A little over two years ago now Sam Simmons briefly followed our page on Facebook. He made two comments on posts having a go at his work – “Wow you are so boring! Learn a new tune.” and “Bullllllshiiiiittttt” – and then asked us to stop harassing him, unaware that the problem was that he had chosen to follow us and so was receiving updates every time we made a new post. Soon after we explained this he unfollowed us, and we decided that he actually had a reasonable point: we didn’t like his work, so why keep on going on about it? His television career was seemingly over after jTV ended and his spin-off The Urban Monkey failed to make any kind of impact, so constantly bringing him up merely to hang shit on him seemed kind of petty. Our last post that examined his work in any depth was back at the start of 2010; since then we’ve limited our coverage to noting his (often funny) presence on various panel shows. Mostly because as far as television was concerned there wasn’t anything else to cover.
But now, all that’s changed! As this article reveals, Simmons has a new comedy series – Problems – starting on the ABC and man, has he thrown the gauntlet down or what:
”The first episode is really f—ing out there,” he says. ”It’s anarchic, subversive and dark. Lazy journalists are going to say, ‘It’s like The Mighty Boosh,’ but it’s nothing like the f—ing Mighty Boosh. That’s what they’ll write, though, because we can’t get our head around absurdism in this country.”
Because, you know, The Goodies was realistic comedy in the vein of When Harry Met Sally. And Shaun Micallef’s career has really struggled these last few years thanks to Australia’s complete inability to “get our head around absurdism”. What the fuck is Simmons talking about?
Tempting as it is to point out that simply calling some random shit “absurdist comedy” doesn’t make it so and an audiences’ failure to laugh at your work doesn’t mean they don’t get it, that can wait. Let’s instead look at the very first sketch in the very first episode of a show that, in Simmons own words, “is really f—ing out there”:
Lawrence Mooney: “Watched the sheepdog trials last night. Smart dogs.”
Anthony Morgan: “Yeah, I had one of them a few years back.”
LM: “Good dog?”
AM: “Best dog I ever had.”
LM: “Where is it now?”
AM: “Shot it.”
AM: “Had to.”
AM: “Nah, I was going out”.
Apart from the quality of the performers, we’re going to go out on a limb here and suggest there is nothing here you couldn’t have seen on a random episode of Comedy Inc: The Late Shift. Now, maybe Simmons – who is the star and wrote most of his own material, though the series is directed by “Mr Everywhere” Trent O’Donnell and has a team of writers led by Declan Fay – wanted to ease audiences into his “really f—ing out there” show with a fairly traditional gag. Make that a really traditional gag. Make that a gag you could see on Red Faces.
Surprisingly, only not really – our point of attack is that Simmons has claimed one thing for his show and delivered another, not that he’s delivered a bad comedy scene – we didn’t mind that bit. And as the episode goes on it becomes clear that Morgan and Mooney are easily the best things going on here. Largely because they’re making fun of actual stuff rather than just repeating phrases over and over again in different voices in the hope that comedy will magically spring forth. Simmons is keeping that gold all to himself.
When Morgan says later on in the episode that Mick Jagger is “not a fictional Australian’s arsehole”, it’s not a random comment: it’s the punchline to a comedy conversation that started with a decent idea (how many Australians do you have to hate to become un-Australian) then built on it (do fictional Australians count) with funny examples (I don’t hate Ned Kelly, I hate the legend of Ned Kelly) and comedy confusion (Mick Jagger only played Ned Kelly in a notoriously bad 70s film) before reaching the aforementioned punchline. Meanwhile, Simmons is playing a quiz show host offering as a prize a “sexual trout”, which largely involves him acting out sticking a fake fish up his arse. Though the bit where he sticks the fish head over his groin and calls it a cod piece was almost funny.
Onto the next sketch, which turns out to be the backbone of the episode: Sam Simmons plays “Sam”, a guy who likes tacos too much. He makes tacos, eats one, then spits it up because they changed the recipe.Yeah, this is more like it. Like pretty much everything Sam Simmons has ever written, this contains the potential for comedy then completely throws it out the window because why write a joke when you can have fake footage of a bear trying to catch hot dogs in a river on a TV set in the background. Why write jokes, people? Jokes aren’t “subversive”. Making people laugh isn’t “dark”. Being funny isn’t “really f–king out there”.
Not that Simmons doesn’t know his stuff: “Sam” stands up, a coin falls out of his pocket and rolls down the back of the couch and hey presto, new sketch about the moths who live in his couch. It’s a smooth transition. Obviously, they’re people in moth costumes: slightly less obviously, this joke (or “joke”) was done in the previous sketch, where Sam’s cat was played by an actor in a cat suit.
Having people dressed up as animals is hardly original even in Australia in the last few years -*cough Wilfred cough* – but nor is it common enough for it to pass as just an unremarkable part of the background. To work as comedy, either this is going to be part of the landscape of the show – it’s a show about animals where the animals are played by people a la Wilfred – or it’s a once-off joke. Doing it twice in two back-to-back sketches looks like the work of someone who thinks a): people dressed up as animals is automatically funny and b): doesn’t have a whole lot of other ideas.
There’s a strand of comedy variously known as “monkey whimsy” or “animal whimsy” in which a comedian bereft of jokes or insight tries to get the laughs started by peppering things with wacky references to silly animals. You know why Simmons said that Australian reviewers would compare Problems to The Mighty Boosh? Neither do we. But it could be because Boosh star Noel Fielding is one of the prime exponents of “animal whimsy” and Simmons does seem to find animals hilarious.
[Simmons, a former zookeeper who started out on Fox FM as “the animal guy”, previously had a television series titled The Urban Monkey. Stage shows include Tales From The Erotic Cat and Where Can I Win A Bear Around Here. To be fair, he’s dialed back the animal titles in recent years, though he does seem to have animal ears and paws in the poster for his latest live show, About the Weather.]
The joke with the moths turns out to be a moderately “realistic” depiction of a crumbling marriage, only they’re, you know, moths. Sketch-wise they get a couple of turns, Simmons as the crap quiz show host comes back a few times – making the “it’s obvious what the real answer is after all these clues but sorry, the card says something completely different” joke (made famous by the “Moops” Trivial Pursuit answer in Seinfeld) twice in the same episode – there’s a repeated sketch about “Ultra Phil” in which an intentionally shit song about “Ultra Phil” is sung while a regular guy tries to get work done in his office, a fake ad where a woman who doesn’t remember being trampled by a police horse sets up a video portrait business (this sketch was kind of okay, but suffered from having the same tone as everything else in the show) and a supermarket loudspeaker says hilariously wrong things about a dead old lady in aisle three and a wild animal attacking people on the second level. Did we say hilariously? Predictably. We meant predictably.
Problems has a lot of problems, but the show’s biggest one is that everything bar the old guys is pitched at the exact same level of random LOL wacky. Running throughout the episode are cutaway gags that are basically a shot of a person in a situation while the voiceover says stuff like “Meanwhile in Freemantle, Glenn is learning to clap. He’s trying his best” (an old guy trying to clap and failing), “Meanwhile in [somewhere], Juliet has discovered that some babies are wankers” (over a woman holding a baby),”Meanwhile in Bunbry, Aflie has lost $400 on the skill-tester. He really wanted the bear” (man using skill-tester), “Meanwhile in Preston, Alex can’t find his backpack anywhere” (Alex is a schoolkid running in circles because his backpack is on his back). On a completely different show, these short snapshots could be a welcome change of pace. On this show, they’re just even more of more of the same.
Problems is not a sketch show on a theme because there is no theme past “random shit is wacky shit”. Sam’s obsession with tacos doesn’t say anything about anything past Simmons’ belief that repeating “especious secreto” over and over and over – sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted – is funny. Apart from a suburban setting that is largely set decoration, there’s no sense here that the show is trying to say anything about anything. At its most basic – and this kind of random wacky shit is pretty basic – comedy works because it’s unexpected. Random shit works because you don’t see it coming. A 27 minute sketch show that’s all random shit pitched at the exact same note – apart from the aforementioned old buggers – is pretty much the definition of “expected”.
Rather than insult Sam Simmons by comparing his show to The Mighty Boosh, let’s make a comparison that seems to be slightly more relevant: UK comedian Chris Morris’ 2000 sketch show Jam. Jam was “dark” and “subversive” and “really f—king out there” because, well, this: Jam‘s first sketch was about parents who were a): having sex with a local gay man to stop him having sex with their son, b): having sex with their son to stop him going gay, c): wanted a friend to take over having sex with the local gay because the dad couldn’t keep up the pace, d): were clearly insane and e): the friend just went along with it because the whole thing felt like a creepy dream. Simmons first sketch was about how he really loves tacos.
More relevantly, Morris’ show felt like there was an over-arching criticism of society taking place behind all the random LOL stuff. A sketch on Jam about a couple who decide to have sex with a creep to get a lower price on the house he’s selling – and then get an even lower price by basically selling a relative to him – was “really f—king out there”, but also had a point to make about the lengths middle class people will go to secure the right house. Of course, comedy doesn’t have to make a point. But if you’re trying to be funny by doing the unexpected, you really need to have some level of normal to work against. Jam worked because Morris and company put in just enough recognisable elements – overly protective parents, bargain house-hunters – to make the strange stuff work*. Simmons just wacks in the weird crap and it’s off to the races.
Perhaps the market for this show is people who are half watching the television, see Simmons’ antics out of the corner of their eye and go “ha, what a dickhead! He looks like an ironic sex pest”. The line “I am sorry about causing a racial sensation in an eating environment” is the kind of thing that could be funny coming from a well-established and engaging comedy character – George Costanza, for example, or Homer Simpson. Coming from “Sam Simmons”, a character adrift against a barely defined backdrop and defined by annoying behaviour, comedy racism, a desire for tacos and an ability to shout AND whisper, it’s nothing. It’s just nothing.
*Jam did have skits that were just strange for strangeness’ sake. But even then, seeing a fat woman up a tree getting wacked on the backside by a space hopper wielded by a crying man wearing a nappy while she lip-synchs to “Loving You” is an order of strangeness beyond anything in Problems.