weeks a year they generally do a good job of it.
Still, it’s not entirely business as usual this time around. The Chris, Craig and Julian’s opening monologue / gag-fest seems a fair bit looser than last time – they actually acknowledge the audience when a joke tanks (Fifty Shades of Greyhounds? That’s gold, Jerry!), and while they’ll never be up there with The Late Show when it comes to off-the-cuff pissfarting around, any hint of them actually enjoying their work has to be a good thing.
They’ve amped up the pace a little as well, which we’re never going to complain about. Get those jokes out there! Often The Chaser run out of puff a little by episode two or three, but going by last night’s premiere they’re taking a stab at putting out something with a pretty high joke-per-minute rate. If you can’t stake a claim to an area you can call your own at least you can try to cover it with more depth than anyone else, and The Hamster Wheel certainly makes a solid fist of making its’ lead-in The Gruen Degaussing look like very thin gruel indeed.
Meanwhile, back at the real Australian Tumbleweeds, The Hamster Wheel did also feature a few duds. “Cedric the Salamander” was a good reminder of just how great the sketches on Mad as Hell were, and the swipes at Gina Rinehart were, eh, a way to take up time. This kind of show is always going to be a bit hit-and-miss, but pointing that out isn’t the kind of fair and even handed coverage you come here to read. So, uh… stop shouting so much! More jokes about dying newspapers!
“Competent” isn’t exactly high praise, but it’s the word that best suits The Hamster Wheel. They’ve got enough of a team behind them (was that seven researchers we counted?) to punch out plenty of examples of the depths to which the Australian media will stoop, and they’ve been at this long enough now – you’d be hard-pressed to argue that they’ve ever done anything that wasn’t “let’s make fun of the media and current events” – to know just where to hit for maximum impact (Rinehart jokes aside).
If we had any reservations about our severely qualified praise, it’d be that The Chaser’s shows don’t usually improve all that much over their run – lure the punters in with the good stuff early on, then by week four it’s on with the comedy tuxes for the fake awards show sketch. But so long as they can maintain the quality of last night’s episode, that’ll be fine with us: for once, let’s live in hope.