Was 2013 a good year for Australian comedy? Of course not – comedy hasn’t had a good year in this country since, oh, let’s say 1994, just to make it a nice round twenty years of decline. Yes, individual comics have had good years and individual shows have made a splash, but come on: comedy hasn’t been anywhere near the heart of the Australian media experience for at least the aforementioned two decades now.
When things go wrong in Australian culture, people don’t turn to comedians to see their take on things; when people want a mirror held up to the society they live in, people don’t look to comedians… well, unless you count Andrew Bolt, and he hasn’t been funny since his review of Finding Nemo. Do people even expect comedy to make them laugh anymore? Judging by the praise heaped on Please Like Me, it seems not.
This isn’t one of our usual statements of doom and gloom. Plenty of genres have come back from worse. Sure, at the moment the current media climate is about as inhospitable to decent comedy as it could possibly get, as “entertainment” becomes either massive special-effects based epics or five second bursts of outrage-inducing online content. But twenty years ago, who would have thought variety would be one of the biggest things on television? Yet here we are, having to put up with moronic relatives who just won’t shut up about cooking shows and who’s going to win X Factor.
So the real answer to “was 2013 a good year for Australian comedy” is “well… kind of?” There was a fair bit of it made and much of it was at least watchable, which are at least two things we wouldn’t have said were guaranteed even a few years ago. Australian sitcoms: who would have guessed such a thing could still exist in 2014? Panel shows kept on being made, but – surprise – not all of them were shit.
But that’s about as optimistic as we can get. The standard for what passes for comedy in this country remains rock-bottom – the idea that comedy should actually contain moments that make you laugh somehow remains a controversial one in Australia, as if setting any kind of standard at all for what a comedy should be would somehow deter the precious little petals that comprise the nation’s creative types from putting their hand out for a bunch more free cash from the ABC. Here’s a hint guys: jokes. Write some jokes, put them in your show, then you’ll have a comedy. Then maybe you’ll be able to look the rest of us in the eye when your week-as-piss “drama” in which nothing actually happens has to be marketed to us as a comedy because heck, it’s sure closer to being funny than it is to being dramatic.
That’s not to say Australian comedy didn’t try the whole “joke” thing in 2013. It’s just that, well, Wednesday Night Fever is what you get when you get people behind the wheel who think all you need is jokes. And then forget that the jokes have to be funny. Look, obviously there are some formats that are more likely to lead to actual comedy than others, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to sit down at some stage and have a think about what comedy is. And whether you really want to be making jokes about how you think Ruby Rose looks like a boy.
The problem with Australian comedy in 2013 was two-fold. First, getting good at comedy requires a little bit of trial and effort, and these days television isn’t really sympathetic to the idea of giving failures another shot. And yet, Australian television is also full of proven failures who never seem to go away. How did we manage to create an industry where if you fail on your first shot getting a second shot is all but impossible, yet if you’ve been failing for a decade now they can’t give you enough work?
Our best guess – and as comedy outsiders, all we do is guess – is that there are two kinds of comedy being made in Australia. One kind is driven by creative people who actually want to be funny: if these shows succeed they might get another shot, but if they fail it’s entirely the creative team’s fault and they get kicked to the curb. The other kind of concept comes down from head office (so basically, all panel shows plus anything else that seems to be made to order); these ones aren’t allowed to fail because someone actually important (read: a network executive) came up with the idea. If you happened to be involved with one of them you’re seen as a team player even if you’re crap, because invariably the actual idea (a panel show) was even worse.
Maybe once this minefield had a path through it. Maybe once if you wanted to be funny you could develop your skills by keeping your head down on sketch shows or radio until you a): could be funny and b): learn how to play the game. Today it seems like that model’s been stood on its head – you have to learn how to play the game first if you want to chance to be funny. Oh wait, if you already know how to play the game, why would you bother learning how to be funny? It’s not going to get you any more work – in fact, it might get in the way of your career. Funny people don’t get hosting jobs; funny people aren’t seen as a safe pair of hands for the boss’ latest flight of fancy.
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Australian comedy…
Kudos to the ABC for making a sketch show featuring some relative newcomers, let alone for airing it in a good timeslot on ABC1. No, really, they need to keep doing that. They just also need to do it better. Because if the future of Australian sketch comedy is sketch concepts you’ve seen done better but stretched beyond breaking point, then we’ll be hitching our wagons to the horse marked “Let Australian Sketch Comedy Wither and Die”.
Okay, we get it, this wasn’t for us, it was mass-market entertainment for parents too exhausted to think and their hyperactive under 10’s. B-list celebrities undertaking ludicrous physical challenges and consequently making dicks of themselves? Kids love that shit! Everyone else, move on – there’s nothing for you here. Try the box set of Breaking Bad if you’re after something that’s had thought put in to it.
Satirical sketch as defined by Wednesday Night Fever was about reducing politicians to crude stereotypes rather than poking fun at their policies. So you get “balding man with big ears who wears budgie smugglers” and “redheaded pointy-nosed lady with large arse and nasal voice who hates man with mop of blonde hair and constipated speech patterns” instead of “hardcore Christian who wants to take Australia back to the 50s” and “for heaven’s sake stop fighting you two and just legalise gay marriage, give us some proper broadband and do something about the friggin’ environment!”.
On the one hand, you can’t really blame the Wednesday Night Fever team for doing it that way: when a lot of people’s source of information about politics is the Murdoch press, and they pretty much characterise our political leaders as “good Liberal man doing what’s right for Australia” and “bad Labor man (or woman) who’s sending this country to hell with their greenie socialism”, you kind of have to go with that interpretation so as not to confuse most of the audience. On the other hand, Clarke & Dawe, Mad As Hell and even The Chaser manage to get mainstream laughs by getting down to the real issues, so what stopped Wednesday Night Fever?
Here’s a question for fans of Please Like Me: do you know what the term “dramedy” means? Because a lot of you seem quick to claim dramedy status for Please Like Me without ever really defining your terms. For starters, where’s the drama? Josh Thomas realises he’s gay, everyone accepts it (okay, it takes his aunt a while to get on board), cute boys come his way, his suicidal mum fails to get up to anything much, his bungling yet lovable dad has some minor relationship woes…it’s just not very dramatic, is it? And if it’s a comedy… then where’s the laughs? The very fact you’re calling it a “dramedy” does sort of point out the fact that you don’t think it’s all that funny. Because you see, being a dramedy means that a show is both dramatic AND funny: you’re trying to do two things at once. It doesn’t mean “well, it’s meant to be a sitcom but it’s just not that funny so instead of admitting that it’s a bit shit we’ll just call it a dramedy and pretend you’re not meant to laugh at the bits that aren’t funny. Which is most of it”.
Each week Housos gets just about everything right. It’s the rare Australian series that looks at life outside the leafy suburbs, it has a ruthless go-for-laughs approach where Australian culture as its lived today is constantly mocked, and there’s not the slightest suggestion that we should look upon any of its characters as anything more than just a way to make us laugh. Unfortunately, it’s made by Paul Fenech, and he’s spent the last decade proving over and over and over again that his idea of comedy involves shouting a lot of swearwords while running around like a fuckwit. So it’s not funny.
While Chris Lilley seems to be able to avoid the bloat as far as his physique is concerned – which is vital if he’s to continue to play characters half his age in his weird “it’s not meant to be funny that I’m pretending to be a teenager, it’s a serious psychological profile you guys!” (makes slappy hands) – as far as his series are concerned an extended stay at fat camp could only be a good thing. Remember when We Can Be Heroes was about five separate characters across six half hour episodes? Now Lilley seems to think he needs that much time to fully explore teen schoolgirl Ja’mie, because having her as one of those We Can Be Heroes characters then giving her another eight episodes of Summer Heights High clearly wasn’t enough to get the real heart of why she’s such a shallow bitch. Only Lilley didn’t bother with actually revealing anything about Ja’mie, because he was too busy CGI-ing his head onto the body of a real teenage girl. For a series about such an utterly hateful character, it’s almost impressive the way Lilley came up with three separate and distinct endings, all of which showed her triumphing over her foes and life in general. Who knew that seeing horrible rich people get everything they want out of life was the stuff of hilarious comedy and not just, you know, a fact of life?
No matter how many times they’ve re-jigged this format, and no matter how many episodes they’ve made of this show, it just never seems to get better. Having said that, it’s now well-known enough to be voted the third worst topical comedy of 2013, so congratulations to The Roast team on achieving some kind of cut-through.
It’s a sign of how regularly and for how long the ABC’s audience have wanted, nay had a physical need, to nod sagely at this kind of program that 2013 saw the second time in their long-running history that the Gruen Nation team gathered to present their insights in to election campaigning. Problem is, in 2013 elections campaigns aren’t really won through traditional advertising like TV ads and radio ads (i.e. stuff that’s easy for an expert panel to talk to the public about) they’re won through sophisticated use of big data combined with targeted content marketing. But explaining the complexities of that in less than five minutes would be near impossible. And combine that with the odious smugness of the panel and Wil Anderson’s crap gags, and it’s only because our winner was such a stinker than this program didn’t get more votes…
In one sense Wednesday Night Fever got unlucky: who could have predicted there’d be a change of Prime Minister a week before the show went to air? Problem is, the team was so reliant on using all those sketches they’d been working on for weeks beforehand that they couldn’t react fast enough. And that’s kind of a problem when you’re a topical comedy.
As for continuing to air endless Gillard-heavy sketches weeks after she’d ceased to be Prime Minister, had resigned from parliament or appeared in a major news story…we’re just going to type the word topical again, and leave our commentary there.
Well, at least there were some Kath & Kim episodes in there for the one week this was on the air. Yes, this was shameless repackaging of worn-out claptrap in an attempt to boost the fortunes of the last remnant of Seven’s once mighty comedy empire. But it was also pretty much the only Australian comedy Seven aired in 2013. Was it better than nothing? Considering Seven’s only comedy “hit” in 2013 was Mrs Brown’s Boys – the kind of show Australia should be making, considering the low cost of both man-sized dresses and footballers willing to wear them – let’s say “maybe?” and move on with our lives.
Tractor Monkeys is what you get when you get a computer to create your programming. Not a cool modern computer either; one of those beige ones that take up most of a desk top and have multiple disk drives and loads of thick black cables and a green-screen monitor and an old sticker for an AM rock music station stuck on the side. Not a single element here seemed like a good idea – but more importantly, nothing here seemed like an original idea, so no-one would get the blame for taking a risk when the show didn’t pay off. The usual “comedy” entities stuck behind the usual desks making the usual chit-chat in between making fun of file footage; how could it go wrong when it was never going to go right? And then the ABC brought it back, because what better way to express contempt for your audience than by reviving a show no-one watched the first time. And look, they got a Christmas special too.
Oh, how the mighty are humbled. Last year this category once again reminded Australians that Randling was not just a massive waste of every single element that went into its production – even the overrated Andrew Denton, who’s on-air career it killed stone dead – it was a backhanded slap in the face to any Australian who expects television to contain even the tiniest amount of entertainment. This year… what was Celebrity Splash again? Oh right, the reality diving show that people only watched to see just how far Josh Thomas’ hairline is receding. Sadly, this kind of crap is most likely going to be the “future” of television, in much the same way as mini-series were the future of television back in the 1980s: when it’s just too hard to find people capable of making a decent program week in week out, just come up with a dumb idea, guesstimate how long people will watch it for then make one less episode than the number you came up with. If this had been on for months it would have been a nightmare; for five episodes it was merely pointless.
While Australian television comedy seems content to merely cough blood year after year, Australian film comedy is dead and there’s a lot of fingerprints on the knife wot done it. Some will say it’s because most Australian film directors are too busy polishing imaginary awards to realise just how unfunny they are. Others will suggest that, as comedy is an art driven by script and performers while Australian film is driven by producers and directors, we should consider ourselves lucky to get the little comedy we do. Meanwhile, out in the real world the people who actually book films into cinemas aren’t exactly falling over themselves to lock in films where a couple of locals talk shit in a kitchen considering that these bookers are being offered three US imports a week featuring global stars and the kind of visuals you used to need serious drug connections to see. So let’s just say that Australian film comedies have a tough hill to climb, even when they’re not shithouse.
Goddess was a musical about a superstar housewife. Why didn’t they ever make a Dame Edna Everage movie? Why would you make an Australian movie about a superstar housewife that wasn’t a Dame Edna movie?
(The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own and Les Patterson Saves The World do not count as Dame Edna movies. This has been verified by Barry Humphries. Well, we shouted it at him during his farewell tour. And he kinda looked in our direction.)
If Australia made a dozen films like Reverse Runner each year eventually one of them would be a massive hit and comedy in this country would be saved. Note that we said “like” Reverse Runner. One movie that thinks a guy running backwards is hilarious per lifetime is plenty.
Save Your Legs made pretty much all the usual mistakes when it came to an Australian comedy film: big ideas it can’t back up, a name brand cast who – for the most part – need a lot of hand-holding to get laughs, the sad conviction that we want to see characters “grow”, and an attempt to beat the overseas imports at their own game when it comes to spectacle. Generally speaking, Australians are still racist enough that they don’t want to see Australians make fools of themselves overseas, while also being evolved enough to realise that a comedy where Australians go to India and laugh at their wacky customs would also be unpleasant. So where’s the comedy in the concept of a local cricket club going to India? Oh right, Bollywood musical numbers.
“Box of matches” was an oft-repeated line throughout this podcast, and while it was really annoying at least the rest of the show had some effort put in to it. Because when it comes to comedy podcasts the ones worth bothering with are the ones which aren’t a small group of unfunny men (and the group is almost always all men) sitting around talking shit for roughly 90 minutes. We’re looking at you, The Thing Committee. Even though you’ve got women on your show too.
Here we go again… Yes, Josh Thomas massively sucks. Yes, this podcast isn’t worth listening to. But…the only reason it manages to do incredibly well in this category year in year out is because you’ve heard of him and you dislike him, not because his podcast is the second worst online comedy of 2013. Trust us, it ain’t. Go listen to The Thing Committee.
Okay, this lot beat The Thing Committee hands down: they’re annoying, they’re everywhere, and they’re not particularly funny. But what’s most interesting about The Janoskians is the weird way in which they’ve been embraced by civil society. Visit their website and you’ll see they’re proud supporters of Bully Zero Foundation Australia, who amongst other things are “passionate about establishing a no-tolerance culture of bullying in Australia and will work tirelessly to ensure that anti-bullying laws are implemented and enforced Nationally.” How that fits in with The Janoskian’s borderline bullying and actual harassment of the public in their videos is unclear.
Most of Helen Razer’s professional writing in 2013 was behind the paywall at Crikey and we’re not paying to read her. Sorry. We seem to get the impression that she’s decided most internet feminism isn’t doing it right, so we wish her well with her struggle to turn that particular ship around.
Ben Pobjie actually is – unlike the others here today, we really need to explain this category better in future awards – a television critic. Well, maybe “critic” isn’t quite the word. True, he writes about television for Fairfax on a weekly basis, and he’s often reasonably good at it. What he’s not so good at is having a firm opinion about local product. In fact, in 2013 he actually came out swinging in defence of Australian television, which seemed a little odd considering Australian television already has all of Australian television telling us how great it is, plus a variety of celebrity-based magazines working hard to convince us all that the local produce is worth our time. Meanwhile, television critics willing to point out what television viewers already know – that most local television is inferior to the overseas product, as well as films, radio, the internet, phone apps, and just about any other form of diversion you care to mention up to and including whittling – can be counted on whichever hand Captain Hook no longer has. But while local television “critics” like Colin Vickery, Dianne Butler, Melinda Huston, and semi-professional celebrity suck-up Steve Molk provide the quiet background hum of approval the Australian television industry requires from their media coverage, Pobjie is the one guy – thanks to having a stand-alone column in a major newspaper that doesn’t require handouts from network publicists – who could and really should take a harder line with what’s being served up.
Really, you guys? Deveny for worst critic? You do realise pretty much all her critical writing in 2013 was food-related, right? Not that we’re saying you’re wrong or anything – the voting results are final, the will of the people must be upheld, blah blah blah – but is it really fair to keep on throwing tomatoes a decade after she finished writing television reviews? Actually, thinking back to just how awful almost all of her television reviews actually were – you don’t like the men who run Channel Nine? Please, tell us more, it’s fascinating – maybe you voters should just keep on throwing. Considering she’s still writing lines like “That was enough for the knuckle dragging, chinless, mouth-breathing, offensoratti to have an offence-gasm”, it’s hardly fair to let her off the hook just yet.
Modern life – it’s so hard to cope with! And it’s not like us humans have any history of adapting to changing times and circumstances, so six or so half hours of public figures moaning about how their friends never stop checking Facebook on their iPhones, or how it’s no longer acceptable to rebuke someone for their recent weight gain, is exactly what the viewing public need!
The show that received the most comments on our blog in 2013 was Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me. And yes, they were almost entirely negative. Turns out that combining paper-thin characters with limp gags and over-exaggerated post-teen angst isn’t super hilarious. Or good drama. And let’s not forget this was sold as a comedy/drama (an on-trend format that gets hyped to hell in the Fairfax press but is actually a series of half-hour weekly instalments lacking both comedy and drama) and that it rated like crap. Naturally there’ll be a second series of it later this year.
Having exhausted Ja’mie to the point of breakdown – both her psychological breakdown towards the end of Ja’mie: Private School Girl and the breakdown of the character as anything resembling entertaining – Chris Lilley will be reviving another “old favourite” in Jonah Takalua, the cruising-to-be-expelled Tongan schoolboy. No doubt his antics will trigger thousands of shares of screen-grabs from the show on the youth-dominated social platforms, reach a variety of target demographics (the primary one being “HBO Controllers”), and be hailed by many sections of the media because, um, look, we don’t get why they’re still trumpeting Lilley either. How many poorly-rating series does he have to make before they admit he’s past his prime? Normally, increasingly negative reactions to a show by the general public prompt mainstream media critics to finally come out and declare a show bad (obviously they couldn’t possibly do that before the tide of public opinion turns, that would be scandalous, although second-worst critic Ben Pobjie gets a few points for this review). But somehow, strangely, Lilley seems immune to real criticism. Maybe there’s an illuminati after all? And his famed range of disguises includes “not looking like a lizard person”.
A panel show and a sort of a quiz about celebrity gossip seems an unlikely finalist in this category in these awards, so it’s testament to the skill of those involved that this was a step up from the usual panel show/quiz fare (hello again, Tractor Monkeys!). Lawrence Mooney led an array of old and new talent who were pretty much all good at mining the world of celebrity for laughs. And Luke McGregor’s interview segment was a highlight each week, proving that his schtick works just as well on TV as it does in stand-up and on podcasts.
A comedy quiz show that’s pretty much solid laughs for half an hour? Who’s going to dislike that? Oh right, some of you didn’t like that it seemed a bit scripted. Thing is, after episode 2, did you notice that anymore? Or were you too busy laughing? We were, and we’re looking forward to seeing this back.
Gristmill are almost unique in this country for their commitment to making quality comedy. This tale of an inter-class family reunion had all the elements you’d expect of a good sitcom – solid characters, well-crafted plots and jokes – combined with moments of emotional depth and drama that contemporary sitcoms often include but rarely succeed with. The key to the latter is that in a comedy, even in a comedy/drama, the moments of pathos should be occasional and worthwhile. In Upper Middle Bogan the right balance was struck: there were a few moving moments but mostly it was about the laughs, and the series is rightly coming back for more.
Plenty of people will tell you that Australia has never made a truly great sitcom. So what? There are barely a handful of “great” sitcoms world-wide, and most of them still suck. So while Upper Middle Bogan isn’t great – unless you’re Fawlty Towers, The (early) Simpsons or Seinfeld, neither is anything else – it’s a working Australian sitcom that hits a lot more than it misses. Seriously, if you’re one of those people who go around saying “Australia can’t make good sitcoms”, just die already and save us the pain of telling you you’re wrong. We hardly make any sitcoms in the first place – no doubt due to all the idiots wandering around outside television studios saying in a loud voice “Australia can’t make good sitcoms” – so the fact that we can even make half-way decent sitcoms is pretty impressive. Also: Frontline, The Games, Mother & Son, if you don’t think they’re great sitcoms but do think, say, The Big Bang Theory is a classic, may we refer you to our previous advice about dying.
Clarke & Dawe’s shift to the “exciting new time” of 6.55pm Thursdays may have made them slightly harder to find, and the lack of any book or DVD collections for the second year in a row gets the thumbs down from us too. But judging by the results, they still have a firmly rusted on audience for what remains the smartest and sharpest political commentary – when they’re not doing just as good a job talking about the environment, or even sport – Australia has the good fortune to enjoy. And now they have their own opening credits sequence!
Why does Shaun Micallef – ably assisted by his co-writers and co-stars – win these awards year after year? Here’s our guess: because he’s interested in comedy. Australia is hardly overflowing with dedicated comedy professionals these days, what with there being loads more dosh in hosting panel shows or drive radio or some other gig where being bland is roughly a thousand times more important than being funny. And of the handful of people out there who do commit themselves to only making comedy, most of them seem driven either by their own smug superiority or frankly terrifying personal issues we’d really rather not go into and who mentioned Chris Lilley anyway? But Micallef, at least as far as his comedy output is concerned, seems almost entirely concerned with making people laugh. Not some vague idea of “people think swearing is funny, right” or “being horrible to people is hilarious”, but actual tried and tested – he’s clearly done the research and there’s close to two decades of effort behind it as well – material aimed at making people laugh. And it works.
Australian comedy will either a): continue to become more and more irrelevant year after year until it vanishes entirely and all we’re left with is boofhead “straight-talking” commentators on lightweight news discussion programs, or b): continue to become more and more irrelevant year after year until it vanishes entirely and all we’re left with is wacky “dumb blonde” commentators on lightweight news discussion programs. There is a third option, but unfortunately your previous decisions mean you can’t get there from here. Enjoy the return of Spicks and Specks everybody!