Executive decision

For a while now the team behind ABC2’s The Roast have been producing an end of week podcast called The PodRoast, which brings together a group of the show’s writers, performers and production crew to talk about the shows they’ve made over the past five days. Mostly this is a rambling chat but occasionally there are some interesting insights.

The episode from 25 June started with an interview with The Roast’s Executive Producer Charles Firth, in which he discussed why he left The Chaser, how The Roast came about, and what his comedy ambitions are – if you have even a slight interest in these topics it’s worth a listen.

“I think the holy grail of Australian television is what you guys are doing” Firth begins, explaining how since the 90’s he’s had an ambition to create an Australian Saturday Night Live, where new comedy and production talent is brought in, given on-the-job training and experience, and is then able to go off and do other things. He then goes on to describe a “pivotal moment in the history of The Chaser”, which happened just after the first series of The Chaser’s War on Everything, where the group had an away day led by a facilitator who got them to discuss their future, specifically “What is The Chaser – a company or a team?”.

At this away day Firth argued that The Chaser should adopt the Saturday Night Live model. “I had this ambition about what The Chaser could be” he says, describing how he’d spent most of his 20’s (he was 29 at the time of the away day) working with the rest of The Chaser group on what he felt was a “shared vision”. But it turned out the rest of The Chaser were more interested in being a comedy team whose aim was to keep working together (presumably along the lines of Working Dog). “It was an unambitious choice” Firth says with some sadness.

Aside from making a successful local version of Saturday Night Live, Firth says the other “holy grail” in Australian comedy is making a successful daily news satire, something he also feels has been achieved with The Roast. “It’s the best show” he says, praising his team for the quality of their writing and production, and enthusing about how television is “a writer’s medium”.

Returning to why he left The Chaser he says he thought of the rest of the group as “arrogant dickheads who were unbearable to work with, and then I realised I was the arrogant dickhead who was unbearable to work with”, adding that “I chose to leave” and that it was the right decision for him.

There are number of things that strike us about this episode of The PodRoast. On the one hand it seems to be an honest and thoughtful reflection from Firth on his time with The Chaser and his ambitions, as well as an insight in to the origins and goals of The Roast. We’ve often wondered how and why The Roast has managed to keep going (in all its various incarnations) and clearly that’s partly down to Firth’s ambition to keep it on air.

How long it will last (and whether Firth will end us as Australia’s answer to the legendary Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels) is debatable. We think Firth’s wrong when he says it’s “the best show”, and we’ve been saying that for a long time. The quality of the writing and execution of the show is usually somewhere between average and woeful, and we say that as people who frequently watch it desperately hoping it will find its feet. Australian comedy would be enhanced by a local, successful Saturday Night Live and/or Daily Show, but this isn’t it.

Finally, it’s interesting that Firth is convinced that the company (rather than the team) approach to comedy is a winner. We’ve been very critical of The Chaser’s War On Everything and other post-Firth Chaser projects over the years, but it’s unquestionably funnier than The Roast. And in comedy, it’s the funny that matters.

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14 Comments

  • ricepicker says:

    As a comedy guy I’ve also been hoping the roast would get better. The only people I like on the program are Mark Humphries and Jazz Twemlow. Otherwise they have far too many people on each episode so we never learn enough about them and it all becomes a sloppy mess. I think the guy who runs the show (Nick?) is the one who normally appears at the end of each episode and rants on like an idiot. It’s strange and a bit self-centred that he gives himself a little segment on each program. Normally the guys who run these types of shows are so humble and concerned about the quality of the show they avoid ever appearing on air, partly because they don’t have the time to entertain their narcisissm. They really need to show some restraint. By including so many people on camera each episode it makes them look desperate and childish, more concerned about the novelty of being on television rather than making good television. If Firth wants the roast to be SNL, the important thing is that we always know everybody in every skit. That’s partly why when SNL sucks, and it sucks often, we can still laugh along with the comics at how bad the sketch is because the comics have identities but everyone on the roast is an interchangeable white guy, even that asian lady. The chaser guys had identities too, but the only identifiable guys on the roast are Mark and Jazz.

    Anyway interesting podcast, Firth really dishes on the chaser guys huh? Interesting that they’re now moving to 7:30. You have to wonder whether they’re planning on getting rid of everyone if the show does get another year. When firth said ‘new comedy and production talent is brought in, given on-the-job training and experience, and is then able to go off and do other things’ does seem to imply he might be thinking of shuffling things up a bit. This team has been exactly the same for 3 years, same writing team, same everything, which is unheard of in comedy writing. Letterman and Leno fire writers and bring in new talent monthly because as much as it does suck to get rid of perfectly nice people, the passion and drive to create a really great show needs to be higher.

    Oh and another criticism of the roast- your host needs to calm down when other people are talking. It’s so funny watching him try to draw attention to himself with the needy camera glances and nods when Billy or Zane or Corey or whichever white fella is trying to be funny beside him. It’s corny, up there with the weird 1950s style

    http://youtu.be/5JME2oE2pPA?t=9m58s

  • ricepicker says:

    Another point after listening to the entire episode of the podcast – why should state-funded comedy give preference to one guy (firth) and one team of people (the roast) 3 years on air to create an SNL wannabe? Especially since Firth professes to want equality and opportunity for comedians in Australia. If this really was about giving new talent an opportunity, and fostering that talent, shouldn’t we expect …new talent? And you know..not the same writers and same performers and same nepotism for 3 years? The same goes for Firth himself. Doesn’t he realise that by persisting at the ABC with his own projects he’s actually using precious funding and broadcast time that could actually go new talent? See the thing is I don’t think he’s all that bright, this is just an attempt to plant his name on someone else’s work for not doing much of anything at all – he ain’t using his money to produce this stuff, nor does he have Lorne’s pressure to bring in money for NBC – not surprising the rest of the chaster team were so much against turning it into an institution. The chaser had different roots, I always pictured them as a bit like Monty Python, not SNL.

    For all intents and purposes, the ABC itself already functions as a kind of SNL for Australia. That is where people (normally connected, upper middle class white guys from good schools, and occasionally nasty self promoter type women with mean faces -marieke hardy types) get their chance to write appallingly bad comedy in all its forms. See in the US you don’t see public broadcasters like PBS funding comedy because it would be a complete waste of money. I suppose one of the US comedy institutions is SNL on NBC, but that doesn’t mean Australia needs to mimic that show to create an institution for opportunity, because we’re already supposed to have that in the ABC. The notion that the ABC wants to emulate SNL’s formula is insane for a whole variety of reasons, most of all because it’s unnecessary, but also because SNL has been tanking for years, it’s just a residue of the 1970s. It’d be like saying ‘we need to have an Australian equivalent of the Brady Bunch.’ All seems very contrived and doomed to fail from the beginning.

    The ABC can use a very simple formula if they really do believe in fostering new talent (they don’t) – rather than dumping 3 years of funding to the same untalented team, split that same funding to about 30 teams and have them make 5-6 episodes of whatever they want. You can’t foster talent until you have it, and get real – television isn’t a training ground. Once you have a popular show, then fund it, because you aren’t going to figure out a formula for good television and you can’t polish a turd. I can see they’re doing something similar with ‘Fresh Blood’ so maybe that’s their idea, but they should take it further. I’m sick of seeing these sad have-been losers from the Chaser on pretentious shows like the checkout just sucking up all the airtime and opportunity because they were once popular. It’s not just the creatives themselves who miss out by not getting a chance to do something. We as viewers all miss out on amazing programs when the same old people get to play out their fantasies of being Lorne Michaels or whichever American (okay Lorne’s Canadian) comedy guy they think is the tops.

    Look I’d prefer to see more shows like the roast – just not so much of one thing. It’s better to have a shit show like the roast than a slightly OK one like the checkout because it’s worth taking the risk of creating something better. But you can’t do this for 3 years and tell people it’s about opportunity and fostering new talent – you’ve used up 3 years of funding and airtime on the same people. Again though, my feeling is that Firth doesn’t particularly care about new talent at all – this is all a strategy for his own self promotion. I’m sure when they sold the show, Firth et al told the ABC the roast would work but it’d take a few years of commitment from the ABC, you know..Conan and Seinfeld weren’t popular when they started! We just need to give it a chance and it’ll be huge because it is that good! Well no it isn’t good and the whole formless mess has barely changed since the beginning.

  • simbo says:

    The weird thing about the SNL model is:

    1) Years 1-5 are pretty much the same team full-time. There’s a grand total of one significant recasting.
    2) The next few years didn’t involve Lorne Michaels at all.
    3) Lorne Michael’s comeback cast largely didn’t gel and were all fired pretty quickly.
    4) The next cast stuck around a while but became top heavy as people kept on being introduced and nobody left until you had several different camps battling it out for airtime.

    In other words… wanting to be a producer in the style of Lorne Michaels seems incredibly unwise. Look, there is a place for having a permanent spot for something (splitting the funding into 30 different teams getting 6 episodes each would ensure you get 30 different teams largely disappearing into the ether)… but at the same time, this kinda producing acutally requires… you know, producing. Firing people. Replacing teams. Getting rid of what doesn’t work. At this point, it’s gotta be said, Firth is failing at a massive level.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Firth has some pretty outdated ideas especially regarding SNL. Australia doesn’t have the industry to support ‘new’ talent. I mean it’s a nice gesture but ultimately hopeless. Also SNL has been coasting on celebrity appearances rather than the strength of their regular cast for some time now. Those days seem to be over. With ‘The Daily Show’- by rights ‘Mad as Hell’ should be a daily show but it’s unfeasible- their’s not enough local news and their’s not enough viewers.

  • ricepicker says:

    Your’e right it would mean you get 30 different teams largely disappearing, but it would also mean if just 1 of those 30 teams showed promise, you’d know you have something worth pursuing. That might be one team that makes a 6 part series that becomes a cult hit around the world after being discovered a year later.

    Taking a conservative estimate view of a team like the roast with about 20 employees, getting paid 50k a year each, that’s a show costing million a year not including the cost of ABC lawyers and PR and other stuff (almost certain it’d cost more and even double or triple that). Multiply that by 3 years and that’s $100’000 each that you could give to 30 teams. Clever and talented people could do a lot with 100’000, and they sure as hell aren’t giving that sort of money to the ‘Fresh Blood’ kids.

    http://www.deadline.com/2014/03/saturday-night-live-ratings-stay-low-with-louis-c-k-as-host/

    It is sad that shows like SNL seem to be on their way out. The way to go is probably a Louie style setup where you cherry pick some promising people and let them do whatever they want. I think that’s also important, because most of the people who are motivated to become successful in television are just not good at it or they’re doing it for the wrong reasons, like politicians. Seinfeld was approached to make his show, I think something like that might be a good idea.

    The most promising thing I’ve heard in months is the ABC giving that 27bslash dude a chance, very clever idea. His humour might not translate to camera but it’s a fantastic idea to try. I reckon superwog should get a chance and some funding, those guys have proven themselves and they could come up with the fat pizza of this decade – of course it’d probably be better because those guys are smart. They’ve made some great bits that people actually like (oh but it might not appeal to those seeking high brow, esoteric ‘political’ humour, such that we are all so delighted to see on the roast…), and they seemed to have done that without any funding at all. I’ll also take a wild guess and say those guys aren’t from super wealthy families – I wonder what that says? Imagine what they could do if they had a bit of funding. I also want to see what that friendlyjordies guy and those skit box girls would do if he had some funding. So there are plenty of people out there who ought to be given real chances, and most of them have proved themselves off broadway so to speak.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    From what we know, it’s been pretty clear in ABC circles that The Chaser aren’t interested in doing “The Chaser’s War on Everything”-style soft-blow political satire, and they haven’t been interested for a few years now. Mad as Hell is a Melbourne production, so The Roast is basically Sydney ABC keeping that side of things alive for when the equally Sydney Chaser finally give it away. It’s the kind of thing Sydney likes to keep close by, even when it’s being done better already.

    The mistake a lot of people think is that the ABC wants “good” comedy. They don’t. They want a certain kind of news satire, and some cheap panel or sketch shows to appeal to the yoof (their mates can do these, no-one cares), and some mild heart-warming stuff for the oldies (Agony Guide) and maybe a dramedy or two to keep a few actors in work.

    If the ABC was interested in doing good comedy they’d be trying all kinds of things. But it’s obvious they have a handful of comedy slots and they really only want shows that fit those slots. They have zero interest in giving people “a chance to see what they can come up with” – even Fresh Blood is just getting them to make sketches, after all.

  • ricepicker says:

    You are right and it is naive of me to think they have any interest in equality or quality in television. It is all very odd. Discarding ideas of taste we can see that New Zealand came out with flight of the conchords a few years ago, the BBC often has worldwide hits, but the ABC just can’t produce anything successful anymore, anything cool. It clearly is a big party and jerk fest for a lot of the people who work there, but you’d think they’d want at least one big success to distract from their nepotism and corruption. You’d expect agencies to review the ABC and look at these statistics and say ‘ok, what’s the problem here, you guys are all talk’, which I guess is what Abbott is doing…of course not because Abbott wants a great comedy tv show. Thing is, 10 years ago the ABC was producing stuff people spoke about, you had the chaser, John Safran was great, so either that was a coincidence or the ABC was making different decisions back then.

  • Billy C says:

    Safran was SBS back then.

  • Billy C says:

    I think they want good comedy but don’t know how to get it. They don’t have much money for development and a lot of pressure for things to work straight away. Look at a show like Comedy Connections, almost every hit UK show had people who had already been on less successful shows first. So to get Spaced you need to have Asylum. Where is someone supposed to learn how to write narrative comedy? So they make what the production companies give them primarily by people who have proven themselves in a live setting. I’d argue Kinne has done his own development. Look at Fresh Blood, the better ones are the people who have been making video for a while. The ones that have struggled as people who are either very new or learning how to translate live to film. As for the Roast? They’re under a lot of pressure to make a lot of content all the time but it’s just not working.

  • ricepicker says:

    I don’t reckon the ABC have pressure for things to work straight away, the roast has taken 3 years to build up a tiny following, so the ABC don’t seem to care much about success. You are right about shows like the roast being under pressure, which is why it’s shitty for everyone involved. It’s not fair for the people working on the show because by producing the same stuff for 3 years they actually aren’t learning anything or improving–you don’t magically get funnier by locking yourself in a room for 3 years.

    Ties into your point of ‘where is someone supposed to learn who to write narrative comedy?’ I think this is a good question but there’s also the argument that writers are born, not made. People learn to write narrative comedy by reading a lot of narrative comedy, and watching a lot of narrative comedy, and writing a lot of narrative comedy. They don’t look to a television channel to teach them. Most people who have had success have never made a sitcom before, look at the guys from the office or seinfeld, or south park – big comedies from guys who had never created a show before. These people learned comedy in clubs and on radio. No institution has ever and will never take an untalented person and makes them a good writer, it simply isn’t how it works. You could say comedy clubs or radio are good training grounds to learn comedy, but they’re training grounds for people who show some capacity in the first place.

  • Billy C says:

    Well The Roast is the strange exception. ABC2 is still finding it’s feet, it needs original content and it’s probably cheap. I don’t really accept that writers are born not made. Television writing or indeed any screenplay is very much about structure, it’s a craft. It’s not just about great gags. You’re right that a television channel doesn’t have to teach someone but there’s not a lot of opportunities to get experience.

    Seinfeld had very little to do with writing his show. He co-wrote some of the early episodes but he didn’t solely write a single episode during the whole run. In the early days Larry David who had years of experience on Fridays and SNL did most of the heavy lifting. Parker and Stone had made a low budget movie before Southpark and Ricky Gervais had been on the 11 o’clock show, made a comedy lab short for Channel 4 and written for the Sketch Show. They’d all worked before and had opportunities to learn and develop. Frequently in comedy there are failures before success.

  • ricepicker says:

    I don’t know Billy, you’re right to say there are always elements of structure to screenplays. However if that were the case we could all come up with amazing movies and television shows in a kind of paint by number fashion. There is a craft to writing but it’s not a craft everybody can be really great at, and isn’t 3 years of the roast evidence of that? Some people are just better at comedy than others, which is why some shows are more popular and some comedians more popular. You don’t look at a great musician or writer and say they’re only good because they learned a craft, that’s a pretty banal and sad thing to say about creativity, if all it is is a formula.

    When I go to comedy clubs and see people who are hilarious, or people on youtube who are hilarious, but who for some reason don’t get an opportunity to develop the craft of comedy writing on television it just makes me disappointed. You have to start off with someone who shows some talent, you don’t take a bunch of nobodies who have never written or performed comedy and give them a tv show, which is more or less what the roast is.

    I think you’ll find Larry David celebrates the fact he never got a sketch to air on SNL, but you’re right that counts as experience. I stand corrected on Gervais I thought he had just done radio and standup earlier. Seinfeld was a hugely successful and talented comedian before his show, he’s not some talentless hack so I wouldn’t downplay his contributions, it’s not as if any of these guys were creating crummy work before they hit the big time. In fact they were all pretty good by the time they got their first opportunities. I agree that frequently in comedy there are failures before successes, but that’s also kind of a fallacy, because even more frequently failures lead to nowhere. The point isn’t that the people on the roast are never going to create a successful comedy, the point is that the roast is a failure. Anyway I’ve spoken far too much about this topic already so that’s it from me.

  • Billy C says:

    I think we’re probably saying the same thing to different degrees. The Roast is certainly a massive failure and they should keep the concept and given it to the Rational Fear guys and see what they can do with it.

  • ricepicker says:

    Agreed.