Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

We’ve been a bit negative around these parts of late, so let’s start off our review of The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting – or as we’ll call it from here on, Knife – with a positive: it’s giving fresh faces a shot at making comedy on ABC1. Traditionally the ABC’s major network has been something of a closed shop comedy-wise, so while the show itself is more than a little rough around the edges, obviously the benefits of giving new talent a run far outweigh the uneven quality of the end result.

Excuse us a second, we’ve just been handed this press release:

Produced by the award-winning Jungleboys and the creators of Review with Myles Barlow and A Moody Christmas, THE ELEGANT GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO KNIFE FIGHTING creates a brand new uncharted space for sketch comedy in Australia.

Based on the experimental online comedy site of the same name, the series has attracted a formidable lineup of the country’s finest comedic and dramatic actors.

Patrick Brammall (A Moody Christmas, East West 101), Phil Lloyd (Review with Myles Barlow, A Moody Christmas), Damon Herriman (Breaking Bad, Justified), Georgina Haig (Fringe, Underbelly), Darren Gilshenan (A Moody Christmas,Top of the Lake), Robin McLeavy (Hell on Wheels, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Craig Anderson (Next Stop Hollywood, Laid), Janis McGavin (The Urban Monkey, Laid) and Dave Eastgate (A Moody Christmas, Problems) lead an amazing lineup of onscreen talent.

Behind the camera is an equally distinguished lineup of creative talent. Among the directors: one of Variety Magazine’s Ten Director’s to Watch, Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, Redfern Now); Trent O’Donnell (Review with Myles Barlow, A Moody Christmas), Craig Melville (John Safran’s Race Relations and John Sarfan Vs God), the Van Vuuren Brothers (Bondi Hipsters, The Fully Sick Rapper), Abe Forsythe (Laid, Mr & Mrs Murder), award-winning documentary director Stephen Oliver (Chateau Chunder: A Wine Revolution, Skippy: Australia’s First Superstar) Alex Morrow (rage, Triple J TV), Alethea Jones (Tropfest and IF award winner) and first-time TV directors Scott Pickett and Leigh Richards.

Ah.

Taken in light of these just-to-hand facts, what we have here is not a hit-and-miss show where newcomers get a chance to develop their comedy skills, but an “amazing lineup of onscreen talent” revealing they’re not really all that good at comedy. And why? The secret lies in a close reading of this very press release, which goes out of its way to list the cast and directors while failing to mention anywhere the names of the people who actually wrote the jokes we’ve come here to laugh at. Who gives a shit about writers? They just write the show.

[Or do they? We’ve heard a third-hand rumour that at least one cast member, unimpressed with the quality of sketches they were appearing in, suggested new jokes and punchlines on the day of filming. Punchlines the producers then went with instead of the scripted ones.]

Having established the producers’ priorities, many of this show’s problems become a lot easier to grasp… in that pretty much all this show’s many, many problems stem from piss-poor writing. Yes, there are plenty of poor performances here as well, but as they largely stem from bad writing – many of the cast members, as that press release is so keen to remind us, have been tolerable in other things – we’re going to stick with blaming the bad writing.

Avoiding the obvious segue, here’s the opening of the Knife review at Molks Tv Talk:

The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting is new sketch comedy from the pens of the Jungle Boys (Trent O’Donnell, Phil Lloyd & Jason Burrows) that doesn’t just push sketch comedy in a ‘different direction’, it picks it up kicking and screaming and carries it over there; then consoling it at their collective bosom whilst changing it’s nappy of shame which it soiled in the process.

Where to begin? For starters, this supposedly insanely edgy and out-there sketch show features a sketch where an Amish I.T. guy tries to fix a computer monitor with a hand drill. May we refer you to #16 (“Wooden Spoons”) in this list of offbeat Saturday Night Live sketches. Or this sketch from the UK’s It’s Kevin, which aired slighter earlier this week. Or the extended Amish jokes in the recent US teen sex comedy film Sex Drive. Or just comedy in general. Amish jokes – look, they’re people who don’t get modern technology! – have not been taking comedy in a “different direction” since roughly a fortnight after the Amish first came to America. They may still be funny, but making them is about as conservative and safe as sketch comedy gets.

“But duh, that’s not the joke – the REAL joke is that the guy who’s computer is being “fixed” is the only person who realises the Amish I.T. guy is useless! He’s a sane man trapped in a mad world!”. Thank you, imaginary idiot. What you’ve just described is not a joke; it’s lazy writing trying to drag out a one-joke idea for three or four minutes. We know sketch comedy is rare in this country, but anyone who’s watched any sketch comedy at all ever from any source knows that, unless you really put your back into it, the whole “we’re treating this insane idea as if it’s normal” idea is not strong enough to hang an entire sketch on. Especially when your sketches are overlong, as Knife‘s tend to be.

That brings us to the same basic flaw that runs through almost all of the sketches here: what is a moderately funny idea when expressed in one line (“he’s an average guy at a posh restaurant who’s trying to impress his date but he doesn’t know what any of the menu items are!”) is turned into a lengthy sketch, only no-one has any idea where to take it (“let’s have the food served on a naked fat guy!”).

For example, there’s a sketch about a guy who never takes his hat off and his wife pleads with him to let her see his head. It doesn’t matter if you’re bald, she says, I’ll still love you, she pleads and pleads and pleads. If you can’t see how this is going to end, you may want to check if English is a language you actually understand.

The low point comes in a dinner party sketch – yes, for a show that supposedly takes sketch comedy in a “different direction”, this features both a dinner party sketch AND a restaurant sketch, breaking the exact same ground that, say, Full Frontal broke for a full hour 26 times a year in the mid 1990s – in which a guy who looks like a sex criminal acts like an abusive dickhead for what feels like hours before it’s revealed that the reason why he’s acting like an abusive dickhead is – wait for it  – because he owns a Prius, and thus is morally superior to everyone else there.

Then he continues to act like an abusive dickhead. Everyone else goes along with it. He drives a Prius.

Then later on there’s a callback to him acting like an abusive dickhead. He gets two women to make out for his amusement, because he drives a Prius.

Then after that there’s another callback to him acting like an abusive dickhead, followed by the only actual punchline in the show. It’s not a great one.

If you’re going to do a sketch show where all you have is good sketch concepts – and none of the basic concepts here are terrible – you need to do one of those rapid-fire sketch shows that just fires out the funny ideas willy-nilly. Oh wait: those shows don’t give the directors a chance to display their chops, or the performers a chance to ham it up for their showreels. Those shows do require writers, and plenty of them. Those shows don’t provide a chance for an up-and-coming production house to give their mates profile-raising work. Those shows do end up being funny for the people at home.

The one sketch here that does work is the one where Captain Cook is berated for his lazy naming of the islands he discovered, and that works because hey, a lot of those names really are lazy! Thursday Island, Easter Island, Christmas Island… the Cook Islands… maybe you had to be there. It is also the only sketch here that isn’t trying to be “edgy”. Could it be that the way to be funny is by being funny, not edgy? Could it be that the last decade of “awkward” comedy got it all wrong?

Let’s be blunt: even with the current slip-shod state of ABC comedy, this just isn’t prime time ABC1 material.  This isn’t even C31 material. For a sketch show to work in sketch-adverse 2013, you either need a really solid concept to tie the sketches together (Problems wasn’t a great show by any stretch, but at least it advertised itself as having a definite point of view behind its sketches) or the sketches need to be really, really, really good.

The overall concept’s nearly there, what with most of the sketches (like most sketch shows) being about daily life being taken to awkward extremes (“let’s test out our potential new home by having a fight!” “look, it’s the dad who gets offended and goes into too much detail about sex when he hears his daughter’s pregnant!”); as for the quality…

Let’s give the last word to Molks:

Thank you, ABC1, for the return of hilarious, uncomfortable, giggle-inducing, awkward sketch comedy. The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting is sure to put the cat among the pigeons of comedic taste and we’re long overdue the shit-covered statue that will be the debate surrounding it’s screening.

At least he got the “shit-covered statue” part right.

 

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16 Comments

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Pretty much. The acting was great (compared to recent comedy efforts-PLM) and the writing\concepts were ordinary. The ‘Cook’ sketch was sort of high school stuff for me. The only ‘lol’ moment was the baby Jesus practising bit.

  • Jimbo says:

    I found this a bit sketchy, if you’ll pardon the pun. Overall I sorta enjoyed it – I can’t recall the last time I laughed a whopping five times at an ABC comedy – and will watch the rest of the series (what the hell else is there to watch?).

    You are right on the money – each scene’s premise was OK (damning with faint praise there), but many didn’t really fulfill their comic potential, or they overstayed their welcome, or just fizzled out. A three minute sketch needs more than just reiterating the premise – there should be several beats of joke development which raise the stakes and hopefully enrich the payoff. It didn’t help that I could see the obvious payoffs for most of the jokes right at the beginning.

    There were many wasted opportunities. The OH&S guy at the porno shoot was a good concept, but didn’t really go anywhere – for an MA rated show there could have been some really sick and twisted stuff in that scene. The Prius guy as well – if you’re a self-appointed god you could do more than just ask two women to kiss. And the Captain Cook scene didn’t have an ending – a really funny sketch would have taken the concept to the next level, touching on the arrogance of westerners naming countries that have already been named by the people who live there. I would have done some sick material like naming places “Smallpox Island” or “Syphilis Island” in honour of extra-curricular activities by the sailors. How’s that for edgy!

    If you are going to go “dark and cutting edge”, then you need some dark and cutting edge material. I think we just have to accept that modern comedy, with all its awkwardness, randomness, quirkiness, low-keyness, flatness and lack of punchlines, is here to stay.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    IMO they’ve gone for middle of the road social critique without going into ‘Jam’ territory. Probably to stop provoking real controversy for the ABC but you better be sure you have the writing or insights that backs it up. Which they really didn’t have.

    Not to say ‘dark’ is easier to write for otherwise it just ends up as crude, ‘shock’ as ‘Laid’ has shown.

  • Martina says:

    By God you guys are perceptive. I do love this blog.

    I see someone else beat me to ‘Jam’ as a reference point for ‘dark’ humour – which is awesome as I wasn’t sure if I was the only Australian who’d ever seen (and liked) it.

    I agree with pretty much everything that’s been said – the concepts were pretty good but not taken far enough. I’ve found that editing more tightly makes a better show by far. Yes, this sounds obvious, but it’s hard sometimes to remember that material that seems relevant or important as you’re writing it can usually go if it’s not funny, even if you *think* it’s linking ideas together. That seems to be what’s happened here: the linking material that should have been deleted, wasn’t.

    I must say I actually enjoyed the Prius sketch more than everyone else seems to have (can’t you imagine Kevin Eldon as this character?), though I’m with you on the Amish sketch (not at all funny and much too long) and really enjoyed the Jesus bit and the Cook Islands sketch. However, Mitchell and Webb did a similar, rather good series of sketches about explorers naming their new-found lands. They had also done the OH&S idea some time ago, where the supervillain (David Mitchell in a strangely creepy Lucius Malfoy wig) wants a trapdoor for his evil lair but is foiled on a grand scale by an OH&S guy (Robert Webb) who ends up installing flashing lights, sirens and enormous yellow-and-black barricades which very slowly descend upon the trapdoor button being pressed. They also had a very early sketch about a persnickety copyeditor working for a porn magazine, which I think was a similar concept to the OH&S guy on the porn set.

    Basically, the best ideas in this show have been done before, and not by unknown tinpot comedians either.

    (Though I think the OH&S idea in this show was actually a winner of a sketch competition on the Jungleboys’ website so they may have genuinely not realised it had already been done.)

    I did appreciate the production value. Most Australian sketch comedy shows have shitty jokes AND shitty production. This had OK jokes and good production, which is a step up.

    I’ll most likely be watching the rest of the series as overall I did actually enjoy the show. Even if the ideas aren’t taken far enough, I’ll just have to settle for enjoying the potential.

  • Billy C says:

    Often the problem with Sketch is that they don’t have the money to use lots of of locations so they pick longer sketches which prove to be too drawn out.
    Also really well shot sketch looks inherently fake now. We watch youtube, that’s what real life looks like. When it’s shot well we’re waiting for the punchline and it feels unnatural when something funny conveniently happens. They should have shot it guerrilla style, but this is partly a vanity project for a bunch of directors. How it looks is not that important in comedy, it’s the editing, timing and performance that sell the joke. It’s all overlong drawn out premises which looks like it’s been made by a bunch of people who have never had to stand on a stage and make people laugh.

  • Baudolino says:

    This is wildly off topic, but you guys really need to do a blog post eviscerating Tony Squires’s appallingly bland, painfully generic, embarrassingly superlative-laden, pseudo-review column that The Age recently started publishing on a near-daily basis. The fact that he’s now the most senior/most prolific television writer for one of the two biggest papers in Melbourne is yet another indictment on the state of Australian television criticism…

  • Andrew says:

    someone out there worse than Dianne Butler????

  • Anon says:

    I thought it was going to be rapid-fire, because they put a call out for new writers to submit material, and seemed like they wanted *a lot* of material. Either the turnaround was too tight (about three months) or they underestimated what it takes to develop work from external writers. All the credited writers on ep 1 are known professionals. And I’m sure they’re all great in their own right, but nothing to set the cat among the pigeons in this context… Apart from the various deficiencies that you’ve mentioned, my main problem with it is they don’t seem to understand the inherent ironies of the ‘old boys club’ aesthetic they’re peddling. LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN is indeed a league of men…but they are often as not cross-dressing and gender-bending, in a way that is more subversive than what MONTY PYTHON did, being hyper-aware of where they sit in that comedy continuum. LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN is not, despite appearances to the contrary, comedy about nothing. MONTY PYTHON was not comedy about nothing. There is misunderstanding going on.

  • Matlock says:

    I think a better ending to the guy wearing a hat sketch is if the guy was really covering up a tumour that he was going to cover up and go get removed; the wife tells him not to get it removed and that she loves him either way; he tries to say he needs to get rid of it for his health; but she won’t hear any of it. Cue photo montage of the happy couple doing couple things together with the wife having a overtly happy expression on her face until it reaches a photo of his gravestone; where the wife still inexplicably has a overtly happy expression on her.

    How about that for “dark and edgy”?

    I dunno….don’t look at me….I’m not a professional comedy writer (although I wish I was)

  • James says:

    The whole “lazy names for new countries” thing has been done by Mitchell and Webb, too

  • Urinal Cake says:

    It is funny. This blog generally says, ‘Why does humour have to be ‘dark’?’ and most of the comments say, ‘This show isn’t ‘dark’ enough.’. Unless you go ‘oh lol random whimsy’ (which Simmons in part tried) aren’t Australia writers able to come up with something positiv-ish and funny?

  • Matlock says:

    Well, this show was advertising itself as being “dark and edgy”, wasn’t it? (or wasn’t) So when you see it and it ain’t what they were selling, it’s bound to come up.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    I thinks that what Molks said it was. On the ABC here’s the premise:
    “Welcome to The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide To Knife Fighting, a surreal stroll into the creative minds of some of Australia’s most exciting and newest comedy writers and directors.
    The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide To Knife Fighting aspires to take sketch comedy in a different direction. With longer-form scenes, less traditional material, and a surprising cast, it will be at times random, often ridiculous and occasionally surreal.”

    Unless there’s some interview somewhere.

  • Matlock says:

    Uh okay, I thought I heard that somewhere anyway. I didn’t think it was all that “surreal” though, but maybe that’s just me.

  • Jimbo says:

    Comedy can be both dark AND funny. Just watch Blackadder.

    By the way, you spend way too much time on this blog. Get a life 🙂

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Never said it couldn’t.

    Meh. I’ve had enough ‘life’- it’s very draining. It’s time for me to monetise my experiences like Josh Thomas.