Old-fashioned charm

Considering how often we used to bang on about how shit The Chaser’s War on Everything was, it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic for the team’s comedy days (as opposed to their consumer rights TV days) when you read Charles Firth’s recent article for The Citizen, which recounts the early history of the group. Having met at university, The Chaser team really got started almost a decade and a half ago when they brought out a satirical newspaper. This quickly achieved legendary status, but principally online – finding a print copy was difficult, especially if you didn’t live on the east coast.

But halfway through his article Firth brings us back to the present day with some musings about The Roast

In my latest venture – The Roast (on ABC2 – 7:30pm weeknights) – our correspondents travel the world without ever leaving the comfort of the green screen. There is a charm to this that has surprised me…

The green screen is an invitation for the audience to imagine what this show could be if its correspondents were able to go anywhere. The gap between its actual resources and its ambition allows the audience a role in its success. The Roast requires the audience to fill in its (considerable) gaps with their imagination in order to enjoy it. It’s far more satisfying – and far more theatrical – than, say, Iron Man 3, where every twist and turn is replicated in such detail that no imagination is necessary. That’s not to say Iron Man 3 is bad (it is), but simply that it is not theatre – it’s spectacle…

…at least part of the enjoyment, and part of the reason why people became so evangelical about it [The Chaser newspaper], and why our readers would continue to turn up to our parties despite their increasing frequency and rising entry price, was because of the theatre surrounding it.

The audience was imagining the mythical drunken brainstorm that led to the front page where we published John Howard’s personal phone number, when in fact, the decision to do so was made at the last minute and was largely because we couldn’t think of anything else to put on the cover…

It was the theatre rather than the actual subscriber numbers that kept The Chaser growing. The Chaser was appealing to read because it invited the readers to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. You could just imagine how amazing it would be to be one of The Chaser editors. Constantly drunk, constantly witty, constantly partying, and rarely even turning up at the office. It was a wonderfully attractive conceit, even if it was completely untrue.

Thus, if I have any advice for the editors of The Citizen, it is this: allow your readers the space to imagine what you want to be. Don’t let reality get in the way of your ambition. Let the readers fill in that gap. That way, it’s much more satisfying for them, and it’s much cheaper for you.

…which is all very well, but doesn’t really justify the continued existence of The Roast:

  1. The Roast is not charming, because of its use of green screen or otherwise. It’s a poorly-written topical comedy that even YouTube turns its nose up at (check the stats, they’re not very impressive).
  2. “Old school” TV technology like green screen isn’t automatically more charming the CGI-heavy approach used in action films like Iron Man 3. It may remind us of charming old TV comedies like The Goodies, but a large part of the charm of old TV comedies like The Goodies was their scripts were full of original ideas and lots of good gags –or certainly more original ideas and good gags than you get in The Roast.
  3. The idea that the audience fills in the comedy details with their imaginations is true, but applies mainly to radio comedy. In TV comedy visuals are kinda important. One way in which The Roast could add some comedy details, and be funnier, is if they included some gags going on in the background. Or some gags with a bit more complexity than they’re currently managing.
  4. There are two main reasons why the thing everyone knows about The Chaser newspaper is that they published John Howard’s phone number: 1) it was deliciously dangerous, and 2) it presumably caused a man who was disliked by the paper’s readership a lot of bother. Can you imagine The Roast doing anything like that? They can barely work themselves up in to being satirical…which is a bit of a problem if you’re a topical comedy.

Obviously most of the team from The Roast are barely out of university and perhaps when they’ve got as much experience under the belt as The Chaser they’ll be producing shows of the quality of, say, The Hamster Wheel, but the only way they’ll get there is if they spend a bit more time off-off-Broadway. The Chaser team didn’t just turn up on the ABC one day, they struggled to survive as a newspaper and gradually did more and more radio and TV. They built up experience and learnt what did and didn’t work. The best we can hope for The Roast team and the comedy they produce is that the show’s axed and they’re forced to learn the hard way.

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8 Comments

  • Urinal Cake says:

    I think eventually someone of the Internet (youtube) will pick up the slack. And it’s the way it should be. That way it avoids the bias of the ABC and the critics of the ABC when it does material about the government and opposition.

    Also comparing things to ‘Mad as Hell’ you’re inevitably going to be disappointed.

    That being said I don’t see a lot of younger stand-ups (on TV) being broadly political. Yes they do have a few issues that are close to their heart and willing to pontificate about but nobody like Wil Anderson (I know!).

    Legally Brown might be interesting but I think Wednesday Night Live will be disappointing.

    The other problem as Morris/Iannucci pointed out is that politicians and the media are becoming a parody of themselves. We haven’t become as bad as the UK but really how far of is Clive Palmer\Stephen Conroy from Borris Johnson? Also the easy joke is to go for someone like Katter but leave the shit Penny Wong\Andrew Robb says out because they fly under the radar but hold considerably more power in office.

  • BIlly C says:

    In general I don’t think youtube views for broadcast shows are a good way of judging success. Firstly the show is on Iview so that’s the natural place for people to see it. Also if you look at the things on youtube that are popular they are usually neiche or aimed at young audiences. Have you seen the Janoskians? Or Alex Williamson? or Superwog? It’s the sort of stuff teenagers with very little taste find funny. That’s the main youtube audience who are regularly viewing. The channels that have big subscribers. Also putting a picture of a woman in a bikini in your thumbnail or something along those lines will multiply your views by tenfold.

    The rest of us are watching one off videos that are embedded on facebook or tweeted. It’s a different audience. Name some Australian you tubers that are funny and very successful. I would say Natalie Tran is good sometimes and never terrible and Might Car Mods is an entertaining D.I.Y show, after that I’m struggling.
    Also filming stuff that’s good can take a long time. Podcasting is I think easier.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    I’ll be honest Youtube ‘Comedy’ Week was a disaster. Youtube is still very much the ‘Internet’s Funniest Home Videos’ and has quite a way to become the scripted entertainment portal, Google wants it to be. But it eventually it should which is my main argument\hope. So I’ll readily admit the premise is shaky.

    ‘We’ as in ‘comedy nerds’ don’t matter. We’re picky. Those youtube shows are popular. Like it or not these guys are ‘speaking’ to an audience the channels aren’t addressing and doing well. But I’ll defend Super Wog because they are much better actors and writers than Fenech and Co have ever been and at a younger age.

    Yes Natalie Tran does decent/good mainstream observational comedy but it isn’t like she doesn’t resort to those tactics as well. Have you seen most of the thumbnails for Natalie Tran?

    It seems to me podcasts are a much better vehicle for established acts but even then most of it seems, ‘Let’s get some mates and have a chat’ not much of the BBC Radio sketch\narrative\experimental stuff I’ve seen. With youtube’s promotion etc things can get popular quick. A single camera on ‘news’ set production wouldn’t be that difficult.

    The problem with ‘The Roast’ is that a) it’s not funny (subjective) b) it’s not informative\insightful (subjective) c)not rating (objective). Plus they seem like the biggest bunch of squares as well (subjective) there’s no chaos, no anarchy, no sense of real fun that other satirists at their best had.

    And in a way that’ll be good because there’ll be some bored guy that thinks,’ I can do better than this’ and hopefully gets his shit together and puts it up on youtube.

  • BIlly C says:

    I hope your right but I also think you’ve got high hopes that people with the time, the experience and the inclination will come together and work for free to make stuff for youtube.
    It still needs a funding model. The Roast are really having to stretch out their format. Why use three words when you can use 12.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Fuck nested comments. But yeah I think I’m being realistic rather than optimistic.

    While I don’t think anyone in Australia is making enough to live off youtube/Internet it is clearly enough money to make the effort worthwhile. Plus all the other benefits that come with minor fame (which I’ll come to later).

    IIRC Tran was trying to do this however a few years back when she was releasing 2/3 videos a week and her fans retaliated.

    The second point is this. It’s the way it should be and the way it is. It seems to me that commercial television in Australia is fucked. The ABC doesn’t have a clue and has it’s hands tied behind it’s back. Add the public rumblings of privatisation that used to be behind the door stuff. It’s not looking good if you’re a creative type.

    But you have youtube and C31. It’s a start. Initially you will have to put product out for free BUT it may lead to further projects where you do get paid. It’s a gamble but it seems to have worked for some people Bo Burnham, Marc Maron, Richard Herring etc. And The Chaser.

    Also this is a funding model http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/YouTube_Original_Channel_Initiative for established names but you’ve got to think ‘new talent’ will eventually catered for.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    It’s interesting that this in on the Guardian AU site.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    With the Guardian picking up The Roast, Helen Razer and Catherine Deveny, they’ve really gone out of their way to let Australia know exactly what kind of audience they’re looking to attract.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Yeah Fairfax is sorta doomed.

    I’m surprised they didn’t go with younger writers i.e. a Laurie Penny type but their demographics must give them an average, older reader. It’s be interesting if any comedians (apart from Deveny) fufill the Brooker\Mitchell\Lee type weekly role.